New York State School Boards Association

First Lady Paterson adjusts to the limelight

‘At least I feel I can do something on a bigger scale’

On Board Online • Albany Update • June 9, 2008

Michelle Paige Paterson, 47, is the wife of Gov. David Paterson. She was born on Travis Air Force Base in California, while her father served in the U.S. Air Force. When she was two, her family moved to New York City. Her father is retired from the U.S. Postal Service.

She is the director of integrative wellness at Health Plan of New York, where she focuses on evidence-based programs that promote healthy living with a focus on childhood obesity and stress-related ailments. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and has a master’s degree in health services management from the Milano Graduate School in New York City.

She met David Paterson in 1982 and the two were married 10 years later. They have two children, Ashley (19) and Alex (14).

Paterson is the state’s first African-American first lady. She spoke with On Board Senior Writer Marc Humbert on May 14. 

Q: One of your big issues as first lady is childhood obesity. Why are you so interested in it and what do you want to do?

A: I was reading that this was the first generation of kids who may not outlive their parents. So, I became very concerned about it. And I thought, you know, I think I want to do something that is more grassroots, where we really went into the schools and worked with the kids to educate them about eating healthy and exercise. So, I met with someone who worked at the hospital with me, at North General, and we came up with this idea of giving the kids pedometers and creating this contest.

I thought that Harlem was a good place to start. We convened a meeting last July with all of the [school] principals from central Harlem. 

I wanted to work with the middle schools because I thought those were the ages of the kids when they are going through puberty and there are all kinds of insecurities. They don’t know what’s going on with their bodies, and depression. I have found that exercise not only helps with weight, but also with attitude and the way you feel about yourself.

We reached out to Green Magazine [a golf-lifestyle publication aimed at affluent African-Americans and Hispanics], which said if the kids wrote essays about their experiences in the contest they would pick four winners and give them a $1,000 each. 

We reached out to a rap artist – Mele Mel – who produced a rap song that talks about exercise and eating healthy. A lot of classes in schools in Harlem don’t have gym, so I wanted the kids to be able to exercise by their desks for five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the afternoon. And, I wanted to do some pep rallies with Mele Mel at the schools to get the kids excited and revved up about this contest. 

Then we reached out to the Mets and they were interested in honoring the kids during a game (May 28) at Shea Stadium. 

I found out about this organization called Urban Tech that develops innovative curriculum on various topics of social, emotional learning, healthy eating and exercise. It was in a web-based, computer kind of curriculum. They worked with me and the science teachers to reinforce this healthy eating lifestyle in the classroom.

We got Bank Street (College of Education) to help us with the professional development, to actually train the teachers on the curriculum. Dr. (Mehmet) Oz – he’s a top cardiologist in New York – founded a not-for-profit called Health Corps and they actually worked with us on this initiative with the high schools.

And, I wanted to have this whole initiative documented, so I got BET [cable network] involved to help us document this initiative from the beginning, from the kickoff press conference to the end. And, we’re going to have it evaluated in an evidence-based program to see if, at the end of the day, did we really change attitudes and behaviors about eating healthy and exercise.

I would like to do this in another part of the state next year. It just made me feel so good to see the kids so excited about this and wanting to do something that would impact their health.

Q: Other than childhood obesity what do you see that you want to tackle as first lady?

A: Childhood obesity is my first priority and also [the] greening of the mansion. I really think those two initiatives work together. I think part of this initiative – [the] greening of the mansion – is buying locally from our farms in the area. I think it is very important we reduce our energy intake. We have installed solar panels on the pool house and we are looking to install a solar carport in the parking lot which will be the first of its kind in the Northeast. 

Q: What about education in this state? What do you think about the education system in New York?

A: I think it could be a lot better. I was reading that the dropout rate is something like 40 or 50 percent in New York City which is horrible. We definitely need to do something to work on that.

Q: There is a lot of talk about making perhaps longer school years and longer school days. Do you think we need that?

A: The school system was set up because of the farming industry and they needed the kids home to help on the farm. Well, that’s not the case any more and we need to really re-look at that. A lot of kids get in trouble after school. The parents don’t get home until much later. So, I think it would be a good thing to expand the school day. 

Q: Your own kids, do they go to public or private school?

A: My son goes to a very good public school in New York. We do have them, you just have to find them (laughs). My daughter did as well. She is now in college. She’s at Ithaca College. She is majoring in integrated marketing and economics. 

Q: You were thrust into this job. Are you adjusting to it?

A: I was used to basically doing my job and having my own career, and my privacy. I think I am pretty shy and I just like to be in my little corner and do my thing, and so this has been a little difficult for me. 

Q: Are you enjoying it?

A: The fun part is that I feel like now, because I’m really interested in childhood obesity and the greening of the mansion, at least I feel I can do something on a bigger scale to help people. I like that part. 

Q: The loss of privacy obviously caused you some hurt in the first few days of your husband’s administration. How tough is that?

A: That’s extremely tough. But you know what you’re doing is right.  

You just keep your head up and move forward.

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