Published on October 2, 2012 in Wayne State The Magazine.
Written by: Jim McFarlin
Wayne State alumni are making a difference in their community through their work and volunteer activities.
ALUMNI .WAYNE .EDU SEPTEMBER 2012 | 13
“Reaching parents is my niche. It doesn’t seem hard to me, yet it is so stifling
to other people.”
When former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wanted to launch a pregnancy prevention
initiative for middle school-age children, her staff reached out to the Michigan Department
of Education and Michigan Department of Community Health. However, when it was decided
that someone on the task force should represent parents, staffers sent out the call to an
unassuming home in Farmington Hills.
“You’ve got to have Barb Flis,” they told the governor.
At the time, Flis (“rhymes with ‘bliss,’” she says with a laugh), who went on to establish
the organization Parent Action for Healthy Kids and become one of America’s leading advocates
for health and sex education in schools, wasn’t sure she wanted to be gotten.
“There I am, going to the governor’s office and meeting with her assistants,” she remembers.
“I’m thinking, ‘You can’t possibly want me.’ And they’re asking, ‘Is this something you
would like to do?’ I’m like, ‘Whoa!’
“So I come home and say to my oldest daughter, ‘Julie, I don’t know. This is big and she’s
the governor. One slip on this sex education stuff and she could be mud.’ Julie goes, ‘Mom!
Do us a favor and just take it! Because if you don’t, we’ll have to hear about how the person
they appoint could have done it better and that’s not how you would have done it. So just
cut to the chase and do it!’”
Flis, Life.Learn ‘02, has listened to her two daughters since they were schoolchildren
because she considers herself a mother above all. (Both grown, Julie lives in Royal Oak; Mary
teaches dance in Chicago.) But heeding their words and dedicating herself to their learning
environment frequently thrust Flis into situations far outside her comfort zone. She credits
— and praises — the interdisciplinary studies degree from Wayne State she earned as an
adult for helping her transform her commitment into a career while handling whatever challenges
it presents — even a call for advice from First Lady Michelle Obama.
“My daughters certainly played a part in my doing this work, but taking to this level, I
never could have dreamed it, charted it or set it as a goal,” says Flis, who receives federal
funding from agencies like the CDC to develop programs aimed at helping parents improve
kids’ health. “If you’re listening, the universe directs you to where you should go. I was
definitely directed to the (Wayne State) program because I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. I
felt so odd because of that, then I went to a program that encouraged it. It’s interdisciplinary
studies, and that’s what I do now.
“I work with parents and connect them, with schools and other parents. Because I got
so involved in Northville, I saw what schools had to go through, how parents felt, and I saw
the disconnect. It wasn’t intentional, but they weren’t putting themselves in each other’s
shoes. You have to be an interdisciplinarian to do that.”
Laurie Bechhofer, HIV education consultant for the Michigan Department of Health, says
Flis is passionate about improving the health and well-being of Michigan young people.
“She sees parents as true partners to engage, not just tacitly involve, in change,” Bechhofer
says. “She gets how to connect with people and inspire them to take action.”
Born in Detroit, Flis felt she “didn’t get the best education at all” in the private Catholic
schools she attended. “I wanted my children to get what I didn’t have, so I became really
involved in their education.”
She raised her daughters in suburban Northville, primarily because of its school system, and
became so invested as a volunteer that she was elected PTA president.
Even so, equipped at the time with only a two-year degree earned in the ‘70s from an area
community college, “I always felt everybody knew more than I did,” Flis admits. “I felt I didn’t
have an education. So I just kind of sat back. I was a silent observer.”
However, when a parent came to her and accused the school system of “hypnotizing” students
with its health education program, her one-woman investigation went from the principal
to the district curriculum director to a seat on the school board committee looking into the
coursework. From that point on, Flis became an energetic representative for parents.
“I’m sitting with people who have Ph.D.s and I knew nothing about curriculum, let alone
health education,” she recalls. “I think I felt so strongly about advocating for kids that I overcame
my fear of not feeling smart or confident enough to serve.
“I didn’t realize until I went back to school at Wayne State that I am a lifelong learner, and
I ask a lot of questions,” says Flis, who was active on Student Council and president of the
College of Lifelong Learning Student Senate despite being in her 40s. “I didn’t know that about
myself then. I’ll never forget my first class with Professor Roz Schindler, Introduction to Interdisciplinary
Studies. I can still feel the fear I had. I was so nervous. But once I started taking
classes, all of a sudden I realized that this odd person I felt that I was, always asking questions,
was actually embraced by these professors. They’re going, ‘Gosh, you ask good questions! Keep
asking them.’ So I know that now. Now I don’t care if it’s a stupid question. I ask it.”
She had a slew of questions last year when the White House came calling for guidance. Mrs.
Obama wanted input on the parent portion of her “Let’s Move” website to help end childhood
“You’ve got to have Barb Flis,” somebody at the CDC told her team. It was a bittersweet
acknowledgment: the same week she was flown to Washington, her father, Frank Patak, who led
the construction crews that enclosed Northland and Eastland malls, passed away.
“Several months later when they released the website I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, they actually
listened!’” Flis marvels. “I said, make it easy for parents, they need answers quickly, and take
away any language that is shaming or blaming. When our babies are born we automatically feel
inadequate as parents. We don’t need anybody else judging us.”
Flis continues to support “Let’s Move” on her own website, parentactionforhealthykids.org.
“Everybody throws up their hands and says, ‘What can we do?’ How can we reach parents?’” she
says. “They say when you have a business you need a niche. Well, reaching parents is my niche.
It doesn’t seem hard to me, yet it is so stifling to other people.
“Then we have to work with schools to not get defensive when parents ask them questions.
It’s always both sides. We can both be teacher-learners.”
— Jim McFarlin
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