Together We Stand Reflects on 3 Years as a Unifying Force Across NC
Together We Stand NC
In July 2020, Tyrone Irby decided to host a rally at Ponysaurus Brewing in Durham, North Carolina. He already envisioned the newly formed Together We Stand growing beyond a single gathering. What he hadn’t expected was how wide its reach would quickly extend.
“When we first started this, I was going to do it in Durham and Chapel Hill. But then we began to build momentum with other cities that wanted to be involved,” Irby says. “I think the reason people got behind Together We Stand and what we've been doing was because they wanted to support causes that would make people aware of [social injustices and prejudice]. Some people are not aware of what's going on. If you don't read the papers or watch social media, you're oblivious. But people of color—we live it every day. We are more aware of what we wear, where we run, where we walk, where we drive, where we go, all of that.”
On Sunday, July 16, Together We Stand will celebrate three years of building community, unifying people of all backgrounds, and sparking conversations around sometimes uncomfortable but necessary topics. Fittingly, Ponysaurus is hosting this birthday bash, which will take place from noon to 3 p.m. The newest conversation-starter T-shirt—this one featuring a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsberg—will also be available for sale ($16). Raffles for HOKA SWAG, and gift cards from 321 Coffee, Fleet Feet Durham, and Ponysaurus Brewing will also be available.
Since its inception, Together We Stand has expanded beyond the Triangle area. It now boasts a community of 2,500 across North Carolina, with partner organizations in more than half a dozen cities. This fall, Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Fayetteville will each host a Unity 5K run. The list of TWS chapters continues to grow; the latest addition, Asheville, will join the Stand Up 5K series (formerly Maud 2.23) in February.
“After the initial Maud 2.23, we started doing the runs in different cities. I think it was really unusual because nobody does that. No one does runs in different cities in the same week. If you're the Bull City Race Fest, you do it in Durham. If you’re the Charlotte Marathon, you’re in Charlotte,” Irby says. “We wanted to bring Together We Stand outside of Durham. Durham is our home base; we love Durham. But at the same time we understood that to really have a platform, we had to reach other people in other communities.”
Irby adds that Fleet Feet, one of TWS’s first-ever partners, was essential in building those early connections. Durham-Carrboro operating partner, Jordan Ayers, and run club director, Nora Ayers, referred Irby to operators in Charlotte and Fayetteville while also pointing him in the direction of other potential partners.
Although Together We Stand’s two main events, Stand Up 5K and Unity 5K, are centered around running, they welcome everyone, including runners, walkers, and even folks who’d rather not run but still want to meet new people and hang out. But the reasoning behind this active, get-moving focus is multilayered. First off, the very first run—the Maud 2.23 in February 2021—was held when many people were still taking extra precautions amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Running outdoors was less risky than gathering inside; it also offered participants the opportunity to move their bodies and make new friends after months of isolation.
Furthermore, the sport is an instant conversation starter.
“Running tends to bring people together from all different walks of life. It’s an opportunity for people to find common ground,” Irby says. “Let's say you get a bunch of people together; they’ll ask each other, ‘Where did you run your first marathon?’ ‘What trails do you run?’ and stuff like that. It’s a common, shared experience.”
For Irby, the impetus behind this grassroots organization was a coalescence of current events and experiences from his own life. Although racially driven acts of violence have persisted unabated, two deaths in 2020 deeply unsettled Irby. In May of that year, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, with a video recording capturing his murder on film. A few months earlier, Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed simply because he was a Black man running in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Though not a runner himself, Irby has deep ties to the local running community; many of the clients he coaches are runners. He also remembers a time that running saved his life. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, Irby lived in an African-American neighborhood but was bussed to a majority-white junior high school. One time, a group of white young men wielding aluminum baseball bats chased him on mopeds.
“At that time, there was not a lot of traffic and I didn’t expect anyone to stop and help. I knew I was running for my life. I kept my bookbag on my back and literally ran as fast as I could,” he recalls.
He credits this miles-long sprint as well as the kindness of a stranger for saving his life. An older, Italian shopkeeper—with a bat of his own—stepped up to help him and scare his pursuers away.
“He walked me to my bus stop around the corner with the bat over his large shoulder. He waited with me for my bus to come,” Irby says. “He didn’t care about the color of my skin or where I lived or who my family was. All he saw was a scared kid being chased because I dared to go to school in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood. He stood up. I can never forget that.”
And that’s what Irby wants TWS to do: To build a community that unifies and take a stand against discrimination and injustices, whether they plague people of color, people of different sexual orientations and identities, people of various cultures and religions, people of different physical and intellectual ability levels, and truly any group that is considered “other” and therefore treated as such.
But for all TWS’s growth, Irby still sees plenty of runway ahead. The organization is working to keep conversations and connections going in between its 5K events by introducing new people to TWS, seeking out and supporting like-minded organizations, and spotlighting other community elevators through its digital newsletters.
Looking ahead to the next three years, Irby hopes Together We Stand will have a presence in all of North Carolina’s major cities. Expanding to neighboring states is a possibility, but he’d rather focus on the organization’s home state and avoid growing at a too-quick clip.
Irby is also eager to find national partners who believe in TWS and want to utilize their resources to champion the cause. Consulting is another opportunity, wherein TWS would work with businesses that are interested in creating a more diverse workforce and client base but unsure how to get started.
While these possibilities are exciting, at its core, Together We Stand’s mission has remained the same since day 1.
“Our goal is not to have a megaphone but rather a microphone and just remind you, softly, of what's going on and to stand up. If you see things that are not right, stand up,” Irby says. “If you believe in a unified community, come out. Don't just bring yourself; bring someone else who’s not like you. It could be a classmate, a teacher, a coworker, or even a family member. If you want to meet people who are not like you and engage with your entire community, come out. We want people to hang out and listen and hear stories and talk to people. That's it.”