Alumni Corner

Going the Distance for Women’s Health

Running for social change with Alison Mariella Désir ’07, GSAS’11, TC’16

To raise money for Planned Parenthood, activist and long-distance runner Alison Mariella Désir ’07, GSAS’11, TC’16 and a team of four runners (joined at different points by more than 1,000 supporters) ran the 250-plus miles from NYC to Washington, D.C., in three days, culminating at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. After coordinating the relay in less than three weeks, Désir raised $103,544. Here, she writes about what inspired her to run.


When I reflect on my time at Columbia College, I cannot say that I knew then that I would become a community leader and activist. In fact, I was not as engaged as an undergraduate as I wish I had been, and felt far more lost and confused than I like to admit. But while going to school in the city was a distraction from my schoolwork, it was also the perfect environment to come of age. Columbia’s campus is visited by world leaders, is often the site of protests and is a space where casual conversation leads to radical movements.

I believe these conditions led to my core belief: I have a voice and I am powerful.

When I founded Harlem Run, a running group focused on community and service, in November 2013, I wanted to share the transformation I experienced through running. I’d begun endurance running the previous year while going through a period of depression. While I had been active growing up, I had never been a long-distance runner — the 400m and 400m hurdles were my events in track and field. But when I saw on Facebook that a friend’s brother was training for a marathon while raising money for a nonprofit, I decided to sign up and do the same. Training for my first marathon brought me back to life and helped me to cope with the stressful circumstances that caused my depression: unemployment, a breakup and my father’s worsening Lewy Body Dementia. I knew that I could either continue to do nothing or I could take action — no matter how impossible running 26.2 miles seemed — to make my situation better.

Alison Mariella Désir ’07, GSAS’11, TC’16

Rachel Link

By the time I founded Harlem Run the following year, I was in a much better place mentally and was determined to share the experience with my community. Despite its slow start, the group has become a social change movement that attracts hundreds of runners of all abilities on a weekly basis. To date, we have raised thousands of dollars for local nonprofit Harlem United, and we integrate our runs with an appreciation for and deeper understanding of our community and its needs.

In January 2017, I launched Run 4 All Women, a running initiative created to support women and to provide a hedge against political efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Much like the founding of Harlem Run, this initiative was borne out of a desire to take action. I launched the (4 Women) Run 4 All Women GoFundMe campaign on January 2 and, eight days later, I reached the original goal of raising $44,000 (chosen in honor of our outgoing 44th President, Barack Obama ’83) for Planned Parenthood. But the donations kept rolling in, and in 30 days we had raised more than $103,000.

I never anticipated that the initiative would snowball into a movement. In fact, when my mother donated $200 on the first day, a sum that was a sacrifice for her, I assumed that might be the single largest donation I would receive. However, I quickly saw that many men and women were inspired — hundreds of people reached out, looking for ways to be involved. On January 18, the evening we took off, I was joined in Harlem by 250 men and women for the start of the journey; hundreds more joined us along the way in four mile stretches. It was this support that made running the grueling mileage possible: I ran 75 miles over the course of three days.

The amazing aftermath of the run is that Run 4 All Women is now going national, continuing our fundraising efforts and activism. We are hosting a summit in April to train and empower Run 4 All Women ambassadors with the tools and network to host their own long-distance relay events and, in August, several runs will take place simultaneously around the country, all to benefit Planned Parenthood. You can find out more on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram @run4allwomen, or on run4allwomen.com.

People think you need tons of money to make a difference. People think you need to be Oprah or Bill Gates to make a difference. People think you need to have 50,000 followers on Instagram to get a message across. I don’t have any of that. But I’ll tell you what I do have:

  1. A voice.
  2. A pair of sneakers.
  3. Two feet to put in them.
  4. Enough passion to organize people for a cause.
  5. The willingness to sweat for what I want.

It’s like legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said: “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

Any person at any point has an opportunity to act. What’s important is that you set a goal and that you’re willing to sweat for what you want. Pick a mission and organize others; it doesn’t even have to take that long. The best reward is that you might inspire others to do the same.

There will always be a reason not to take action. Some “thing” you don’t have. But, there is always something that you do have. Some resource or some reason that makes you best-suited for the task at hand. In my case, it was my voice, my sneakers, my two feet and my passion — and that was more than enough.