Mary Ellen Whalen (née Blandford) is a native of Park Ridge, Illinois, a northwestern suburb of Chicago.
The oldest of three girls, Mary Ellen was raised in a family with strong religious convictions; her father was a former Benedictine monk who left the order in his late 30s in order to marry and have a family. He became a cabinetmaker and died in a workplace accident when Mary Ellen was 13.
“I’ve often wished I’d been old enough to ask him about his decision to leave the monastery,” she says. “That was in the 1950s, before Vatican II, and it must have been a hard thing to do. And although he remained very involved in the Church, I think I learned from him that it’s important to follow your own path, to live your life in the way you want to live it.”
Mary Ellen’s mother, who had been a teacher before her marriage, became the Religious Education director of her parish, responsible for teaching the catechism to about 800 public school children from Catholic families.
It was while attending Maine South High School (of Hillary Rodham Clinton fame) that Mary Ellen discovered theatre, where she played in Barefoot in the Park and Harvey and also worked backstage. She majored in English and theatre at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, performing with an avant-garde improvisational group in nearby minimum-security prisons and teaching the inmates to start their own socially-aware theatre ensembles.
When the group decided to go professional, Mary Ellen opted to continue in school and transferred to Columbia College in Chicago, where she could study with the founders of the Steppenwolf Theatre and audition for roles in Chicago’s theatre district. There she met and married Monte, a fellow actor, but found she did not enjoy the competitiveness of Chicago’s theatre lifestyle. “For me, theatre was always more about community and relationships and collaboration than it was about having the spotlight. I think I would have enjoyed being part of an ongoing company or ensemble, but I couldn’t stand competing with my friends for acting roles.”
She began to think of a career in teaching, and the couple looked for a place to settle that would offer both a thriving theatrical community doing the kind of experimental, “off-loop” productions Monte was interested in, and an affordable university education. They discovered Madison, Wisconsin, and moved there to establish residency.
Mary Ellen enlisted in VISTA, a social program (now part of AmeriCorps) that worked with communities to solve problems caused by poverty. She learned there to develop group programs for the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy and suicide and, in the process, gained a reputation in the adolescent services community for her work with teens. As a result, when her VISTA service ended, she was offered several jobs and split her time between managing the VISTA office in Madison and working in group homes with mentally-ill adults.
She eventually came to the attention of The Briar Patch, a non-profit organization serving adolescents and families that had started during the 1970s as a program for helping runaways. The organization asked her to develop a drama troupe as part of their peer-helper program, and in her three years there she became the Youth Programs Director, responsible for the activities of about 60 teens, many of them from troubled homes. Using funds from a state grant, her teen drama group performed at area high schools in open-ended skits designed to start discussions with students on topics such as drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, and suicide.
Mary Ellen had arranged for members of the drama group to take a weekend workshop when the leader became unavailable, and she was in need of a group facilitator. Two members of the group were the children of Cliff Barry, and they volunteered his services. Cliff was at that time running Accelerated Behavior Change (ABC) workshops with his wife, Wendy, and two other facilitators, and in 1991, Mary Ellen decided to attend an ABC weekend. “I was really drawn to the work they were doing,” she remembers, “though it terrified me at first. I sensed that it had something I was needing in my life.”
Mary Ellen had developed an ulcer working at The Briar Path and had been struggling for some time with the scope of her responsibility there. “For some of the kids there, I was both mother and father, and the burden had just became too great. Doing the ABC weekend just burst something open in me, and I gave notice at work the next day without knowing what I was going to do next. I’ve found that, although I may waver on a decision for a while, I can trust myself to make a move when the time is right. Once I get clear guidance, I have no trouble following what I know is true.”
She completed a six-month series of ABC weekend and evening programs and took a part-time administrative job with Cliff, and began learning his facilitation techniques. Cliff had just developed his four-quarter model, and as they began working together, Mary Ellen became his sounding-board for new ideas and processes. “What I bring to our partnership is the more practical, how-to side of things, while Cliff contributes the philosophical ideas. I’m good at the concrete, and I’m also good at seeing how we can teach a new idea to other people.” She and Monte had been finding themselves going in different directions, and they separated and later divorced.
In the fall of 1992, Mary Ellen joined Cliff’s company full-time, and the Emissaries organization gave them more than enough work running weekend seminars at Emissary communities around the world.
In the spring of 1994, Mary Ellen and Cliff were asked by Rich and Char Tosi to offer a facilitation training for group leaders in their respective organizations. Rich was one of the founders of the ManKind Project, which ran an initiation weekend Cliff had taken in 1988, and Rich’s wife, Char, a psychotherapist, had started a sister organization called Woman Within. “I had thought until then,” Mary Ellen says, smiling, “that ‘women’s work’ was for women who had trouble dealing with men, and since I didn’t put myself in that category, it hadn’t occurred to me to do a women’s initiation. And it never occurred to me that it could offer me insights into femininity! But I realized I couldn’t do a training for these women without seeing what their weekend was about.”
So in June of 1994, Mary Ellen did the Woman Within initiation. “It was one of the most profoundly transformational things I’ve ever done. It was powerful not only in psychological and emotional ways but also spiritually. It changed my life.” She staffed weekends for three years and became certified as a Woman Within facilitator. “I got so many wonderful things from my association with Woman Within, including connections with older women — with women elders — which is something I think the women in our culture really need. And I also learned that I was a good facilitator in my own right, which made it easier for me to work with a more experienced facilitator like Cliff.”
Together, she and Cliff developed basic and advanced facilitation trainings and a certification process, and also an advanced, four-day seminar for men and women called the Inner Sovereign, based on the Inner King Training that Cliff had helped create a few years earlier.
“Our collaboration has always been a very interwoven, creative process, developing ideas and refining them over time, so that it’s very hard to look at what we produced and say, ‘That part is mine,’ or ‘I contributed that.’ I had a major hand in creating the facilitation trainings and writing the manuals for them, as well as in developing our methods for creating the container on a seminar weekend and even how some of the processes are done.”
Mary Ellen lives in Brookeville, Maryland, with her husband and two step-children.
WHAT PEOPLE HAVE SAID ABOUT MARY ELLEN
“Mary Ellen is an extremely gifted master facilitator. One of the most alive and genuine people I know, she lives a rare combination of passion and compassion – and channels into her facilitating playfulness and wisdom!” “— Dr. Rod Newton, author, Living from Vi-sion
See also: Interview with Mary Ellen Wallen
See also: More About Cliff Barry.
See also: Background on Founder Cliff Barry.
For additional information on Mary Ellen, or to arrange an interview, please contact Shadow Work® Seminars at (303) 530-2840.