Why I Became a Rolfer® - Marekah Stewart

Some would say they have lived a charmed life. I would say I have lived a blessed life. In my wildest dreams, I would never have thought I would become a Rolfer, much less even hear the word Rolfing. I was born in the mid-1940s, and I grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio. My hometown of 10,000 people was the county seat for the surrounding farming communities. 90 miles to the west was Detroit, and 90 miles to the east was Cleveland. The racial makeup of our community was predominantly White, with less than one hundred Black and Hispanic households. Other than farming, blue-collar employment (two major factories, construction, and hospital work) were the main sources of income. Businesses and professional positions were exclusively white-owned or operated, further deepening both the racial and economic divide.

Race relations were cordial but everyone lived with underlying, covert racial bias. For example, people of color knew where they were or were not welcome. There was no discussion needed to amplify this point. If you were a person of color, there were parts of town you simply did not frequent. Since it was a small community with one elementary school on each side of town, one junior and one senior high school, there was very little socializing among the racial groups outside of school. And High School guidance counselors did not encourage students of color to excel past high school. There was the quiet presumption that blue-collar jobs or trade schools were more an option than University or college. Unless of course, students were good athletes and might get an athletic scholarship. I was one of two students of color who were encouraged to take Advanced Placement classes at my high school.

My parents were hard-working blue-collar workers. They taught my siblings and me the value of hard work, along with core values, like respecting your elders and acting with appropriate manners. My mother completed high school and cosmetology school - neither achievement a given for a woman of color, at that time. She eventually worked in a factory during the war (WWII) making parts for army tanks and later automobile parts. My father did not complete high school but went on to serve in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he worked on construction projects as a brick mason. Because their education was limited, they ingrained in my siblings and me a real respect for the importance of education. I played clarinet in the high school marching and concert bands. As a way to participate in the band, my parents paid for private music lessons.

They also paid for majorette lessons for my sister, who later became the first and only Black majorette in our high school. My brother played high school football, and he also loved to sing. He had a beautiful voice and sang in the high school Acappella choir. He went on to graduate from the Police Academy and became police chief in a small town in OH. He was a respected well-liked community member, yet he experienced on-the-job racism. My sister graduated from both college and culinary school. She later became a pastry chef at an exclusive patisserie on the east coast. It was, and is clear to me, the care, discipline, and encouragement of the love-filled home our parents provided were the necessities we needed to thrive.

I realized early in life, I wanted to help people. My mom‘s second sister was my role model. Despite limited education, she progressed from working as a domestic, then a nurse‘s aid at our local hospital, to eventually becoming an LPN. She recognized my spirit to be a helper, and while I was in high school she referred me to the hospital‘s Candy Striper program, a volunteer program for girls interested in becoming a nurse. After 2 years in the volunteer program, I graduated from high school and entered nursing school.

After almost 2 years of working as a nurse in my hometown, I realized I needed to experience more than small-town Ohio. During the early 1960s, President Kennedy started the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). In one of his speeches, he said Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". This really spoke to me, giving me even more incentive to act. I did the VISTA training and became a volunteer. I served for 2 years, the first year working on a mental health team at Denver General Hospital, now Denver Health. We lived and worked in project housing, as many of our patients lived in these communities.

The second year, I relocated to south-central Los Angeles (Watts). My time in Watts was a wonderful learning experience. I began my VISTA service just months after the second Watts riots, working for a community agency whose focus was community organization. Services such as a grocery store and public transportation were non-existent. It was a time of civil and racial unrest, but it was also a time of increasing Black pride. There was a spirit of activism that sought to heal a wounded past, which needed to be acknowledged and respected, regardless of one‘s color. One of the more rewarding responsibilities during that time was creating an interracial discussion group for teens from nearby White and Black communities.

Within the group, structure and guidance were critical because of fears, misconceptions, mistrust, and lack of knowledge of the other predominated. Discussions were often heated but the friction created growth and a new, shared understanding about painful issues - that healing was needed and, good. Both groups began to recognize the humanity of the other. Those two years opened my being, as to how it felt to live among people who looked like me, people who were proud to be Brown or Black, people who despite the "system" held their heads high. These were people who needed a hand-up, not a handout. It was a time of Black pride, the civil rights movement, the women's movement - and a genuine time of possibility for change.

I returned to nursing after completing my VISTA service. Over time, I began to experience low back, shoulder, and neck discomfort, which was becoming chronic. I had never heard of Rolfing prior to a friend mentioning his experience working with Emmett Hutchins. He encouraged me to contact Emmett, which I eventually did. After the 5th session, I began to feel far less back discomfort, and for the first time, I felt more freedom in my pelvic girdle, as well as a sense of length throughout my body, a connection top to bottom. As my body changed, so did my awareness of the differences between allopathic and wholistic approaches to treatment. Rolfing as a wholistic model of recognizing connections throughout the body, and how the change in one part affects change throughout, was a new concept for me. Treating the whole, not just treating a part or a symptom with invasive procedures or medication, made total sense to me.

I moved back to Colorado in 1973, about a year after Emmett, Richard Stenstadvold, and Peter Melchior. By this time I had left my nursing career, but I didn‘t know what was next. For a few years, I worked for several large insurance companies as a medical claims examiner, but I knew that was not my calling. I continued to receive Rolfing, mainly as a model in the Rolfing classes, because of my limited financial situation. Richard Stenstadvold, who was the Director of the Rolf Institute, offered me a job working in the office along with him and Anna Hyder, who was the Director of Admissions. During that time I studied Jin Shin Jyutsu with Mary Burmeister. Later, while working in the office of the Institute, Peter began encouraging me to do the training.

