Molly Barker’s on the run to change the world

Last year, when Molly Barker finally hit upon her plan to unite America, she was driving around the country, trying to understand why we, as a nation, are so fractured.

For weeks, she’d been striking up conversations with strangers – dozens of them – in a Virginia Jiffy Lube, a Pennsylvania motel, a Starbucks in upstate New York. Usually, she asked about polarization in Congress, and she posed her questions while wearing red boots, which she found to be useful conversation starters.

Often, she got an earful – about money, corruption, feeling powerless. About our instinct to stereotype people – by race, age, how they dress, how they worship – and assume we know everything. In Texas, a waiter told her: We are a culture who bonds through polarization.

She was in St. Louis on Aug. 9, 2014, when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. For days, she thought about the dead teenager, the officer, the protesters. “Ultimately it comes down to one very simple question,” she wrote on her blog. “Am I willing to make the effort to see, to listen, to look for the humanness that rests within each person I encounter, talk to, read about, see in the news?”

After she returned to Charlotte, she planted herself at the Bruegger’s on Park Road and wrote 11 steps designed to help people listen more and judge less. These became the core of her latest project, a social movement called the Red Boot Coalition.

If you know Molly Barker’s name, it’s probably because of Girls on the Run, the Charlotte-based program that uses running to empower girls. Since Barker founded it in 1996, it has served a million girls and earned her numerous accolades, including a Daily Point of Light Award from the White House.

Still, this new task she has assigned herself seems almost impossible, a tougher sell than Girls on the Run, with its built-in constituency of parents eager to raise strong, healthy daughters. Experts say polarization is embedded in our nature – a fact of life, like weather, and that similar efforts to bring people together have failed.

But Barker, undeterred, is offering a new approach that’s centered more on the heart than the head. “I have zero doubt,” she says, “that what we’re doing has the potential to change the world.”

Obviously, it would have been easier for Barker, 55, to finish her career with Girls on the Run “as the 90-year-old working with 8-year-olds,” she says, but a few years ago, she grew restless, feeling more like a figurehead than a change agent. She retired in 2013 after being asked to join the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, a Washington group seeking ways to bridge the political divide in Congress.

The timing was perfect. Barker doesn’t regard herself as a political animal. She’s registered unaffiliated and socially liberal on issues such as gay and reproductive rights, gun control and race. She chafes at labels, and never votes a straight party ticket. Sometimes, she hasn’t even voted.

But she’d begun mulling the disconnect between the values Americans teach our children and the behavior we tolerate in our political leaders. “If kids behaved the way our leaders behaved,” she says, “they’d be in big trouble.”

On the commission, packed with former governors, Cabinet chiefs and members of Congress, Barker stood out as a “breath of fresh air,” asking questions that prodded fellow members to rethink assumptions, the center’s Michele Nellenbach says.

By the time its 29 members made recommendations, however, Barker had decided the real problem was bigger than Congress. It was all of us.

That was when she began formulating an idea.

Beyond us and them

It’s a July morning and a milestone day – the Red Boot Coalition’s first training for volunteers. Thirty people from nine states have joined Barker around a massive conference table in uptown Charlotte. Some know her through Girls on the Run. Others are here because they like what they’ve heard about the movement. Several attendees, from UNC Charlotte and Queens University of Charlotte, are exploring whether to launch chapters.

Beyond the conference room, the nation roils with us-them arguments about gay marriage, the Confederate battle flag, illegal immigrants, black lives, white privilege. A few blocks away, jury selection continues in the manslaughter trial of a white Charlotte police officer who shot an unarmed black man.

Barker has worked since early 2014 to get this far, making speeches, blogging, posting and tweeting the Red Boot message to thousands who follow her on social media. The Red Boot Coalition has nonprofit status, a board and an executive director, Ann Crehore. It also has an icon – the red boots that Barker’s daughter gave her for her 50th birthday.

For now, there are fewer than a dozen chapters. The plan is to train volunteers to lead new ones. She envisions hundreds of chapters across America.

She is dressed in her typical style, black jeans and a T-shirt that says “Red Boots, Strong Coffee, Change the World.” She’s small – 5 feet 5 inches tall, 115 pounds, with the lean, muscular body that made her an Ironman triathlete. She wears little makeup and is letting her long, highlighted blonde hair go gray.

