A Woman of Action By Nora Feldhusen
Barb Flis makes changes in health education at a state and national level
A lifelong resident of Detroit, Barb Flis does not take her citizenship lightly. Known statewide in schools and communities as “the parent voice” for health education, she is an example of grassroots work at its finest. And simplest, because for Barb, her career is a self-proclaimed example of “doing what you love and everything falls into place.”
In this case, Barb loves people and working with them. Her career began in sales, where she was never happy with the work, but always loved the people. She was volunteering as PTA President when health education first caught her attention and jumpstarted a new career.
In the late 1980s, the Michigan Health Model rolled out and schools began to administer health classes for the first time. A group of vocal parents felt undermined by the health curricula and wanted the classes to cease altogether. Her first foray into politics, Barb “took a stand on the issue and became the voice for all the parents who were in support of the classes.” The debate went to Lansing and so did Barb. For the first time ever, she spoke in front of the Board of Education, who was so impressed by her gumption that they asked her to serve on the state level PTA.
After her first trip to Lansing, Barb was called back again and again to fulfill a role that she now sees as her niche market: to be the voice of parents. She became the parent representative at the Department of Education on HIV and Sexual Education. Barb describes her role as a “parent shortcut.” She takes issues that are important to parents, like sexual health, mental health, and nutrition, and translates the language into something personal and meaningful to parents. She began to develop workshops and travel between cities helping parents, teachers, and principals understand and communicate to their kids about the importance of healthy choices.
Throughout all this, Barb was still working in sales but, at the age of 48, decided to return to school and remedy her lack of a Bachelor’s degree. “I had to be an interdisciplinarian,” says Barb. “I was working double duty and it was the best time in my life.” After graduation, she went directly to graduate school and is currently finishing her thesis, which will pair the history of Sex Ed laws in Michigan with the socio-political climates in which they were written and implemented.
In the last 5 years, Barb has worked with Governor Granholm on a teen pregnancy prevention initiative, “Talk Early & Talk Often℠.” She is a parent liaison and leader in the Surgeon General’s Michigan Steps Up Campaign, and the Wellness Policy campaign to improve local initiatives on issues of nutrition and health in schools. She still administers all the workshops herself under her organization Parent Action For Healthy Kids, traveling all over the state and the country.
“In our workshops, it’s an issue of spray and pray,” says Barb. Her dedication guides her into personal relationships with many of the parents she meets. After a workshop she encourages parents to follow up with her
Her grassroots work has proven successful not only for the parents she’s helped but for her own career. This year, Barb was invited to Washington D.C. to be the parent voice in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation. After a meeting of some of Health Education’s most intelligent minds, Barb came home and said to herself, “why don’t I start a local campaign on this issue?” As if she didn’t have enough on her plate, she’s started a Call To Action —another support network for parents to learn about and echange ideas on nutrition and health in schools.
“Like everything else that has happened in the last ten years, if I have an idea, why wouldn’t I try? What do I have to lose? At the very least, I’ll educate some parents.” And that’s exactly was she does. Enables, empowers, supports, educates and inspires people all along her journey. And, as the sole employee of her own organization and an all around incredibly busy woman, the best part according to Barb is that “it just doesn’t feel like work.”