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June 06, 2017


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Bridging the Gap Between Nursing and Activism

June 06, 2017


A radical organizer who I love and respect has a saying that goes something like “you can do direct service without organizing, but you can’t do organizing without direct service.” As an organizer who is gradually embracing the role of healthcare provider, I find myself reflecting on these words and how I can bridge the gap between organizing and direct service as I begin my career as a nurse. I feel certain that my experience as an organizer will make me a more effective nurse and will always affect the way I approach healthcare, but I am still discovering the ways that cultivating myself as a nurse can transform the way that I and others approach social change and community mobilization.

During my class on the history of nursing, we learned that nursing and social change were once intimately intertwined, as many nurses sought to transform the social determinants of health while providing care to the most vulnerable and marginalized. This focus of nursing gradually faded as it became more centralized within well-funded academic hospitals and as nurses worked to professionalize themselves and establish stronger academic standards in the face of disrespect and disregard for the vital contributions they made to the healthcare field. As a student, I felt keenly aware of this shift, finding that community health, health disparities, and social justice are under-emphasized concepts within many nursing curricula. Thus, for this class, I decided to put together a presentation called “Nursing and the Art of Solidarity and Resistance” showing the ways that nurses have been and continue to be involved in social movements from within the past 10 years. From movements that drew national attention such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, to more local actions such as efforts in Chicago to prevent the closure of mental health clinics and to establish a trauma center in the South Side, I wanted to show that nurses were still showing up and advocating for their patients beyond the bedside. I felt obligated, as an organizer, to show my classmates that this was not only an appropriate but an essential component of what it meant to be a nurse. We needed to speak and act on behalf of our patients in order to transform the social conditions that created health disparities to begin with. Part of this came from a misguided notion that providing care at the bedside was somehow “not enough,” and that without acting to effect systemic change, we aren’t realizing our full potential as healers.

While I still partially believe this, it wasn’t until later in my education that I began to realize just how important the one-on-one work of nursing is, and how the qualities necessary to do that work can also enhance our efforts to become agents of systemic change. For my Community Health clinical, I was placed at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. I gained a lot of valuable knowledge from this placement, including the ways that healthcare is organized and provided for the homeless community in both inpatient and outpatient settings, as well as within shelters and the vast array of other institutions that homeless people encounter. I began this placement thinking that that broad analysis would be my biggest takeaway, and that I would finally develop a stronger understanding about how nurses can participate in public health and social just efforts. While those aspects were absolutely addressed, I felt most deeply moved by the direct care I provided to patients throughout this placement.

One day, my clinical instructor announced that our work for the day would consist entirely of providing foot baths to homeless patients with diabetes and arterial disease. My classmates and I initially felt that this was somewhat anticlimactic, as we were all eager to start applying complex skills like administering IV medications, but we ended up being incredibly grateful for the experience. I will never forget how grateful patients were for this simple act, and how humbling it was to set aside all the complex, technical information we were learning, as well as the systemic, radical analysis I was constantly striving to centralize, and simply be there for another person and care for them in such an intimate way. I never felt like I was more truly, authentically in service to another person as I was when I gave those foot baths. And I started to recognize this feeling throughout everything I did in my other clinical placements as well, whether I was changing a dressing, providing wound care, making a patient’s bed, helping a post-operative patient walk through the halls, teaching patients about a specific health issue, or just providing general comfort and support to someone recovering from illness. It was this role, the stewardship and caretaking of nursing, that I was finding I had so little practice consciously embodying, but I was gradually developing a deep appreciation for as an importance to the discipline.

As I continue as both a nurse and an organizer, I will strive to remember these moments and the way they made me feel, and I will try to replicate this sense of stewardship in my efforts to mobilize communities. Throughout my relatively brief 15-month nursing education, I was inundated with knowledge about the human body and how to support its flourishing in states of illness and wellness, situated within communities and complex systems. I’m sure that other health professions students can relate to this feeling of learning such a wealth of information in what feels like such a short period of time. I think that the most critical task that we must undertake when we graduate is to figure out how to avoid becoming gatekeepers of that knowledge, and how to apply it in ways that serve and uplift our community rather than maintain hierarchies. This lesson is also essential for organizers, especially those of us with educational privilege. Moreover, we must recognize that this knowledge is an instrument for creating healing, but it is only a small piece of what it takes to become a healer. If our goal is to create healing on a mass scale, this work must begin with bearing witness to suffering on the most intimate level possible, and making ourselves of service to others in the alleviation of that suffering, no matter how mundane that may look.


This post was written by recent Novo Nordisk Point Scholar Johannes Wilson.

Johannes studied Nursing at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. As a registered nurse, and eventually a psychiatric nurse practitioner, Johannes hopes to provide affirming care to LGBTQ people of color and other marginalized communities.

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