As the training begins, the 30 mostly white and female participants – Barker calls them Trailblazers – each explain why they’ve come. They talk about changing the status quo, making a difference and practicing kindness. Lisa Gray, who leads a Red Boot chapter in Winona, Minn., says she believes people are more alike than different. “Whenever there’s unhappiness,” she says, “there’s disconnection.”

Coming of age

When they finish, Barker offers her own story, about how she grew up believing she was supposed to be “a little Southern lady” but feeling “I was never going to be pretty enough, sexy enough.” She came to see she was stuck in the “girl box,” a term she coined to describe constructs society places on young women.

She’s a deft speaker – confident yet vulnerable, her eyes often welling with tears as she recounts an emotional moment. Friends say this is no contrivance. Charlie Elberson, a vice president with Wray Ward marketing communications, describes her as a powerful mix of vision and honesty. “She’s not creating a persona,” he says. “It’s just her.”

Barker has shared her girlhood struggles since launching Girls on the Run. But it took several years before she revealed the depth of her difficulties, which she now describes easily. “It’s like the more I wade out into being authentic and vulnerable,” she says, “the less I feel I have to hide.”

As a young woman, Molly Wilmer was the picture of success: Charlotte Country Day’s Senior of the Year, star athlete, debutante, Chapel Hill sorority member. Her family lived in Myers Park. Her late father, Henry Wilmer, was a Republican stalwart in the 1960s and ’70s, when Democrats still dominated state politics. He led Charlotte’s GOP party and served as a county commissioner in the 1960s.

Her achievements hid demons. Barker’s late mother, Mary Wilmer, was an alcoholic. By the time Barker was in second grade, she’d grown attuned to her mom’s drinking patterns. “I could smell her breath when I came home from school.” Sometimes, as she rode in the car with her intoxicated mother, she wondered whether she would die.

Her mom got sober in 1970, launched a career as an addiction counselor and became Barker’s inspiration – a woman who found her true self in middle age. Barker, however, repeated her mom’s pattern. She began drinking when she was in high school in the 1970s, sometimes until she blacked out. The alcoholism continued through college and a first failed marriage.

She earned an undergraduate chemistry degree and a master’s in social work. She worked a series of jobs – teaching, counseling, waiting tables, catering. She competed in Ironman triathlons. Her athletic success, she says, was a “great denial giver, because I could do so great in sports and still drink.” She began having tremors. They quieted when she went for a run.

It was on a night in July 1993 that she says she flirted with suicide. She was in debt, an alcoholic and couldn’t see a way out. She pulled a knife from a kitchen drawer and placed it on the floor, staring at it from the sofa. She called her oldest sister, who advised her to go to sleep.

That next day, she went on a run. In July, at the Red Boot training, she described it:

“About mile five, right at Kenilworth and East Boulevard, I had this amazing thing happen. I became very conscious of the sweat on my skin, the weight of my ponytail, the earth at my feet. I became nothing. No thing. I wasn’t a woman, poor, white, a runner. I was nothing. I realized I’d let constructs define me. I remember thinking, ‘Things are going to be different now.’ This is when magic began to come into my life.”

She entered a recovery program and got sober. In 1994, she married James Barker, who works in the cycling industry. In 1996, she founded Girls on the Run.

Dori Luke, a Charlotte therapist, worked alongside Barker in those early years, focusing on details and follow-through, which weren’t Barker’s forte. “My mom has described it – that Molly was always head in the sky, big ideas, a helium balloon,” Luke says, “and I was always on the ground holding onto the tethers.”

After a 1998 story in Runner’s World magazine introduced Girls on the Run to a national audience, chapters sprang up across the country. In 2004, Ballantine Books published Barker’s “Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring Our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect.” Her success brought national notice. Forbes has published her tips for social entrepreneurs. Runner’s World recently named her one of the 50 most influential people in running. As she puts it: “There’s some legitimacy to my craziness now.”

She and James Barker had two children before divorcing in 2001. Her daughter, Helen, is a Myers Park High senior. Son Hank, a visual artist, is studying at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

Barker so far draws no salary from the Red Boot Coalition. She makes part of her income through motivational speaking. Her fee ranges from $2,000 to $7,500. Her subjects include breaking free of negativity, unleashing creativity and climbing out of the “girl box.” She also speaks at Girls on the Run events free.

