Alumna runs in Middle East to promote female leaders

Taylor Smith ’15 always liked running. She said when she moved to Iraq for a job some hostile locals’ reactions and lack of women’s freedom restricted her to a treadmill shoved between her bed and closet.

“That was probably one of the hardest things for me to kind of come to terms with,” Smith said in an interview. “It wasn’t so much the different culture, the different religion—it was just the inability and the low back-up access to running space for me.”

Smith decided to volunteer for an international Afghan organization called Free to RunFree to Run supports women and girls in areas of conflict through adventure sports to build their confidence and develop female leaders. Three years later Smith serves as Free to Run’s Afghanistan regional director.

Smith graduated from Emerson as a double major in journalism and political communications in the hopes of becoming a war reporter. She accepted a teaching job in Iraq and started her career as a freelance journalist that same year. Smith said she put journalism to the side after discovering Rise Foundation, a non-profit in a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. After working as their photographer for the Castle Art project she accepted a program manager position.

“I just found that I liked the connection that you can develop with people,” Smith said. “And you do get to have a much better—I found personally—understanding of the areas that you’re trying to live in and the people that you’re trying to work with or for—or whatever your angle is—than you would in freelance journalism.” 

At an event Smith shared her frustrations over the inability to run freely, and a diplomat told her about Free to Run. She said she applied for their open position immediately because she identified with the organization’s mission.

Smith said the Free to Run staff talks to girls’ families to convince them about the benefits of sports. She said previous participants make up the entirety of the organization’s local staff.

“It’s a really conservative, repressive society, especially for women—which tells them they can’t go outside, they can’t have jobs, they can’t speak up, they can’t have opinions,” Smith said. “To have somebody come in—especially if it’s an Afghan, which we are locally run—and tell them, ‘Hey, you can do all of those things. And you can run 42 kilometers,’ I think showing them that they can do one thing makes them question, ‘Maybe I can do the others as well.’”

Smith recently came to Emerson and shared her experience with students on Oct. 24. She told her story and answered students’ questions during the event “Reporting to Racing: From Emerson College to Afghanistan” in the Multipurpose Room.

Journalism seniors Christopher Rogers and Mana Parker both attended the event with their Backpack Journalism Capstone class.

“She just put herself on a limb, and I thought that was very awesome,” Rogers said. “It’s a way that a lot of people nowadays can tackle the industry with technology—you can just take your camera, backpack, and be a freelance journalist on the lines.”

Going into the event Parker said she knew she would never become a journalist. However she said she learned a lot from listening to Smith about Western activism in the Middle East and other countries with different cultures.

“Even if you’re a feminine person you can still go and do these things, and you don’t have to act based on fear,” Parker said.

Stephanie Hawkinson trained every week for 16 years with the Suburban Striders Running Club, a women’s only running group in Wellesley, Massachusetts. 

“It was really more the philosophy that attracted me because it was women supporting women in running but also in life,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson said she related to Free to Run’s belief and saw the global parallels between the groups’ experiences.

“Our goal isn’t so much to see them become Afghanistan’s next big athletes. It’s more to see them become community development leaders and to be a part of the change that they want to see in their society,” Smith said.

Smith said some Free to Run participants already ran 155 miles—more than most will run in their whole life, according to her. A new member of Free to Run ran her first marathon in Afghanistan this year. Smith said the participant told her she is the first girl in her family to travel outside the country by herself which she never thought possible.

The organization opened a pilot in Iraq and hopes to develop more in the future. Smith said they also hope to find stable funding to become fully sustainable. Free to Run did not comment to ensure the safety of their participants.

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