Being a Rolfer had never crossed my mind. I witnessed the emotional and mental upheaval students experienced, the worries and doubts about their ability to do the "work", etc. My feeling was, why would I put myself through all of that. Peter continued to encourage me, and I eventually remembered something a psychic in Los Angeles told me. She said I would be involved in Rolfing in some way, and I would travel far more than I would ever have expected. She also said I had to get in touch with my own pain before I could work with others' pain. At the time I held a fair amount of anger and fear and was questioning my next steps.

While working at the Rolf Institute, I went into therapy, and I eventually began working on the prerequisites to become a student - massage school, refresher courses in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. I later submitted the written paper, which had to be read and approved, before being invited to appear before the Selection Committee. I was accepted into the Rolf training and completed my certification in 1983, at the age of 39. At the time, I was only the second Black to be certified as a Rolfer. Toby was certified about a year before me but died in an automobile accident 2 years later. I was the first and only Black female Rolfer for more than the next 25 years.

Less than two years into my career, I had the opportunity to Rolf a Danish woman who was a guest instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. When she returned home, she wrote an article for their major newspaper. The article was about Boulder and Rolfing. At the time, there wasn't a Rolfer in Copenhagen, and only 2 in the entire country. The response from the newspaper article was so great, she invited me to come.

She arranged for my housing, a place to work, and the contact list of people who were interested in being Rolfed. The openness of the people and their desire to participate in wholistic modalities was very refreshing. The year in Denmark was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I had never been to Europe, didn't speak Danish (all of my clients spoke English), and I had to learn how to navigate my way. What an intense way of learning about the work physically and emotionally, especially being so far away from my teachers and support system. Also, for the first time, I lived in a place where enslaved Black people were not a part of the country‘s history. People were curious about who I was, where I was from, and often engaged me in conversation, even people I met on the street. I never felt endangered or felt the other indignities of racial profiling.

In 1986, after my return to the United States, I moved to Denver. I had the great opportunity to complete my Advanced Rolfing training in a class co-taught by Emmett and Peter. I truly regret never having studied with Jan Sultan. Through the Guild for Structural Integration, I was given the opportunity to be an Assistant Instructor to both Emmett and Peter. I taught continuing education classes with Emmett, and basic classes with Peter, one of which was in Tel Aviv, Israel. It was a gift to work with two teachers whose approach to Rolfing was slightly different, yet compatible. They enjoyed trading work, as well as teaching together.

Rolfing helped me remember that change is inevitable, and we are not in control of our client's processes. I learned to listen, to remember their bodies as well as their stories, their humanness. My clientele was 90% White, wealthy to lower middle class. My clients of Color were mostly younger, upwardly mobile career people. There was always a plan for someone who couldn't pay. We worked out trades or found other ways for them to give back. I created lower rates for seniors and children. It was never about a handout, but a hand up, which I was given throughout my life. My one regret during my Rolfing career is that I didn't bring someone of Color along with me, to know the joy of being a Rolfer.

People of Color are going to feel more comfortable being vulnerable with someone who looks like them. There‘s a cellular knowledge of where we come from, shared experiences, shared history, rooted in ancestral memory. There are also structural differences due to culture. How does a Rolfer recognize and work with those differences? S.I. students, as well as faculty, must be willing to learn and see beyond the Eurocentric model.

My experience as a Black Rolfer has at times been both incredible and challenging. Sometimes when meeting for the first time, the surprise on White faces took the form of their eyes widening or they questioned if they were at the right address, because we had only spoken on the phone and I didn't sound "Black". I will ALWAYS appreciate the one White client who greeted me with "You're Black!". She spoke the words others couldn't. She saw me and without judgment. In some sessions, in order to maintain a safe space, I had to endure the micro-aggressions and implicit bias of well-meaning people - "you're well-spoken"; "you're a credit to your race"; I don‘t see color, etc. I had to file away these biases, along with similar past experiences, and do the work. This takes a lot of mental/emotional energy, and it‘s exhausting.

The incredible parts of being a Rolfer has been the wonderful people with whom I was blessed to share this work. The joy in seeing someone leave their session feeling better than when they walked in; the ongoing changes not only in their bodies, but in their lives as well - this was my payment, and my joy. I often feel I came into Rolfing to be a bridge, between races and cultures, and to help establish a foundation from which to move forward - for my clients and myself.

Due to a prior health concern, and COVID-19, I officially closed my Rolfing and Jin Shin Jyutsu practice in June 2020. I am blessed to have had a 37-year Rolfing career, during which I had so many wonderful opportunities. The people with whom I shared time were the best. Teaching (which is always a part of sessions), and opportunities to travel with this magnificent work, was incredible. I now serve on DIRI's Diversity and Anti-Racism Committee. I was also a panel member for a presentation addressing "White Privilege and Racial Bias Within Structural Integration", for IASI's March 2021 virtual symposium.

It now appears the direction of my work has broadened, with more emphasis on equality and inclusion within, and outside of Structural Integration. I am living a blessed life, with a partner of 28 years and I am excited to see where my next adventures will take me.