Style is personal, so therefore political. The clothes one wears requires a self-possession, a peace with who one is and who one is not, and an optimism — at times disruptive — of where one chooses to be. Picture this: a queer person of color with wing-tip eyeliner capturing first place in a marathon. This both is and isn’t about running. How about this: one of Germany’s only running collectives run by racial and sexual minorities clad in head-to-toe Ralph Lauren in the walls of a castle in Brandenburg. At display is a politics of the body: Occupying space that was not designed for them. And they occupied it anyway. This is a defiant reclaiming of space — for people who are not used to life handing them favors in the golden basket called privilege, they said fuck it and decided to do everything themselves.
“If there is no space for us, we will make space for us” reads one of the manifesto maxims of the Wayv Run Kollektiv, the running club devoted to mobilizing “Black/brown, queer, female, trans, Muslim, different, and underrepresented and marginalized bodies into motion.” They’re part of a brassy new wave of running collectives in the last two decades that have revolutionized both the idea and the look of running clubs of the past. These new collectives are of all ages, ethnicities, builds, and styles; loud and rowdy, tattooed, and clad in neon activewear.
The epicenter of the new running movement is New York City, where Wayv co-founders Daniel Marin Medina and Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen first met. This was in 2015, when Medina was working as a workout pacer for the prestigious Nike Run Club. When he first saw Nguyen, he said she was “stylish as hell,” had swag, but was also a “determined activist” through and through. (When asked what he means by activist, he says simply, “She does the work.”)
Working to empower women in sports, Nguyen says she’d never met anyone “as open, as gay, as queer, or as generous” as Medina, which was a fresh spritz in a sport that’s typified by a hyper-masculine culture of cutthroat competition. For Medina, it wasn’t about pitting people against each other to distinguish themselves—it was about being stronger together. He had a gift of bringing people together, organizing people for Pride events, letting other queers know they were safe to be themselves.
A few years later, the two of them ended up moving to Berlin separately — Medina in 2017, Nguyen in 2018. While Berlin is one of the world capitals for gay freedom (and hedonism), Medina and Nguyen still found the city to be overwhelmingly white, even if it’s the most diverse city in Germany. At the time, there were no queer- or female of color-led running groups in the area — a glaring blindspot in the city’s running culture. “You have to imagine: Black and brown marginalized people, especially girls and women, in Germany — growing up here, nobody reaches out to us to do sports,” says Nguyen about her early years. And they weren’t going to wait around until someone asked them. Instead, they were the ones who did the asking. “We did it for our own survival,” says Nguyen, “because there was no other team looking like us and creating a safer space for us.”
Immediately, they got to work. Between the two of them, they had enough experience in New York running clubs to know what went on in front of and behind the scenes. So they had the managerial know-how to begin organizing, outreach, partnerships, and publicity. But even then, they knew their idea was something more, it was a chance to be part of something bigger, a higher calling. “It’s not just humans running a marathon,” Medina says. “We were asking people to be visible and to represent their life experiences and the people who looked like them and who came from places where they came from.”
This was exactly the ethos that attracted Chanel Ulalee Knight, co-founder of Black Brown Berlin: a digital platform that connects Black and brown people in Berlin. “To see oneself frequently and genuinely represented has a momentous impact on one's sense of worth, that's why it is so necessary for people to be able to see themselves reflected back within all different environments,” she says. In addition to getting groups to train together, Wayv offered a community that shared common resources to support people who are sometimes the most vulnerable in German society.
That sense of comradery was exactly what Justice Lufuma Mvemba was looking for when she joined Wayv. Growing up in Germany, studying Fashion Management and later on working as a buyer for a brand in Berlin, she says “I was always surrounded and led by mainly white people.“ While striving for change, she just recently founded her own travel agency My Premium Travel that organizes safer group travels such as yoga retreats for Black and brown people.
To lead is to provide an example. And for Wayv, this meant bringing anti-racist work both on and off the track, which was what caught French film director Franck Trozzo Kazagui’s attention. He discovered Wayv when he filmed them onset and after that, ended up joining the collective himself. It was empowering for him to be part of this community, as someone who didn’t come from “a rich family” and had to teach himself to make his name in the film industry. As an outsider, he says he had to work “twice as hard” as other film directors. Therefore, it’s all the more impactful, on many levels, to be seen as a team with people from different backgrounds that reflect the real world.
Outside of being part of Wayv, Nidhi Sharma is a mother and an architect who comes from India — ”a country where women have far lesser rights compared to men. From the moment you are born, the system starts to push you down,” she says. “Sports for girls in this scenario is a far-fetched thing.” For her, running gave her a platform to “voice my inner being—a tool which makes me feel powerful every time I lace up those shoes.” For others, she says, “I believe that girls coming from a background like mine need good examples to look at for them to get confidence to follow their dreams.” She has her platform Half_life_to_health to share her story and help others to take up running, mindful health habits while fulfilling all their personal and professional responsibilities.
Yet with setting an example comes with extra scrutiny. “That’s a heavy hat to wear sometimes,” says Knight. “We're also learning as we go along, and just being open and gracious to learn from one another and to recognize the privileges that we have as well.” Yet that heightened visibility gave Wayv a world-wide platform. Last year, the team was invited to go to Shanghai and people there who felt inspired by the collective started their own queer running team. Having traveled and run in places like New York, Boston, Toronto, Mexico and Shanghai, co-founders Daniel and Huyen have tapped into an international community of like-minded runners. Nguyen adds, “In 2019, we had 250+ people running with us at our Berlin Marathon event and it was about inspiring one another, motivating one another and really showing that this is more about running, that this movement is so much bigger than sports.”