Breaking out of the 'Girl Box:' For 'Girls on the Run' founder Molly Barker, less 'me vs. them' thinking in helping girls realize their true worth
By Lou Fancher Correspondent
Girls on the Run International founder Molly Barker punched a hole in conventional expectations by thinking inside the box -- specifically, inside the "Girl Box," the rigid, confining societal push that turns awesome 6-year-olds into eerie, dismal adolescent female shadows of their former selves.
Two weeks before her Sept. 24 visit as the second speaker in the inaugural season of the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay Speaker Series at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts, Barker spoke from her home in Charlotte, N.C.
"I'm a storyteller. Alone, I am only a representative or symbol of the voices. I just wanted to impact 13 girls and then all these people stepped up to the plate and made it happen," she said.
Girls on the Run is a national movement serving almost 200 cities in North America. More than 150,000 girls and women participate each year in the nonprofit's self-improvement, be-healthy, realize-your-power program centered on running. For girls in the Bay Area, joining is as easy as finding a local Girls on the Run council (there are several in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties), paying the 10-week after-school or Saturday morning program's $225 fee (there are scholarships and grants for underserved communities that bring the cost down to $5-10 per child) and having fun with the coaches, many of whom are Girls on the Run "graduates."
Barker's journey to reach her woman warrior potential was far more arduous. The four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete was once an alcoholic who ran -- literally and emotionally -- to erase the inner voice telling her she was worth less. Not "worthless," but certainly a negative framing she says begins, for girls, in adolescence.
"Girls and women across the nation engage in powerful, negative self-talk," Barker said. "Those messages live in us like an internal germ."
Initially, Girls on the Run was a tool for young girls -- until Barker realized middle school girls running head-on into low self-image issues could benefit from a similar program. "Girls on Track" offers race training while addressing eating disorders, tobacco and alcohol use, and the Internet. And a Junior Coaching program completes the circle with high school girls trained to deliver Girls on the Run coaching.
"I knew, deep down, this would be big," Barker said, about the original idea that popped into her head in 1996. "I could feel it in the quiet spaces. Now, I marvel at its growth. The most surprising thing is how much we as a culture yearn for an opportunity to be authentic."
At 52, Barker said she has changed, and that has changed the organization. She is the "mama bear" of two children, divorced and less prone to her former black-and-white thinking. "Either you were buying into the media, or you were on my side, protecting these girls," she remembered thinking. "Now, there's peace brought to the girls."
The message she'll bring to East Bay audiences isn't only intended to be heard by girls and women. "All of us lose if we conform to the 'Girl Box,' " she insisted. One place to start getting the message to boys and men is with the dads. Barker said fathers participate in the 5Ks, and the sooner young children of both genders are brought into the dialogue, the sooner misrepresentation will diminish.
Listening to Barker, it was clear she was "in the box" again. So it wasn't surprising when she introduced details of an upcoming program, "Running Mate USA." Seeking to change the definition of leadership, her latest "light bulb pop" will pair teams of five fourth-grade boys and girls with Congressional members. The adult representatives with facilitate their young charges through leadership training, reflective debate, engaged listening instruction ... and, of course, running. Expecting the program to launch in February 2014, Barker said the kids will be flown to Washington DC to run with their representatives in a culminating event intended to bring attention to the powerful voices of today's youth.
A footnote -- Barker was honored in July by President Barack Obama and former President George H.W. Bush as a "Daily Point of Light." This is a sign the nation's capital is already paying attention. But to Barker, remembering the honor provides a moment to deflect and reflect.
"I received that award because of thousands of Girls on the Run volunteers. I think hard about my responsibility to be human, but I don't feel I'm in charge. I just lead a movement with my heart and my gut."