Sidney Baptista ’05 is bringing running—and community empowerment—to his Boston neighborhood
With a leg up from Sidney Baptista ’05, runners from all walks of life and levels of experience came together last fall on behalf of racial justice in Boston. An entrepreneur, marathoner, and host of the podcast Fitness in Color, Baptista put together the city’s More Than a Run 5K road race. The virtual event—participants completed solo runs, then logged their results on a digital platform—raised more than $50,000 for three area organizations: Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, a tuition-free charter school committed to culture-based education; Violence in Boston, a nonprofit that serves families affected by urban trauma; and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.
“As runners, we love to be together,” says Baptista, who in 2017 founded Pioneers Run Crew, a club centered in Dorchester, the predominantly Black and immigrant Boston neighborhood where he grew up. When the pandemic curtailed club activities, members found themselves cut off from that camaraderie. The loss took on special urgency amid the summer’s reckoning over the killings of unarmed Black people in the U.S. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery struck especially close to home: He was gunned down by white men while jogging. “People started asking, ‘How can we help?’” says Baptista. “‘What can we do as runners in the push for racial justice?’”
At Williston, Baptista was known as a sprinter, setting school records at the 100-meter and 200-meter distances and anchoring a record-setting 4-x-100-meter relay team. He proudly recalls the assembly when Athletic Director Mark Conroy called him “the fastest man in Williston history.” He took up distance running in 2014, in part to help manage the stress and moments of self-doubt he felt after leaving a comfortable career at consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers to start his own business. “Williston, college, PwC, there was always a path,” he observes. “And suddenly there wasn’t.” Within a year, he ran his first marathon.
While pounding out training mileage around Boston, Baptista encountered very few Black runners. Distance running for years has been dominated by Africans—eight of the top ten male finishers at the most recent Boston Marathon were from Kenya or Ethiopia—but among amateurs the sport remains overwhelmingly White. One of the barriers, Baptista says, is representation. “In my neighborhood, you can see a basketball player, you can be a rapper. Representation matters.” He started Pioneers Run Crew to help normalize running in the Black community. “I wanted to share the joy running brings me,” he says.
The team’s name pays tribute to the New York Pioneer Club, founded by three African American men in 1936 as one of the country’s first integrated athletic organizations. Among its biggest stars was Ted Corbitt, Olympian, marathon champion, and grandson of enslaved people.
From a gathering of a few diehards, the Dorchester group has grown to include a revolving cast of some 500 athletes. It hosts free weekly training sessions, is active in neighborhood clean-up events, spearheads fundraising initiatives like the More Than a Run 5k, and has launched an athleisure wear company that aims, says Baptista, “to build equity and ownership in the Black community.” The club’s pre-pandemic group runs through the neighborhood routinely brought people out onto their porches to cheer. Its activities have gained notice well beyond Dorchester, and recently PRC was written up in Runners World magazine.
Not long ago, Baptista received a letter from a young club member. She wrote, “When you think of a runner, who do you picture? If you asked me before May of 2018, I would not have described anyone who looks like myself. The spring day when I first joined Pioneers Run Crew marked the start of my journey as a runner. At that moment I became part of a community committed to uplifting one another in all aspects of life. Yes, we run together. Yes, we like personal records. Yes, we like to have fun. But what fuels us is our love for our community.”