Running on Powdered Feet: Alison Désir | Teachers College Columbia University

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Running on Powdered Feet: Alison Désir
(M.A., Counseling Psychology)


Life Before TC:

It’s almost impossible to imagine the unrelentingly enthusiastic Alison Désir of today as someone lacking confidence and sliding into depression. But as Alison herself tells the story, it was only a few short years ago that, almost by accident, she hit upon distance running as a miracle cure for a low point in her life during which she couldn’t find a job and her father was diagnosed with a serious illness. As a child, Alison had been so active her parents said she had “powdered feet,” a Haitian Creole expression for one who is always on the move. But now things were at a standstill. When she learned that a friend had trained for and run a marathon, she figured there wasn’t a good reason she couldn’t pick herself up and do the same, and she soon found herself running in the 2012 San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon. She quickly discovered that distance running not only helped her feel better, but also helped her “learn a lot about my body, about discipline, about the connections physical and mental health.”

Why TC:


With a new-found passion for sharing the transformational power of running with others, Alison and her powdered feet would soon be on the move again -- to TC’s program in Counseling Psychology. As an undergraduate at Columbia, Alison had majored in history and gone on to earn an M.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Regional Studies. But she now she was determined to explore programs that might enable her to share the profound lessons she herself had learned through running. She looked into sports psychology, but found it a bit narrow in focus. “What drew me to TC was the social justice component, and the focus on multicultural competence,” she says. “What stood out to me is that the work of counseling and therapy is not limited to the one-on-one relationship in a therapy room. It’s about community perspectives.” Along the way, she started Harlem Run, a local running club focused on bringing together people in an often under-served community, where they might unite not only to get some physical exercise, but, even in a small way, change the world. “Little did I know it would explode and become this big powerful community movement,” Désir says of Harlem Run, which has been featured in national media and regularly draws hundreds of participants on its twice-weekly runs through Harlem and sponsors a range of community events from shoe drives to Earth Day celebrations. “It’s a running club, but it’s really a social change organization. It’s really about what happens when you bring the community together for something positive.”

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TC Takeaway:

Alison says TC’s program in Counseling Psychology gave her the background to help expand Harlem Run and develop a vision of community-based mental health programs that could make a particular difference to communities of color, where access to both physical and mental health programs is often limited. “My perspective and my understanding of multiculturalism have changed,” she says. “Who has access to the right kind of food? Who has access to the types of services I’m offering through Harlem Run? I’m always thinking about those things. Most running groups think about getting faster, but our group thinks about accessibility. It’s much more than just a run.” She credits TC faculty with supporting her in her vision for Harlem Run and community-based health. “What I loved about the program was that my teachers took a deep interest in what I wanted to do,” she says. “Rather than direct me down the road of becoming an academic, they encouraged me to infuse the work I was doing with social justice.”

What’s Next:

Harlem Run has already attracted people of all ages from the local community, Alison says – young children, single mothers, senior citizens, even a group of walkers who are not quite ready for running, but who still want to share in the benefits of the group. The model has proven so successful it has attracted corporate sponsorship from UnderArmour, and will soon be expanding beyond Harlem. “It’s running, it’s health, it’s community activism and advocacy all rolled into one,” Alison says. “I would love to see Harlem Runs take over all over the country, especially in communities of color and in communities where people don’t typically get access to exercise.”

—Ellen Livingston

Teachers College psychology students are often key partners in the groundbreaking work of the College's psychology faculty. Below are stories of some of the talented psychology students who have earned TC degrees in recent years. To support current TC psychology students, visit or contact Linda Colquhoun at 212 678-3679.

Published Friday, May 6, 2016

Alison Désir

Alison Désir

Alison Désir

Alison Désir