Meet Kiera Smalls, the Running Industry Diversity Coalition's First Executive Director

The Philadelphia native is committed to making running more inclusive for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

kiera smalls
Rook Productions Media / Pete Santamaria

In the wake of heightened awareness around systemic racism and violence towards Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), several leaders in the running community came together to create much-needed change.

Since its inception in 2020, the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) has taken major strides to improve inclusion, visibility, and access for BIPOC individuals within the sport. Through workshops, educational resources, and community-building efforts, among other initiatives, RIDC’s founders aim to increase BIPOC employment, leadership and representation while reshaping a global running community where BIPOC individuals feel welcome.

With a commitment to racial justice, RIDC has hosted dozens of free workshops that cover pivotal topics relevant to the running industry and beyond, including “reporting on diversity,” “creating an inclusive event,” and “best practices in hiring for diversity.” The coalition includes community leaders increasing inclusion on a national scale plus representatives from running companies, including Brooks Running, Gazelle Sports, and Fleet Feet, among other organizations that are committed to RIDC’s mission.

In March, RIDC expanded its leadership team by hiring Kiera Smalls, the organization’s first executive director. The Philadelphia native joined the coalition after spending roughly a decade increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within her local running community as the cofounder of Strides—an all-levels running group—and in the health, fitness, and tech industries. For example, as the former executive director of Philly Startup Leaders, Smalls led a massive effort that raised over $550,000 in donations for underrepresented founders. And while working for Indego’s bicycle transit system, she oversaw marketing and communication efforts that reached underrepresented groups in three U.S. cities. Now, Smalls is dedicated to growing RIDC and its vision of a more inclusive running community.

“We know that this is important, we know that this will impact the running industry for years and generations to come.” Smalls said. “We need to make it better for the next generation, and we need to make it a little bit easier for the folks who are currently here.”

Days before the launch of RIDC’s new campaign for Global Running Day—which encourages partnering companies and organizations to center racial equity in promotions for the holiday—Runner’s World caught up with Smalls to discuss her running journey, the work of RIDC, and the organization’s mission.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You came to RIDC as a community leader, co-founding Strides in Philadelphia. What drew you to RIDC?

The mission and vision of RIDC drew me in the most because being able to do part of the mission in Philadelphia—and I know that there are other folks in their cities with their local running communities trying to diversify it, trying to uplift all kinds of voices—to see it done on a national scale, to see that you can not only make an impact in your local community, but you can make an impact on the brands that serve your local community and the employees who make products, marketing plans, and hire staff. There are so many different ways in which I and this organization and the community can make an impact towards RIDC's vision. That attracted me the most to this role.

You’ve been in this new role since March. How has it been so far?

I've done a lot of work locally in our running industry, among other roles that I've had. To now do the work that I've been able to do locally, but on a national scale through RIDC has been great. I’m meeting so many different people who are all on different journeys when it comes to racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion work. For the last two months, I’ve been meeting a lot of people, learning where they are on their journey, getting used to different time zones and just really learning and listening to how RIDC can be most helpful to brands, retailers, and large events, but also just in general to the industry.

I’d love to learn more about your personal running journey. How did you get into the sport?

In 2015, I was the marketing manager and chair of the leadership team for diversity and inclusion for Indego, the bike share program in Philadelphia. I was doing a lot of biking and that kept me thinking about physical activity, and I wanted to try other sports. Now, I grew up with asthma, so I never thought running was for me. In fact, I was actually just on a plane ride back from Runchella, and I was sitting next to a Latina woman. I told her about RIDC and the work that we do, she said the exact same thing: “Running is not for me. You only run when you run from something.”

For a lot of communities who aren't exposed to the benefits of this sport, you're like, why do people run? I grew up with that mindset, but being active with the bikes, that led me to meet different people and that led me to want to try running. So I said, let me try a mile. If I live to tell it, given my asthma, then I will continue on. I started doing one mile here and there or running, walking on the track, which led me to my first half marathon in Philadelphia. I did that with my best friend who is also the cofounder of Strides. I was a personal trainer, and I was focused on the work side of things. After the half marathon, she said, “Let's launch a run club,” and I said, you go do that.

I'll never forget, I was teaching boot camp on the steps and the run crew ran past us. We all stopped and took a group photo. It was such a beautiful moment. It was then that we kept the run club going and we grew to have a consistent showing of women running with us every Wednesday until the pandemic.

I've always used the diversity, equity, and inclusion lens in all of my roles. I've never had a role that was DEI person per se, but I've always used that lens in everything I've done. For example, at Indego, I was overseeing marketing and we got a grant to make sure our ridership reflected the demographics of the city of Philadelphia. With a city that is majority Black and brown with a 26 percent poverty rate, it's a major city but also an unhealthy city. There was a lot that marketing needed to make sure we were reaching all kinds of people that are part of those statistics. We used that grant in advertisements, marketing, bike stations and social media. That was through a DEI lens, and that introduced me to the world of DEI work. I got certified to do this work while I was at Indego. In addition to my marketing duties in Philadelphia, I was responsible for all the DEI and racial justice work across our systems in three cities.