Other income, she says, includes deferred compensation from Girls on the Run and money she made when she sold her Beverly Woods house last year. She now lives in Myers Park, in a 1,100-square-foot rental duplex. When she moved, she jettisoned most of her possessions, including running trophies.

Climbing out of her box

This downsizing coincided with an expansion of her social circle. As she launched the Red Boot Coalition, she reached out to people with different life experiences. Last year, she bought breakfast for a man who collected her garbage; she’s now friends with his entire family. In September, she began exercising at the Stratford Richardson YMCA on West Boulevard, which has a mostly African-American membership.

She recognizes the awkwardness of such cross-racial forays, but “I don’t know how else to grow outside my comfort zone other than just do it,” she says. So she risks looking like an earnest, white do-gooder.

That was Patricke Ward’s first impression last year when he heard Barker speak at a Leadership Charlotte event about her cross-country Red Boot trip. Ward, an African-American insurance underwriting manager, listened as she described the connections she made with strangers. When she asked for audience members’ thoughts on her project, he raised his hand.

White privilege, he said.

What do you mean? she asked.

Ward pointed out that he’s a 6-foot-3, 245-pound black man, and that if he approached strangers in a Starbucks parking lot, reactions would be different. He could see that he’d made Barker feel guilty, he says, though that wasn’t his intent. When Barker asked if they could talk more, “I thought it was kind of a PR thing,” he says.

But she followed up, and they talked – about race, politics, gender – everything. Today, they’re friends. Ward has been impressed by “the spirit of people coming together” he’s seen at Red Boot meetings. “I think that sister is trying to do some amazing things,” Ward says.

Breaking stereotypes

America is as politically divided as we’ve been in two decades, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. More than a quarter of Democrats and a third of Republicans view the opposing party as a threat to America’s well-being.

This division is often attributed to growing physical separation. We’re more likely to live near people who share our views, less likely to know people different from us. Meanwhile, media constantly stoke outrage at those with whom we disagree. “We stereotype them as fools trying to destroy the country,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says.

For years, nonprofits and foundations have convened citizens on this issue, trying to seek common ground. Generally, it hasn’t worked. In fact, without a skilled moderator, experts say, politically charged discussions can increase divisiveness.

But Barker says Red Boot is different, because compromise and agreement aren’t the goals. Just as Girls on the Run nudges girls out of socially constructed boxes, Red Boot seeks to nudge us beyond stereotypes. By getting people talking and listening, Barker believes they’ll come to feel “safe, connected and loved.” If you feel connected, she figures, you can disagree with your neighbor without hating him.

These feelings are nurtured at Red Boot meetings, which begin with a volunteer guide reading one of 11 Red Boot steps aloud. For example, Step 7: We are present. We came to see, that despite wanting at times to be right, we best serve the world by seeking first to understand and then be understood. We humbly put aside our own agendas and listen with our whole heart before responding.

For the next hour, the guide poses questions from a Red Boot script – Where does your need to “win” or “be right” come from? Why do you think that is? One by one, attendees respond.

Barker likens this process to the sharing that takes place in 12-step recovery meetings, with attendees describing experiences and personal stories. Everyone listens. No one gives advice or argues. Meetings are free. In recovery programs, addiction is the shared enemy. In Red Boot meetings, it’s fear and anger.

Once a group goes through the 11 steps, it starts again. In the process, attendees gain tools to interact with the world in a less divisive way, Barker says. As their numbers grow, these participants, she believes, can help heal the nation.

Science and skeptics

There’s some science behind her ideas. For one thing, the Red Boot steps help us see our own biases, says Dr. Omar Manejwala, a friend of Barker’s who is a Charlotte psychiatrist and author of “Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough.”

Cognitive biases help us make sense of the world, Manejwala says, but the tradeoff “is that not everything we conclude is accurate.” For example, we’re biased to assume that we know others’ motives, and so we judge them, even while believing they can’t understand our motives. If we address these biases, he says, we’re less likely to make snap judgments.

Red Boot also encourages kindness and empathy, and researchers say it’s true what your mom told you: When you’re nice to people, they’re more likely to be nice to you. Likewise, when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it changes the relationship you have with them.

