One Runner’s Step-by-Step Path to Justice

Donna Hernu00e1ndez gives us her personal story of how running changed the way she dealt with stress, and approached social justice work.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa May 30, 2012

At the Applied Research Center (ARC) and we’re big on working smart and taking the time to have fun. Doing racial justice work requires us to take care of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves. I, for one, am not happy if I go more than three weeks without dancing, and right now I’m learning New York-style salsa. My buddy Jorge Rivas is an avid biker, having logged thousands of miles across many countries. Jamilah King swims! Rinku Sen can knit anything. 

For Mental Health Awareness Month, I interviewed Donna Hernández, a friend and colleague who promotes wellness through her discipline in running and meditation. Donna is our Special Events Coordinator & New York Operations Manager. She’s working extra hard these days making sure we have another successful Facing Race conference this November. Read on and be inspired!

What motivated you to start running? 

For me, there are three parts to why I do what I do: Mind, body and soul. I’ve always been a spiritual person. By that, I can always feel what works for me and what doesn’t.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with leukemia and there had been a couple of other people in my family that had passed because of cancer. And it just sparked something in in me. It was frustrating and I was looking for something that could help me cope emotionally and also to feel I was doing something to prevent this in myself and to set some type of example for my family. There was an offer to do team in training, so I decided to join. I thought about it; I hadn’t run in a long time, so it was a little scary. I remember the first time I ran with the team, it was like a continuous 20 minute drill. And Monica, no lie, I thought I was gonna die! [Laughs]

I ran my first half marathon in 2008. One of the people I ran in honor of actually passed away. The next thing I felt was I’m really sad about it, let me run in memory of her. The half marathon went right by where her ashes were spread in the Fairmount Park pass (in Philadelphia). So it was a really spiritual thing at that moment. I didn’t get to go to her memorial, I was traveling when it happened but this way, I still had a chance to be there and be a part of it.

How does running make you feel? How do you think it promotes good mental health? 

Running is 97 percent mental. It gives me an opportunity to focus on this as a meditation. It’s a physical meditation on running, but it’s a meditation no less. For that whatever extended amount of time, I’m focusing on one step in front of the other, accomplishing that goal, fulfilling that and then moving forward. 

So it makes it easier to keep a balance with other things too, because it’s a forced meditation. Runners do things differently. I like to focus strictly on the running because it’s also how I prevent injury, if I focus I know I’m not hurting my ankles and my knees because I’m focusing on how I’m landing. It’s mental, it’s physical. It can be spiritual at times because I’m saying, "God, get me through this!" Or "Grandmom, give me that last push!" I’m always channeling somebody. 

For the full marathon that I recently did, we selected Animal from The Muppets to be the team mascot because you know, Animal just keeps on drumming. And I’m just gonna keep drumming, one foot in front of the other, and I love music. It was just a good combination from me. That’s what gets me through it. It can be difficult. I’m not hard on myself either, if I need to stop and come back to it, I do.

How does running help relieve everyday stress? 

It helps to keep things balanced. The work that we do is hard, and maintaining relationships is a lot of work, so when you dedicate that one moment where you’re focusing on self, self is a little bit better to handle other things and people. 

There are a lot of benefits to running. You release endorphins. The endorphins released when I’m running, help promote positive feelings that I can transfer into everything else. Even if I’m having a crazy marathon day at work, where it’s one thing after the other or the normal pressures that come from life and family, everybody has things that are going on while they’re trying to do the work that they care for. It’s good to have 15-20 minutes to self every day via meditation, or working out. For me, running is both, it’s an active meditation, it allows me to accomplish many things at once.

What are the parallels with running and doing racial justice work? 

The New York City marathon is the marathon. I had no idea how international it was until I experienced it. People are there from all over the world and with all types of life experience. It is a long run. There are a lot of accomplishments that happen on the way. And even in a marathon, you hit walls, but you get over that wall. And you push through for the end goal, to cross that finish line. You’re there going along with 27,000 other runners, you’re heading toward a common vision. Some people cross with their children, some people cross with their mothers, some people get married. There are things that happen along the marathon, just like with racial justice, things happen on the path that incorporate peoples’ families and lives and children. It can’t just stop with you, it’s all these people around you. It’s the gear, the tools, the support system, the preparation, the visualizing. And nutrition and hydration is extremely important.

Running and meditation requires you to be present, how does that transfer to other areas of your life? 

It translates over into my work. You have to really breathe through things, especially when a lot of things are happening at the same time. It also keeps me sharp. Exerting energy through running wakes me up and it makes me happier. If I ever have to deal with someone’s irritability, I can push it back with being nice. I don’t know what kind of day they’ve had, or where their intention is coming from, but I know I can handle mine. I can change the vibe, or at least not allow that energy to affect me. Whatever they’re going through, I am controlling my energy and so I need to say — we can share my world, but I’m not necessarily going to give up my world to you.

It’s how I balance. It’s the approach that we have to take with the work we do. Racial justice work is heavy stuff, and some of it wasn’t created by us. Some of it wasn’t anything that we could change before we came along. But the fact that we’re willing to and care enough to focus on it now is important. We just have to be sure it doesn’t engulf us. That it doesn’t force us to lose all the positive energy that can be focused as well. That’s what’s gonna give us the strength to get through those hurdles and mile markers to reaching that final goal.