I met Red Boot Coalition Founder Molly Barker because of a viral Facebook post. In the post, Barker writes about her encounter with a Muslim man praying in the airport. In light of media coverage and political discussion about Muslims in the United States, Barker walked up to the man and asked if she could talk with him. She asked him about his faith, his life and his views. “What do you think about everything that’s happening in the world?” she asked.
“I have my opinions,” he said. “But if you got to know me you would know that I am just me. I am a good person. Human like everybody.”
In her post about the conversation, Barker writes, “I started crying...I don’t know why I just did. I wanted to embrace him but I didn’t. I just cried and it was okay, I think. ”
Barker’s work as founder of Girls on the Run International and now the Red Boot Coalition have focused on helping people see and experience this shared humanity in themselves and in others, as well as emphasize values of love, peace, trust, and openness.
Barker makes no bones about the fact that her drive toward empathy was borne of personal struggles with pain, suffering and darkness. She was an elite athlete throughout her life and had much to be happy about, but struggled with poor self-esteem, addiction, depression, and relationship difficulties. In 1993, at the age of 32, she hit rock bottom and became suicidal. She credits her sister for saving her life, calling her “my spiritual muse.” It was during a run the next day that she said she had an epiphany.
“I became aware of my NO-thing-ness,” she says. “I realized I had been allowing words, labels, and societal standards to define my essence, my soul. I realized I am not woman, white, an addict…I am just me. I am indefinable.” It was from that point on that she embarked on a journey of personal healing and growth.
After a few years, in 1996, she combined this newfound wisdom with her passion for running and started Girls on the Run, a nonprofit aimed at helping give young girls the same lesson or “essence” as she described it. She wanted to help girls integrate mind, body, spiritual, and emotional health into a positive whole self and identity. She started the first chapter in Charlotte, and 20 years later, this organization has grown into a nationwide movement, serving over 200,000 girls a year, and recently graduating their millionth child. Barker retired from Girls on the Run in 2013, but her vision and the organization continue to serve generations of girls everyday. “I still have kids and parents come up to me all the time,” she says.
After retiring, she was asked to serve on a federal commission aimed at exploring ways to get political leaders to collaborate. She describes the experience as challenging, and she became discouraged and cynical by the polarization she witnessed and the tendency for people to focus on differences over similarities and common goals. So, she embarked on a journey. She rented a car, put on her red cowboy boots (literally), and drove cross-country from Charlotte to Las Vegas by herself. Along the way, she stopped in restaurants and coffee shops and struck up conversations with strangers, asking them about their views on issues and the current the polarized state of the country. She just listened and learned.
“I only had a couple people turn me down,” she says. It was through this experience that she had another “epiphany” and discovered this “no-thing-ness” in others, seeing past the labels and surface level differences into their core humanity. “It becomes difficult to hate when you humanize another person. I learned everyone just wants to be heard and seen as human. We all want to matter.”
It was from this experience that she decided to help others discover this same lesson. She came home and wrote down the primary themes and lessons she learned, in what would become the “11 steps” of the Red Boot Coalition (The “Red Boot” name is an ode to her red cowboy boots, which she used as a conversation starter on her trip). These 11 steps highlight values and aspirations that transcend people groups and differences. For example, the first “step” states,
“We came to see that, despite sometimes feeling helpless, angry and even apathetic about the current course of human events, we each play an essential role in our communities, our families, and our lives. We matter.”
Molly started her first Red Boot meeting in October 2014. During these meetings, people from all backgrounds voluntarily get together to discuss these values in a safe, open, and validating environment. Each meeting focuses on one “step,” and people share their thoughts and personal connection with each step. For example, when discussing the first step noted above, each person may be asked to answer the question, “Why do you matter?” There is no right or wrong answer and people don’t respond or critique anyone’s answer. They just listen. There are in fact rules and guidelines aimed to keep the environment safe and positive for people to share. There is no cross-talk, criticism, responding to any one person’s answer, or monopolizing the conversation allowed. Each person shares (as they desire), and everyone else listens. It’s that simple.
But what happens over time and as a result of this process is profound. People learn to discover themselves and others in a different way. They learn to tolerate, love, connect, trust, listen, share, and see, truly see, others and the common humanity in us all. “When you build trust and connection, all the things you’re mad about go away. You create a community where people thrive. The joy I get when I see people connecting is indescribable, “ Barker says.
She admits that bringing people together in these ways isn’t without its challenges. “The work we are doing is necessary, but it can be scary and messy,” she says. “People have anger.”
When faced with this type of anger or negative feedback from others, she says, “I ask myself, What am I going to stand for? What am I going to love?” She explains that by “starting from a place of love” and seeking understanding, it’s easier to get beneath the anger and hurt that is so often polarizing among people.
She hopes that the Red Boot Coalition (RBC) is a place where people can work out that anger in a constructive way and build bridges. Her vision is to create a greater sense of community all across the world, where people can be in better communion with others in all aspects of life, whether it be work, school, or their most intimate relationships.
I asked Molly why she cares so much. “I ask myself that a lot,” she joked, but then responded. “Everything I’ve done is about peeling away the layers of ‘stuff’ of negativity and labels and get down to the core humanity. When I am fully present in this process and with others, it helps me connect with my divine. This is my purpose, my greater self.”
In two years, the Red Boot Coalition has grown significantly. There are groups meeting in schools and communities all over the country. Barker is seeing a profound change and impact. By practicing the steps, people begin to internalize the steps and incorporate the values into their lives and relationships.
“These meetings help people generate hope. I see fearlessness in how they engage in difficult conversations in their life. They have a greater sense of peace, they are happier, more content, have less anger and hate, and they feel like they’re doing their part to make this world a better place,” Barker says. “For me, listening, truly listening to another human being is a way to dignify their humanity. For me, this is love.”
Thank you, Molly Barker, for your story, your passion, your vision, and the work you are doing to make our Charlotte community and this world a better place.
If you would like to learn more information about the Red Boot Coalition and how you can get involved, please visit http://theredbootcoalition.org.