Molly Barker, creator of Girls on the Run, has kickstarted a national phenomenon with the empowering organization — a program that encourages girls to step out of their “girl box" and live bigger than the set of neatly packaged social implications associated with being a girl. Now in its 20th year, the program has assisted hundreds of thousands of girls in achieving a personal goal of finishing a 5K run and “preparing girls for a lifetime of respect and healthy living.”
“I enjoy being witness to that moment when a little girl realizes that she’s about to cross the 5K finish line," Barker said. "And that moment when she goes, 'Wow, if I can do this, what else can I do?'"
In a world full of obstacles and increasingly unrealistic standards of beauty and perfection, young girls are confronted with confusing expectations of girl- and womanhood.
“Life is going to toss them all sorts of curves and ups and downs, and they really do have the strength and the skill sets and the power to figure it out," Barker said. "And I hope that Girls on the Run gives them the tools to recognize that they have the skills sets, the courage and the power to figure it out.”
It took a lot of hard work and dedication across many parties to make Girls on the Run as successful as it is today. In 1996, many thought that the program was promoting abnormal female behavior.
“People find this hard to believe, but a lot of people were frightened with what I was doing," Barker said. "Thinking that somehow I was converting girls into boys, or just trying to make them something they're not. And we were seen as kind of masculine.”
Now retired from Girls on the Run, Barker decided to create another initiative, the Red Boot Coalition, to promote compassionate listening and leadership regarding experiences outside of one’s own.
“What Red Boot is doing is helping people get out of the leader box," Barker said. "So it's redefining leadership and allowing people to become the leader of their own lives and define what leadership looks like to them.”
Instead of running away from personal struggles, Barker faces them head on, seeking ways to help others who are also struggling with similar obstacles.
“I look for the central theme to that struggle, because we all struggle with something," Barker said. "So I like to get to the core, like what’s the thing down at the bottom that we all struggle with. And it's usually around fitting in or wanting to know that we matter.”
Barker identifies with the strong desire for human connection in a world full of interactions through a screen.
“I think (what) we all are seeking in this currently hyper-polarized climate is connection," she said. "And to just connect with another human being face to face and to look at each other and go, 'I appreciate you. You matter to me.'”