SouthPark Sit-down: Catching up with Molly Barker

Cuisine People

December 30, 2023

Finding peace at a slower pace

by Natalie Dick  |  photographs by Richard Israel

When Molly Barker walks into a room, people notice. She just has a way about her. Loved across the country for her unapologetic honesty and passion for helping others, Barker steps into the private dining room at Cafe Monte on this winter afternoon “dressed up” in slacks, a black sweater, and a pair of 10-year-old, well-worn Corral vintage cowboy boots. We’ve never met before, but it feels like we’ve known each other forever — like we’re old friends catching up. 

“I wasn’t sure what to wear,” she says as we hug. “I only have a few outfits now. I gave everything away before I moved to Texas.” (More on that later.)

She’s back in Charlotte now and eager to reconnect with her hometown community. The “new” Molly is at peace embracing the moment. “I want to slow the pace and be present for the people in my life,” she explains. “I’m not sure yet exactly how that will show up or what it looks like.” 

Slowing down doesn’t come naturally to the 63-year-old who is best known for creating Girls on the Run (GOTR), the national nonprofit organization that blends running with positive life skills lessons to empower young girls in 3rd through 8th grades. Begun at Charlotte Country Day School in 1996, GOTR has served more than 2.5 million girls with programs in all 50 states. Barker’s career and successes go well beyond the track. She earned a master’s degree in social work from UNC Chapel Hill, has authored four books, worked on Capitol Hill, and competed in four Hawaii Ironman competitions, all while raising (and successfully launching) two kids as a single mom.  

Molly Barker, left, and Cafe Monte’s mussels and frites with white wine, butter and tomato.

“It’s pretty exhausting,” she says with a laugh and then pauses to reflect before continuing. “I guess we need to be really honest — yeah? Part of the energy that I think I have lived with is what some people might call anxiety. One way to relieve that pent-up anxiety was to be doing all the time. I’ve been a doer, and I’ve been admired for being a doer, but it can be exhausting.” 

A combination of exhaustion and the desire for new challenges led Barker to leave her day-to-day role with GOTR in 2013. 

“As I got more involved, the ‘leader’ box began to wiggle its way back in. It was hard, but I felt like I had to go because I was beginning to feel restrained in my role there. It was also strange because I felt like I was nothing because I had defined my entire existence by my roles as a mother and as the founder of Girls on the Run. I think it was during that time that I began to feel the anxiety rather than work it out.”

So, Barker headed to Washington as one of 30 Americans selected by the Bipartisan Policy Center to serve on the Commission on Political Reform. The Commission’s job was to examine the country’s partisan political divide and then recommend reforms. 

“That was 2013, so clearly things have gotten worse. I came home very cynical and very disheartened and felt a little bit like a fraud,” Barker says. “I’d been telling little girls for my whole life that if you are just yourself and you are empathetic, you’ll go far — when that really isn’t the truth. The fact is this game is mean up here.” 

In typical Molly style, she felt compelled to do something — to get to the heart of all the discontent. Her solution was a solo cross-country trip talking to everyday people in their hometowns. 

“It was just random conversations with people in coffee shops. I came back and realized there were several things at play, and one of them was we just don’t know each other anymore. Race was a big part of it, too. It’s at the core of everything that we do in America, so I started the Red Boot Way, a curriculum to teach people how to listen to each other.” 

She named the program after a pair of red boots her daughter had given her for her 50th birthday. “The idea was to walk in someone else’s shoes — or in this case, boots — to get to the root of our divide.” Though Barker is no longer directly involved with the Red Boot Way, it’s still used by a wide range of organizations in workshops and retreats across the U.S. 

The Marfa awakening 

Ironically, the Red Boot Way would become the impetus for a life-changing decision, or as she calls it, her “awakening.” 

“I realized after starting the Red Boot Way that I was still feeling an obligation to fix things to make the world a better place. Because I had left GOTR, I felt this urgency to fill that void, and then I recognized these programs don’t need me to be successful. That’s when I high-tailed it to Texas,” laughs Barker.

Marfa, Texas, to be exact. A tiny, artsy town in the far western part of the state and a three-hour drive to any major city. 

“I literally looked at a map and said, I want to go to a place that’s not commercial. Then, I remembered a cowboy I met on a plane years earlier who told me about Marfa. Sight unseen, that’s where I headed.” 

She gave away everything she owned except for a handful of clothes and her dogs, determined to discover who she is and not what she had become known for. Her days in Texas were filled with meditation, contemplation and quietness. For five years, she painted, journaled, practiced yoga and took up cycling again. 

“Becoming minimal like that requires a minimalist approach toward everything — not just things, but how you fill your day. This rush, rush, rush — it all changes. There was no urgency. That’s when things began to really change.”  

From left: Artisanal cheeses, cured meats and pate; Cafe Monte’s house French onion soup, one of Barker’s favorite dishes; and escargot traditionnel baked in garlic butter and puff pastry.

She discovered the real meaning of peace and the importance of having the discipline to practice it. “I used to think peace was something I would feel when I got there, and I realize now that peace isn’t the goal; it’s the journey.” 

For all the things Barker cherished about Marfa, she missed her family and friends in Charlotte. At the end of a long bike ride this past summer, it suddenly hit her — it was time to return home. “It’s like a switch flipped and I just knew,” she says. “Community is so important to me. Marfa is a fantastic place with a great community — it’s just not my community.” 

These days Barker splits her time between writing, speaking engagements, and working with several organizations in the recovery realm, including Beyond Sober, Mission 34 and Vision Possible. She’s also heavily involved in grassroots programs around affordable housing and assisting those with housing insecurity. 

While it may seem like hyperbole to say that 2024 could be Barker’s most exciting year yet, it just might be. Her first grandchild is due in March (Barker will be called “Goggy,” like her mom was), and she just completed writing her memoir, which she describes as terrifyingly honest and exciting. In it, Barker chronicles the demons she fought in childhood and their lingering effects. 

“Growing up in an alcoholic home brought with it a lot of unknowns,” Barker recalls. “My mom struggled with substance-abuse disorder from the time I was born until I was 10 years old. My siblings were much older than me and out of the house by the time I was 6, which meant I had to navigate these unknown and terrifying circumstances on my own. When my mom got sober, it was the greatest gift. She became my best friend, and we began running together when I was 14, which led to my getting sober at 32. I’m still in the process of healing.” 

I asked her what the Molly of today would say to the Molly of years past. “In writing this memoir, I have developed a lot of compassion for that young woman who was really doing the best she could with the skill set she had,” she says. “And I would just say … I love you, and hang in there, you know? Which I did. This too shall pass.”  SP

Take five

Comments have been edited for length.

Why SouthPark?
It’s home. It’s my community. My family has such nostalgic memories of our time living just around the corner in Beverly Woods catching fireflies and walking to the Harris Y playground. 

Favorite restaurants and shops:
Cafe Monte, BrickTop’s, Hawthorne’s Pizza, and Barnes & Noble for coffee and sweets. 

Why Cafe Monte, and what are your favorite dishes? 
This is a special place because my kids grew up with [owner Monte Smith’s kids] and are close friends. My favorite dishes are always the mussels, the French onion soup and the wonderful salads.

Favorite grocery store: 
The Taj Ma-Teeter — that became like a family outing for us. 

What would you bring back? 
Earth Fare! I loved Earth Fare. We would shop and get our dinner and eat it there. As a single mom, I felt like [my kids] were eating something healthy.

Online extra: See more of Barker’s interview with Natalie, and learn which role Barker most identifies with, a tool she used to navigate tough times while raising her children, and more. 

WATCH NOW: Molly Barker Interview


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