This contribution is a cross-posting with the blog at Back On My Feet (http://blog.backonmyfeet.org) and, as an act of reciprocity with Back On My Feet members and organizers, illustrates how selective elements of the research process, in addition to serving the interests of scholarship, can translate into a meaningful engagement with and for those involved in the research process. As part of my research with Back On My Feet I created narratives about the experiences of its members for Back On My Feet organizers to use in demonstrating the program’s potential for positive change.
After a few runs with Back On My Feet, I found myself on a four-mile run early one morning and asked myself, “What am I doing? Really, why am I doing this?”
I wouldn’t consider myself a runner, I don’t particularly enjoy it, I have never challenged myself to run regularly in the past, and I’m unsure if I want to work toward a marathon in the future. As I ran with the group I saw many non-residential members who love to run. In fact, many are extremely active – diving into mountain biking, ultra-marathon racing, long-distance running, and other activities. I also saw residential members who have trained for and completed marathons with Back On My Feet. I told myself, “the guy next to me has [struggled throughout his life with drinking and drug use]…If this guy is out here doing this, then I can do this too.”
However, sometimes I am still unsure if this group is for me. I didn’t join for the running, even though the majority of members are runners. I joined because I liked the message the organization presented as well as the accomplishments its members sought to attain, and I thought I could lose a few pounds by participating. On the surface, Back On My Feet appeared to be a positive program for those who need it most. Once I became more involved, however, I developed an entirely different perspective.
Back On My Feet’s mission states that the organization “promotes the self-sufficiency of those experiencing homelessness by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem.” My original perception was that Back on My Feet was suggesting that “help” travels in a one-way direction from non-residential members to residential members. With experience, though, I found this was far from accurate. Instead, Back on My Feet builds a true communal support group among its members, residential and non-residential. Amid bodily pain, self-hesitancy toward running, and corresponding doubts about the program itself, my own experiences led me to re-evaluate why I ran with Back On My Feet.
When I first joined, I could not complete a full mile. Over the course of a few months I built up my stamina, endurance, and strength with the encouragement of other members; that kind encouragement was a new experience for me. Specifically, one morning I attempted to complete a four-mile run for the first time. On that day, Reed*, a fellow member (residential) and friend, became my cheerleader and assisted me in completing those four miles. Halfway through the four miles I wanted to give up, and he continually responded for the second two miles, “no, keep going, keep going…” I realized that day that I had been arrogant to believe I was helping him by participating in the program when indeed he was helping me as much, if not more. I’ve never had a cheerleader before: my parents were always supportive but never in the capacity that Reed imparted that day and that others have continually offered.
Reflecting on this experience and others, I reformed my understanding of Back On My Feet. I’d like to detail three of the most meaningful experiences I have had. First, and most personal, the cheerfully positive support I received while running, which may seem trivial, was previously absent from my life and atypical of the support I received from my immediate family. The people in Back On My Feet filled a gap in my life, a gap that has ties to familial bonds. Second, Back on My Feet taught me how to approach tasks and goals by taking one step at a time. That may seem cliched, but despite its unoriginality, it is a very useful metaphor in helping me achieve my own goals in my personal and professional endeavors. Finally, the group established mutually constructed dependence, engagement, and camaraderie. Even though I do not enjoy running, I realize that not only am I doing something for myself, I am simultaneously doing something positive for others.
Bryan C. Clift is a current doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in the Department of Kinesiology. The narratives and portraits about the experiences of Back On My Feet members were compiled using a descriptive ethnographic approach and resulted in a compelling and complex understanding of how Back On My Feet members’ cultural identities shape their experiences. Each representation herein is based on interviews with Back On My Feet members and over 100 hours of participant-observation. In addition to contributing toward academic publications these representations were constructed in part to advocate for Back On My Feet. Bryan can be contacted at email@example.com.