So far, Red Boot has 11 chapters in eight states. Most are small, like Lisa Gray’s chapter with six people in Winoka, Minn., though new chapters at a Las Vegas elementary school and a Kingsport, Tenn., middle school include hundreds of students. Queens University of Charlotte plans to launch a campuswide Red Boot meeting next year.

At this point, Barker’s goals are to raise money, keep training volunteers, keep launching chapters. The coalition has begun applying for grants and is planning a crowdsourcing campaign in hopes of raising $100,000 this fiscal year. Since most participants are volunteers, budget needs aren’t extensive – mostly travel and salaries for the executive director and, eventually, Barker. For now, the coalition is running on more than $15,000 Barker has loaned the project.

In three years, Barker hopes to have a $200,000 budget, chapters in 100 cities, elected officials using Red Boot precepts, CEOs folding Red Boot into corporate culture, even a Red Boot political candidate, someone whose focus goes beyond party politics. Barker says she herself has no political ambitions, at least not now.

To test whether practicing Red Boot steps can actually change people, the coalition also plans to develop an assessment that surveys participants on topics such as fear and community engagement.

Results are anecdotal. Makeda Pennycooke, a women’s empowerment coach and Red Boot board vice chair, credits the meetings, particularly the pledge to assume positive intent in others, for transforming how she engages with the world. She finds herself smiling and making eye contact. Instead of navigating around strangers, she says, she sees them as individuals sharing her world. “I just feel grounded in kindness in a way that I wasn’t before.”

The big question is whether Barker can attract participation on a national scale. Community engagement efforts tend to fizzle as participants weary, and they struggle to bring diverse groups to the table. Red Boot can’t offer the tangible results – exercise and a 5K race at the end – that you get with Girls on the Run.

Also, there’s that human nature problem: Some of us like our anger. We don’t want to lose our animosity toward political opponents.

Wendie Cummings, a Ferguson, Mo., teacher who trains Girls on the Run coaches, recently attended a Red Boot meeting with more than 40 people at Ferguson Middle School. Barker led it. Cummings loved it. But she’s unsure Red Boot can work. “I don’t know if we’re evolved enough,” she says.

“The problem,” says Emory University’s Abramowitz, “is as soon as you start talking about political issues, it falls apart.”

Barker acknowledges the challenges. She says she faced similar skepticism when she launched Girls on the Run, which started with 13 girls and has now served a million. “I’ve got the rest of my life to try,” she wrote in a text, “ what better way to go out!”

‘I am not angry’

With more than 8,000 followers on her personal and public figure Facebook pages, Barker often posts anecdotes and questions to promote her movement. In October, as news broke about another school shooting – this time at an Oregon community college – she did something very unusual for her: She took a political stand. “I am so tired of the claim ‘Guns don’t kill people, people do,’” she began, as she argued, in a measured tone, for more gun control.

“If you are one of the folks who is opposed to any dialogue on amending and altering our current gun laws PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE (I am begging you seriously) message me,” Barker wrote. Let’s get coffee and talk, she said. “I am not angry with you nor judge you. I am mostly confused.”

This might have been risky – to reveal a political opinion. But what followed in comments was something you don’t see often on social media: A divisive issue discussed in a thoughtful, respectful way.

Some commenters argued that gun control won’t work. Some called for America to adopt the laws that Canada and Australia have. Some decried the lack of resources to treat mental illness. There was anger and sadness, but no name calling. Most who posted had never attended a Red Boot meeting, but they seemed to be following Barker’s lead.

In the days after, as Barker talked with people on both sides of the gun debate, she realized her own feelings had evolved. Now she wasn’t certain where she stood on gun control, but she’d concluded the issue was really about feeling safe. “For some people, that means owning a gun. For others, it means getting rid of them.”

She plans to continue these conversations. She won’t be arguing a position. She’ll listen, and try to understand. That, she thinks, will be a good start.

Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271

Learn more:

Go to www.theredbootcoalition.org to learn more about the group, the 11 steps and meeting locations. Red Boot has three Charlotte chapters. The oldest has been meeting more than a year at Another Broken Egg restaurant on Sharon Road.

To start Red Boot in your community or learn how to lead meetings, email info@theredbootcoalition.org.