For the last 12 years, The Bronx has been named one of the unhealthiest counties in the state of New York, and last year it rated number 62 out of all 62 counties based on socio-economic and lifestyle conditions. In response, Maurelhena Walles, a New York City resident and former professional athlete, decided to help the young people from her local neighborhood get healthy. She began working with schools in the area, and found it wasn’t just children who needed encouragement to get involved in physical activity – adults needed help, too.
I started Equity Design in 2019, in response to the lack of strategic and sustainable programs available to help Bronx communities get healthy. When I showed up to schools, the kids just weren’t engaged in the typical physical activities like basketball and soccer. I had to say to teachers, “Are you asking the kids what they want to do?”
Our purpose is to empower. At some schools we might connect with them once a month, but sometimes it’s five days a week. We offer support as often as is needed. We work with the school’s leadership to come up with their own School Wellness Council, which outlines the policies and what physical education and nutrition look like day-to-day. We ask guiding questions and offer observations to help them plan what the next five years might look like. The idea is to empower teachers, and then take a step back, so they can continue that connection with the children for years to come.
While I initially aimed to work with just kids, I soon realized the teachers didn’t have a healthy relationship with physical activity. They would tell me, “I’m only doing this to lose weight” or “I was bullied when I was a kid and I want to appear strong”. It seemed no one wanted to exercise to be healthy. So, I made the decision to work with the educators first – and help them develop a love for physical activity. At one of our schools, some of the teachers had pre-existing health conditions, so we trained them in effective low-impact physical activities, such as walking, so they could then be comfortable in designing programs for the kids.
When we ask a Bronx principal to dream big, we first have to identify barriers. For example, one school we worked with recently said they wanted to take part in our program, but only had two working water fountains for 300 students. Before we could think about getting them physically active, we needed to get them access to more water. We’re not solely in the business of getting people moving, but also making physical activity more accessible.
We are fortunate to have coaches and individuals that believe in our mission of equity in sport. Our team is built around Kelton Cumberbatch, who I have trained with on the track for a number of years. He’s a PE teacher and watching him grow into a strategist has been amazing. Our team members, Taleek Norman, and Chris Morson, live in the Bronx and both started off with just a love for fitness – and are now certified in their respective areas to run their own PE and fitness classes. It’s humbling to see these people, who have their own family and lives going on, still wanting to help their community.
The next step is to invite more corporations to join us in getting the Bronx healthy. Through sustainable activities like building walking paths or putting up artwork, we can get the community involved. It’s time to rewrite the narrative away from all the things that aren’t happening in the Bronx, to all the things that are happening in the Bronx.
Find out more about Equity Design.