As the Trump administration pursues its nativist agenda, a rising tide of activism, #resistance, and a general sense of defiance have increased throughout the country. Activities that once seemed benign are now politically charged as the scope of individuals targeted by the Trump agenda and its proxies increases.
Union organizer, activist, and performance artist Rica Highers is nourished by the workouts and community at Solcana Fitness. “If I didn’t have fitness or some type of physical exercise, I would lose my goddamn mind,” she said. Rica finds comfort in knowing that the other members of the gym are invested in her athletic success.
What Is CrossFit? And What Is Distinct About Solcana?
According to Solcana Fitness owner Hannah Wydeven,
“CrossFit is high-intensity, constantly varied, functional fitness. What those fancy terms actually mean is that CrossFit workouts are usually in a short time domain and you are working as hard as you can during that time. The workouts are different every day, but they all revolve around the full body, full range-of-motion movements that are dynamic and reflect natural movement patterns.”
Typically, no two gyms, or in CrossFit parlance, “boxes”, are alike since each owner has the latitude to develop their own gym culture and programing. That being said, Solcana is distinct from most CrossFit gyms, as Wydeven recounts,
“When I first opened the gym, I specifically built it as a safe place for women. At the time, I was 26 and prying myself out of a fitness world that was dominated by toxic masculinity. My reaction to it was to build a safe haven for women and non-toxic masculinity. As we started to grow and I started to add coaches, we became a space that was not only feminist but queer.”
Wydeven explains that, “I think in the beginning, I just really imagined I would have to constantly be steering the ship and creating the culture, but what I realized is that if I actually let go and let my athletes and coaches guide the culture of the gym, it would become the best version of itself.”
Fitness Supports Organizing
CrossFit matched Rica’s need for intensity, community, and rigorous exercise. Rica finds herself, “Pushing myself to such a diligent focus on the activity that I do; it becomes a meditative experience.” The calm and clarity that meditation gives Rica her allows her to take on the challenges of being a union organizer while organized labor and the interests of working people are under attack at the Supreme Court and at state legislatures all over the country.
“When your body is being forced to push past, beyond your own mental limits, and then your own physical limits on some level, you really just see your own capacity for power...” She likens this capacity for power to her organizing. Rica approaches union organizing as finding both her own power and supporting others in finding theirs.
It was also important to see people like herself, Rica said. “I was in the gym space and I looked around, and it was all women, tons of trans people, a couple people of color, who were throwing weight up like it was nobody's business.”
Wydeven intentionally created a gym environment that is welcoming for first-time athletes.
“We have a lot of folks in the gym who had never seen themselves as athletes before coming to us. There is a whole range of bodies and experiences.” She explains that, “the thing that connects us all is a passion for social justice and equity, as well as a desire to have a safe place to be fully invested in our bodies. We have a large population of queer bodies, trans bodies, and lots of different types of expression.”
Rica notes that the coaches are trauma-informed and attentive. At the gym, it's common to notice different body types doing the full workout. Rica mentioned that “It’s motivating to see people achieving. You want to see each other powerfully. You are being challenged to adapt, but everyone has your back.”
Impacts of Solcana on Day-to-Day
Many members have described the unintended improvements in their lives through CrossFit as not necessarily through their physical appearance, but rather their mental health and confidence. For Wydeven, leading the gym has shaped her life and perspective in significant ways.
“That process really awoke my own identity, and I started to explore my own queerness. I was lucky that along the way I met people who were unapologetically and awesomely themselves, and they helped open the door for me and others. We started to become more of a place of subversive bodies, a place where people can fully exist in their skin as a direct contradiction to patriarchal, capitalist fitness culture. That has really excited me and surprised me.”
Carpenters Local 322 member Erin Melzer has found that the Solcana community has helped her communicate in the building trade. “The mindset that we are all learners and that we all learn differently has given me the tools to open up conversations with generations above me.”
Melzer also finds that her body is more capable of dealing with the rigors of a job that requires a lot of lifting; “Shuffling materials around all day is easier; I'm talking thousands of pounds over 8 hours.”
Minnesota Nurse Association Member and Registered Nurse Jonathan Popko just started his career in February 2016, and currently works at Abbott Northwestern in the ER. On the impact that CrossFit has had on his life, Popko said,
“Nursing, in general, is both physically and mentally stressful, as it incorporates a lot of lifting, fast-paced environments, and balancing the demands of caring for multiple patients. These problems are often multiplied in the ER setting. CrossFit helps me physically with my strength and confidence lifting, and the techniques make me conscientious of my body mechanics at work.”
Like so many others, Popko finds the cardiovascular components key to reducing overall stress allowing him to relax more easily at home, “which allows me to focus and endure in a challenging work environment.”
University of Minnesota Professor Jane Lawrence Sumner attributes her quick recovery after childbirth to CrossFit.
“It's also made me a lot more confident dealing with students. In the past, I've had issues with male students physically intimidating me when they didn't like something I did, at my last university, not at the U, and I feel much more physically secure now.”
She also credits the fitness regimen with helping to get her depression and anxiety under control, which has improved her approach to her work.
For Wydeven, attentiveness to physical health is also rooted in, “becoming a more equitable place for People of Color, and tackling the inherent white supremacy of most fitness spaces.”
It has been an ongoing learning process for Wydeven.
“Regarding my approach with race, that has really changed and expanded over time as I have continued to learn about my own role in white supremacy and how my behaviors contribute to making people of color unwelcome or unsafe. That has been a personal process, and the gym has also worked through a similar process thanks to the help of people at AORTA [Consulting], and thanks to the patience of some of our members who are willing to speak up about changes they want to see. As we move forward, one of the big things we are working on now is creating a change committee that can hold me and the gym accountable to a change plan that helps us become a more intersectional, equitable space through active work.”
Many find CrossFit inaccessible because of the membership price, which in places like San Francisco or New York is upwards of $300, limiting opportunity for membership among working class people and skewing the demographics to mostly white middle class folks. Solcana sits in the lower range of $165 a month for a year-long contract. As a response, Wydeven developed the sliding scale [Em]Power Strength program.
“[Em]Power was built for people who want to learn how to lift, but don't necessarily have the resources to be a full-fledged member. Or, for folks who don't want to do CrossFit and just want to learn how to build their own strength program. My goal is to get people feeling confident enough to take up space in their gym and feel strong and powerful when they lift.”
The gym also offered a POC scholarship in Fall 2017. 10 recipients were chosen by POC members of the gym to receive a year-long membership for free. A queer scholarship program was also introduced earlier in 2017.
For Wydeven, figuring out the best methods to become more accessible has been a dialectical process.
“The more we expanded our thinking as a gym, the safer space became for a wider variety of folks. It seems to be a feedback loop like that. Someone comes in and shows me, asks me, challenges me or the gym as a whole, and we expand and invite. It's a pattern of growth that has happened really organically.”
As for Rica, the exhaustion and satisfaction of another good workout is a welcome experience. On difficult days, Rica can “exhaust myself so my body can shake whatever I was feeling.” With the advent of the scholarship programs, Rica has welcomed more folks from her activist and performance life into her workout. She cherishes those moments.
“We are in it, we are being free, we are being loved and casual with each other.”