An Age of Empowerment: Meet Nisha Botchwey
By Laura Diamond November 29, 2018
This is the third installment of a yearlong series about women at Georgia Tech. See the full series.
Nisha Botchwey creates a world where the healthy choice is the easy choice.
As an associate professor in the School of City and Regional Planning, she designs programs that empower people of all ages — from children across the country to senior citizens in Georgia and Alabama — to revitalize their neighborhoods into healthy places.
She recently implemented a program to teach middle-school children in rural and urban communities about healthier lifestyles. The curriculum shows them how to evaluate their neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses and then how to remove barriers that prevent them from being physically active.
In one case, students at Drew Charter School in Atlanta raised concerns about a lack of safe sidewalks in their neighborhood. In another, a group of middle-school students from the Boys & Girls Clubs in Hawaii pitched their city council about fixing up a nearby park and received $80,000 for the project.
These are just two of the nearly 30 communities around the country using the YEAH! (Youth Engagement and Action for Health!) curriculum. The project teaches students how to talk with policymakers and advocate for changes to advance walkability, safety and physical activity in their communities. More than 250 children have gone through the program and it is continuing to grow.
“They are learning how to advocate for themselves and their entire community,” Botchwey said. “As a city planner I want to give everyone the skills, data and power to have a voice in their community.”
Botchwey was born in Jamaica and grew up in Miami. When she started school in the United States teachers wanted to place her in speech therapy to correct her thick accent. She ultimately graduated as valedictorian of her high school.
Her research and career focus on the most vulnerable in society, notably lower-income and minority children.
She came to Georgia Tech in 2012 and co-directs the National Physical Activity Research Center (PARC), a collaborative effort among Georgia Tech and three other universities to improve children’s health through physical activity. When children don’t play, run and jump it can lead to long-term negative effects, such as obesity, mental health problems and increased risk for disease in adulthood.
“What we want is to have a more informed and engaged society. I’m helping children become citizen scientists so they can get the facts, tools and practice to make their communities healthier and more active.”
Botchwey lives the healthy lifestyle she advocates. She’s a former personal trainer and body builder who won amateur competitions. She completed her first triathlon last year.
Today, as a mother of three, she believes the key to empowering change rests with kids.
“My work affects my kids and everyone’s kids. They are learning how to advocate for themselves and their communities. And once they’ve found their voice they won’t stop. They will continue to want to have power in shaping what’s going on around them — and that will continue as they become adults.”