Get With the Program

IT’S A WINDY SATURDAY in mid-March, and I’m one of 16 people between the ages of about 25 and 70 who have gathered at the Baraka Institute: Leadership Development and Coach Training Center in Northeast Portland, founded five years ago by Feroshia Knight. Baraka is one of two large, well-established coach-training institutes in Portland. (The other, The Centre: A School for Professional and Personal Development, which was founded in 2001, is licensed through the Oregon Department of Education, and teaches coaching classes through Portland State University’s continuing education program.)

After we remove our street shoes, Knight, who wears her flame-colored hair in an asymmetrical wedge, leads us in some morning stretches. The students are all here to become life coaches, and they’ve each paid $3,795 for the Whole Person Design Life Coach Certification Program, which runs one weekend per month for six months. This is only their second meeting, but already, the students compliment Knight on the previous evening’s classes. One woman says, “I already feel more perceptive.”

Should the students complete the training, which involves working through a 350-page course book put together by Knight, they will be eligible, after 100 hours of work as a life coach, to take an oral coaching exam administered over the phone by the ICF. If successful, they will be credentialed as ICF-sanctioned coaches who can then place acronyms after their names (ACC for Associate Certified Coach, PCC for Professional Certified Coach, and MCC for Master Certified Coach). While Knight acknowledges that such credentials aren’t necessary to become a coach, she believes an ICF designation signals credibility in a profession that is largely unregulated.

‘If people view life coaching as an opportunity to make money, it rarely works for them.’

For the day’s first exercise, called “Body Mapping Potential Questions,” Knight divides the class into pairs. My partner, Marie Daniels, a 40-year-old teacher at a local alternative high school, outlines my body with a marker on a giant piece of paper; I do the same for her. We’re instructed to write or draw the thoughts that come to mind regarding our physical well-being, our spiritual well-being, and our financial well-being onto these “body maps.” Some participants draw teardrops falling from their eyes; several depict angels dancing around their heads.

We move on to “mind-mapping graphs,” which are more blank pieces of paper onto which we draw blobs—blobs in which we write our goals, the steps we’ll take to achieve them, any negatives holding us back, and what the positive outcomes will be. We are each given 40 minutes to complete the exercise, with our partner asking questions to help us figure out what we need to do in order to get where we want to go.

Though we met only an hour before, already Daniels is sharing with me intimate details of her life—the dreams that have not yet worked out, the failed marriage. I do the same, revealing my desire to finish a book I’ve been working on for what feels like a century. Although I am suspect of self-empowerment tools in the form of games, I wind up finding the graph helpful in determining what’s deterring me from getting my book done. “You’re really almost there,” Daniels says. “I think you should fold this up and stick it under your computer.” I wind up doing just that.

We are less successful with Daniels’s graph, unable to distinguish her goals from the steps she might take to achieve them, due in part, no doubt, to my poor coaching skills. We do at least suss out that she’s interested in coaching so she can “deepen her commitment to working with kids and people,” and that if she makes a million dollars, it will be in order to “bring peace to the world and help people develop themselves.”

We join the others in the studio. Knight opens up the class for questions, and several people ask how soon they’ll be able to start making money as coaches—because, as it turns out, many of them really need to start soon. A large woman in a macramé skullcap mentions, twice, that she is not currently employed; another talks about health issues that preclude her working many hours. Regarding his graph, which indicates that he wants to take a three-week trip to India within two years, a young man wants to know how to break it to his clients that he won’t be around to coach them—meaning clients for a coaching business that doesn’t yet exist. Also, he is concerned about who will watch his dog while he’s away. These are practical questions, Knight and her students agree, and coaching is nothing if not practical.

During the break, I ask Knight how many Baraka graduates have made a successful go of coaching. “Maybe 25 to 30 percent have been successful,” she answers. “They can go into the profession and focus on coaching, and they can be the greatest coaches in the world, but if they don’t know how to market themselves, they can’t make it.”