I'm really excited to be in an organization (RIDC) where DEI is embedded in everything. And everybody who learns about the org is very clear about what we stand for, and what we're trying to accomplish. Before, it was I'm going to try to change the system, and that wasn't the job I signed up for, but it's something personal and important to me. Then, I come to RIDC and it's a no brainer that that's what we're doing. That's why I'm super excited.

kiera smalls
Rook Productions Media / Pete Santamaria

I really enjoyed the blog you wrote for Strides. You talked about overcoming imposter syndrome to apply for the RIDC executive director role. What advice would you share with others who are experiencing imposter syndrome in an area of their life?

Some people say imposter syndrome exists and some say it doesn't exist. The reality is there are things from our parents, guardians, or society that sometimes tell us that we're either not enough or not capable. We've internalized a lot of that messaging. I worked a long time with the Strides community and on myself to say, you may not be responsible for the messages you received, but you are responsible for how you can go forward.

When I saw the job, my background and skills told me, absolutely, this is a no brainer, this job description was written for you. Then you have that little voice that exists for all of us to say, are you sure you can do this on a national scale?

It's an internal battle, but I remind myself that a lot of these messages are not from me. And there's so much freedom and acceptance in that. Side note, I'm also a certified yoga and meditation teacher. So, I operate from a place of acceptance and empathy. I hear the thoughts, but what is reality? Reality is your career background has said, you can do this. Reality is you are very interested and committed to this work and what RIDC is looking to accomplish. That helps quiet the noise that we all have.

When I think about approaching the work that we do at RIDC, I'm always operating from a place of empathy because as much as we have this sense of urgency to prevent harm from happening to save lives, I'm also cognizant that we're all in different places on this journey. And I believe you have to be cognizant of meeting people where they are and helping them get to where we need them to get to in order to achieve RIDC's mission and vision. We can't be helpful if we disregard where you are on this journey. We need to know where you are, and we are in a position to meet you at any stage of this journey in order to prevent harm and save lives.

Starting at the individual level, how do you think runners can be more inclusive and supportive towards underrepresented groups?

I would ask runners to tap into their network and diversify their network if need be. Anyone who is not from a systemically disadvantaged group has an opportunity to invite their runner friends of different backgrounds to a run, club event, or their local run speciality store, or run with them in their community, get to know their culture, get to know a lot about them so you can be that friend and running partner they need. If there are race events that you're looking forward to, invite them to a race event and if they can't afford it, maybe you can collaborate on what it means to have access to a race event. And this might be the reality for some, they might not have any Black, Indigenous or people of color in their network, which means they have to create some. Maybe you want to diversify your pool, but you run a certain pace and others outside of your community are not there yet, maybe you let go of your pace for the day to meet their pace. Maybe you share training resources with them. Support their background and their communities. That's how you can support other runners.

When we launched Strides, we said they needed to be able to run three miles. You could do a walk, run method of course, but at the time we weren't a walking club and we would hate for someone to come and feel like the group would leave them. So, we let people know. And that run club brought so many people together who otherwise wouldn't have connected. They were able to talk in conversation and meet people. We also launched a build up to one-mile program because you need to meet people where they are and build their confidence.

When you think about RIDC's perspective, we also need individuals to share our mission and vision. Don't be afraid to talk about racial injustice, DEI, and uplifting Black, Indigenous, and people of color because we need all voices uplifting these messages. We need all voices working towards this mission and vision. If it turns out you lose some followers on social media or you make some people uncomfortable, I like to tell people that because we're working to save lives and make this world a little better for people who are here and especially for the next generation, a little discomfort will go away. I'm not going to say it doesn't matter, but in the grand scheme of things, there are more pressing things that matter beyond the temporary discomfort when we're talking about saving lives and preventing harm from happening.

Can you share an RIDC initiative that you’re particularly excited about right now?

I'm excited about the brands, retailers, and running events who are committed to supporting RIDC’s mission. They have invested with multi-year commitment donations. They have their employees engaged in our training and workshops. They stay engaged with our work via our newsletters. They attend the workshops, and they're willing to be held accountable. I'm excited to continue seeing the energy around RIDC since its inception in 2020 and seeing it go to new heights. People are actually doing the work we need them to do in order to achieve the mission we need to achieve.

How is RIDC celebrating Global Running Day?

We are celebrating with a campaign to all of our partners—the brands, retailers, events, individuals and even groups outside of the running industry. We're calling on everyone to center racial equity for Global Running Day.

We've had a campaign every year. I noticed that the Global Running Day hashtag on Instagram is predominately white and male. I was talking with our board, and I proposed that we encourage everyone to center racial equity on this day by posting someone from Black, Indigenous, or people of color groups in whatever messaging we have around celebrating this day. It's why RIDC exists. We are focused on racial justice in addition to DEI in general.

For our partners, the challenge and opportunity is the lack of presentation of racial diversity in promotions for Global Running Day. You don't have to look far to see that there is a lack of representation. We're encouraging people to use the Global Running Day hashtag and the run4diversity hashtag. We want to mobilize the running industry to collectively center racial equity in their global running day content, and we want to make it super easy. We created assets for anyone who doesn't know where to start and we gave a list of do's and don'ts. And we're encouraging them to post how the organization is committed to racial equity and racial justice. We want to see that hashtag look more reflective of the industry we know we can build together.

If you’d like to get involved by attending a workshop or donating to the organization’s efforts, visit the Running Industry Diversity Coalition’s website.

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