The Bronx ranks 62nd in factors such as obesity, smoking, and mental health, making it both the poorest and unhealthiest county in the state of New York. Someone growing up across the Harlem River in Manhattan will live, on average, 7 years longer than their Bronx counterpart.
This stubborn health disparity is why Maurelhena Walles, an internationally-ranked track and field athlete with seven years of experience as executive director at youth physical fitness program Fit 4 Life NYC, founded Equity Design in December 2019. Structured as a social enterprise, the business helps schools and community organizations implement physical activity programming to close the gap between health and wealth in neighborhoods with the highest health disparities.
“I really fell in love with my personal mission of being active and making sure that underserved communities had access to resources to create a healthy lifestyle,” says Walles, who grew up in Manhattan herself.
The Bronx seemed like a natural place to start given the severity of the problem and the personal connection. To address the problem, Equity Design stakes its fortune on using many sources of data to drive its decisions. This starts by analyzing how Bronx residents move and want to move. “We take that [decision] away from kids, and residents ... we assume that they want that sports club, or all women want Zumba,” Walles explains. To her, equity means making sure everyone has a say so that programs can be designed effectively.
To better understand the health disparities in the Bronx, Equity Design synthesizes multiple data sources, including: the NYC Community Health Profiles Map Atlas, which helps her understand the health inequities faced by each Bronx neighborhood; the CDC’s recommendations regarding physical activity guidelines; and research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that illustrates health disparities across the United States.
“We marry the research with needs assessments and surveys for the organizations we partner with, as well as the residents who will be participating in the physical activity program,” says Walles. Equity Design then applies that data to design the best possible experience for the community. That includes specific community fitness programming, community health initiatives, physical education, training, workshops, and after school programming.
Most recently, Equity Design started working with a community health organization that specifically targeted the South Bronx. Walles conducted a survey for the area that found that 100% of respondents faced one or more health disparities, ranging from food security to high blood pressure. She also conducted a separate focus group in which South Bronx residents openly shared why they were not motivated to work out.
“What we found was that residents did want to work out, but they were more included to workout with people they know and who share the same health disparities they did,” says Walles. “This helped us design a framework for a community fitness program in partnership with a faith-based organization, and a non-competitive community 5K and fitness fair where residents could walk, run, jog, and have the opportunity to connect with local health organizations.”
Right now, COVID-19 may have dashed any hopes for in-person programming, but Walles has taken this opportunity to work overtime on data collection. “One of the things we are doing right now is putting together a survey that is able to ask residents and community organizations and district leaders how physical activity looked pre-COVID, and how it looks during COVID, and based on that information, we can work with them on how to design virtual physical activity learning experiences,” Walles says.
The Great Pause has also allowed Walles to dedicate more time to learning from other entrepreneurs. “I did the Girl Boss NYC Digital Business Incubator for 6-7 weeks, and that was really helpful,” she says. “The program gave us a safe space to share our accomplishments and challenges, and during our class sessions we were introduced to successful women entrepreneurs who gave us sound advice on everything from financial resources to social media. I walked away knowing how to use my voice through my business to create the change our communities need.”
The Bronx has ranked 62nd for nearly a decade, so Walles’ biggest hope is to use the next ten years to improve health outcomes by at least 10% and change the community’s health trajectory through exercise.
“My biggest ‘why’ is looking at the role that physical activity has played in my life, on and off the track,” adds Walles. “Being able to go to college, to represent the U.S., to continue to use my athleticism, be healthy and to promote it with an underserved community. That's my biggest drive.”
Girl Boss NYC is a digital business incubator and professional women's network created to promote and increase entrepreneurship among women of color in the greater NYC area. Click here to learn more.