Molly Barker of Charlotte, N.C, founder of the international organization Girls on the Run, received her first honorary degree from Converse College, a women’s college located in Spartanburg, S.C., during the college’s commencement exercises on May 12, 2012. Barker also served as commencement speaker.
“We can…create a heaven right here on earth, where all of us– every last one of us– can feel safe and at peace simply being ourselves.”
Barker was selected for the Doctor of Humane Letters (L.D.H.) because of her extraordinary achievement and contributions in the social sciences, philanthropic work, and human welfare. “Converse’s mission is to develop engaged leaders who think critically and creatively and effect positive change in the world. As a creative leader who is on the vanguard of social entrepreneurship, Molly Barker is an exemplary role model for our graduates,” said Converse President Betsy Fleming. “Her leadership in launching and implementing both Girls on the Run has positively impacted the lives of countless girls and women across the United States.”
Barker has been nationally recognized for innovative, cutting-edge work as a social entrepreneur. A four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, she combines her expertise in social work, counseling and teaching, along with research on adolescent issues, in a variety of social media and curriculum-driven projects designed to break the barriers of social stereotypes that limit girls and women. This social movement provides them with the tools and the courage to recognize and unravel their own, often unconscious, confinement by the “Girl Box” and its limiting messages.
The “Girl Box,” a phrase coined by Barker, describes a place where many girls go around adolescence, when they begin to morph into what they think they should be instead of being who they really are, and where cultural and societal stereotypes limit their choices and opportunities. The messages of the “Girl Box” vary, but the overarching theme is rooted in the societal belief that girls and women must conform to a set of physical and behavioral standards that are often unattainable and dangerous to their health and well-being.
“I am thrilled to receive this honorary degree from Converse College,” Barker said. “My personal mission as well as the mission of the organization I founded, Girls on the Run, is in complete alignment with the mission of Converse College: empowering girls and women as well as cultivating an environment where all can know and activate their greatest potential. I am overwhelmingly humbled and grateful to receive this distinguished honor.”
In addressing the Class of 2012, Barker shared personal reflections on what motivates her work. “Heaven rests in me and you and the brilliance of our own lives…We can unabashedly and with intense joy choose to honor this human experience by using our physical selves, our senses, our words, our thoughts and our actions to, as children do so freely, create a heaven right here on earth, where all of us – every last one of us – can feel safe and at peace simply being ourselves,” she said, continuing, “The world I live in begins with me. I guess today is as good a day as any to begin.”
Molly Barker founded Girls on the Run (www.girlsontherun.org) in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C. This pioneering program for 8 to 12 year-old girls brings together training for a five kilometer event with life-changing, confidence building lessons aimed to enhance both their physical and mental health. Today, there are Girls on the Run councils in more than 190 cities across North America, including Converse College’s hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., serving over 150,000 girls and women each year. The organization has been featured widely in the media including People, Runner’s World, Redbook, Women’s Day, O Magazine, Self, Shape, Southern Living, Running Times, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, NBC News, NPR, ESPN and Forbes. The organization’s current president, Elizabeth Kunz, praised Barker’s award, commenting, “Molly is an inspiration to girls and young women across the nation. We are delighted that Converse College is recognizing her life’s work in such a meaningful way.”
Barker is the recipient of several prestigious national awards including Redbook magazine’s “Strength and Spirit Award,” which recognizes individuals who are building a better future for all of us; the “Woman’s Day Award” from Woman’s Day magazine, which salutes individuals who have used their vision and heart to help fix pressing problems; the prestigious “Heroes of Running Award” from Runner’s World magazine; and CNN’s “Breakthrough Woman Award.” She has also received the “Distinguished Alumni Award” from her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and the City of Charlotte’s “Woman of the Year Award.” She is a lifetime fellow of Ashoka, a global organization that recognizes and supports leading social entrepreneurs who are creating positive systemic change to the planet.
Barker earned a BA degree in chemistry in 1982 and a Master’s degree in social work in 1989, both from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Prior to founding Girls on the Run®, she worked in the fields of education and counseling, serving as a high school chemistry and physics teacher, and a therapist/counselor for Davidson College, Catawba Family Center and Substance Abuse Prevention Services in Charlotte. Ms. Barker is the author of two books, Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect (2004) and Girls Lit from Within (2006) which is specifically for third through eighth grade girls.