For those of us living in the East Bay, it’s common to hear the word “community” floated around, whether it’s referring to our cities, workplaces, schools or a group we might be part of. On the surface level, sure, most people know what community means, and that having it is important to our lives in some ambiguous way. But a lot of us never reach a point where we further investigate what community actually is, why it’s important and where to find it. That is, until it’s no longer a given.
The pandemic uprooted many people’s most important community links—including those of Oakland resident Emilia Sens. In Sens’ case, the links she lost were through work. This caused her to rethink where her local connections and relationships came from in the first place.
So, Sens turned to running, an activity she previously viewed as solitary, and solely as a method for increasing cardiovascular fitness for soccer, the sport she played throughout her undergraduate years. To gear up, one day last November Sens went to Renegade Running, a running store on Grand Avenue in Downtown Oakland, to buy a new pair of running shoes.
By happenstance, Sens met the store’s newly formed group of ambassadors shortly after her visit, and became one herself. “In a matter of maybe a week or two, I had built a solid group of running friends through store runs, and it became what I most looked forward to—especially in January and February, when Covid was still such a threat to normal life,” she said.
Sabine Louis, another of the store’s ambassadors, recounted a similar experience. “I moved to Oakland back in August, and was lucky to find community with Renegade pretty soon after the move,” Sabine said. “Since the beginning, everyone has been so welcoming and caring … . I’ve been able to build friendships at run groups, and it’s been a wonderful place to grow and develop as a runner.”
Renegade Running, which opened its retail location on Grand Avenue in June of last year, describes itself as both a running store and a running community that “strives to make running an inclusive experience for all across race, gender, and physical ability,” according to its website. Nestled between Farley’s East and Drake’s Brewing Co., the store is a short walk—or run—down Grand Avenue to the 3.4 mile loop that is Lake Merritt.
Cofounded by former educator Victor Diaz and Olympian Bolota Asmerom, Renegade hosts workouts around Lake Merritt every other Wednesday, community runs on Sundays and trail runs through the East Bay Regional Park system on the first Sunday of every month. The store also provides a space for community collaborations that don’t directly have to do with running, including providing a space to host a release party for the S.A.M (Sports and Movement) issue of an Oakland publishing house, Umber, and collaborating with CALMA, a nonprofit that supports the Bay Area’s migrant community.
As for the brands the store carries, they vary from pieces that support fashion in the running space—including Reigning Champ, Satisfy and Brand Black—to featuring local artists, such as T.S. Weller’s running shoe collaboration with The North Face, and brands with a sustainability pillar, such as Allbirds.
However, it’s clear upon entering the shop and seeing customers chatting with team members, an in-store treadmill available for reservation, an upstairs gym and a large space dedicated to post-workout recovery, that the space is not built solely for transactional purposes.
Local community member and triathlete, Derek Owens, reflected upon this in an email he sent to the Oakland Tri Club after entering the store for the first time. “This is not just a running store,” Owens said.
This is especially clear when attending the store’s workouts, which are created for a variety of different skill levels and athletes, and usually feature a mixture of 200s, 400s and 800s, run on the flat stretch in front of Lake Merritt’s Fairyland. Sunday runs start at the shop, for a distance of between four and seven miles, which is equivalent to one to two laps around Lake Merritt.
“Bolota and I write up the workouts, and split the group up into A, B and C sub-groups. Then, people spread out, but usually find a few people to stick with,” Renegade’s Community Lead, Rebecca Murillo, said.
While it might be common for running stores to host clubs, workshops and events, Renegade creates them through its intention to create community around the sport of running and its benefits, instead of community around retail.
But, what does hosting events and having a team of ambassadors have to do with creating community, exactly?
First, let’s start with what community actually means. Oxford Languages defines community as, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” According to various studies, including one called “The Importance of Community Development For Health and Well-Being” conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, in 2009, community is as important to the physical and mental health of humans as adequate medical care and healthy behaviors are.
Another study, by Breck Harris at Fresno Pacific University, titled “The Importance of Creating ‘a sense of community,’” found that among a population of 39 students with a goal of finishing their degree, individual students who felt a “sense of community” were more likely to complete their degree.
Diaz and Asmerom specifically created the ambassador group that Sens, Louis and many others are a part of with community in mind, as they modeled the group after running “crews” that originated in the U.K. within the past decade.
These crews, starting with Run Dem Crew in London, which went on to inspire Black Roses in New York City and many other crews around the United States, are all about “building community with people you wouldn’t expect to,” Diaz said, and are “one vehicle towards change.”
At Renegade Running, the ambassadors extend their group’s community, bringing it to the store’s weekly events, which are open to anyone who wants to join in. The schedule of events can be found on the store’s website, Instagram page and Strava profile.
Sarah Cotton, Renegade’s first employee, and the go-to within the store’s marketing and design space, said that while many view running as a solitary sport, it’s the perfect place to cultivate community, as “it’s not easy, so the people who make up this community are making themselves vulnerable to each other in a really beautiful way.”
To Cotton, the running community is “special in that it brings people from all walks of life together to do a simple activity that bonds us in a really down-to-earth kind of way. It allows you to spend miles running with somebody who you might otherwise never speak to, opening doors for different communities to overlap.”
Ellis Newton, Renegade’s floor manager who is jokingly referred to as the store’s “Director of Fun,” reflected on his time as a former athlete on Cal’s track team, where community was built into the experience. “But now,” Newton said about his life as a college graduate and athlete, “you have to make an effort to build a community around you. It’s worth it though … a community makes running so much more enjoyable.”
But, as with anything, community and the values brought to it start from the top, with the shop’s cofounders and team. “It’s such a special place to work,” Murillo said. “I feel like we all work together well, and that there is a lot of trust and creativity amongst the team. We all really care about the community and each other.”
So, how do we build community in the places we place value in, whether it’s our schools, workplaces or our local running store? Like most things, there’s no step-by-step recipe for success. That being said, Diaz has a few ideas that he carries into his life and the shop on a regular basis. “If you can approach [community] in a way that’s humble, open-minded and open-hearted, you’re likely to succeed,” he said.