When Marilee Herring decided to go back to back to school at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts after years in the workforce, she expected to be taking a break from social activism.
“I knew that once I graduated college, I wanted to be involved in a community organization again,” she recently told the News over the phone. “It just didn’t seem realistic while I was in school.” Herring was in class all day, working at night, and staying up late to study. There didn’t seem to be room in her life for much else.
Then, fate intervened. “I saw a poster: Health Class 2.0,” she remembers. “It said something like, ‘Are you interested in creating change in wellness policy? Do you want to be part of that change?’” A veteran community organizer and triathlete who was at that moment completing an undergraduate thesis on wellness in schools, Herring signed up immediately.
Health Class 2.0 is a Lang faculty project founded in 2011 by professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and her longtime friend Ellen Gustafson, a respected analyst of public policy on food who has worked with the United Nations. The organization is dedicated to empowering young people and their communities to think critically about health, food, and exercise and transform their own lives and the world around them as a result. It’s a formidable challenge: According to the American Heart Association, today nearly one in three Americans is overweight or obese. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression are just some of the side effects.
Health Class 2.0 addresses this wellness crisis in a number of ways. Students from Lang, as well as Petrzela, Gustafson, Herring, and other staff, lead exercise classes at New York City public high schools and middle schools as part of a weeks-long curriculum. After the movement portion of each class, the Health Class 2.0 leaders lead discussions about making good decisions, including ones related to diet, for healthy lives.
“Kids need to be able to keep health and wellness in the forefront of their minds,” says Herring. “They’re old enough to make choices. When they are heading to a friend’s house after school and stop by a bodega on the way, they make choices about what to put in their bodies.” One of Health Class 2.0’s goals is to ensure that kids keep their well-being in mind when making those decisions.
How do the students react? “There’s a whole range in the exercise classes” says Herring. “It’s a lot of fun to see. Some kids immediately catch on. Some kids right away feel proud of themselves for remembering the moves. When there’s a repeated action, when I say something and the kids respond, they say it with me. Some make up their own move. Sometimes there’s a kid who doesn’t do the moves much. So we’ll go up and show them how to do it in a way that isn’t isolating. We’ll be smiling. Some kids sit down, and that’s okay, too.”
Under Herring’s leadership, Health Class 2.0 is rapidly growing: They have doubled the number of participating New York City schools in the past few months and expanded their full-time staff. Herring has grown with the organization, as well. A year after joining as a student volunteer, she’s been promoted to Executive Director of that organization. Her rapid rise from student volunteer is a testimony to her commitment to the organization and its mission; Herring believes that Health Class 2.0 is leading some of the most important work in American health policy being done.
She is excited to help the organization touch more lives with a straightforward message: “We’re doing this because we value ourselves, and we’re giving the students attention because we value them,” she says. “Ultimately, the message to young people is that they have a choice: Right now you have the choice to be your best.” It is her hope that they choose wisely.