Empowering Visionaries

Nursing organizations that affirm Black and brown nurses are critical for improving the workforce... and patient care.

Why do we need a Black Nurses Association? The question always surprises Sheldon D. Fields, PhD, RN, CRNP, FNP-BC, AACRN, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, GR’00—recently elected as President of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). He says, “It shows that many people are unaware that nursing organizations with more power, such as the American Nurses Association (ANA), have perpetuated racial discrimination and have not worked to defend or advocate for minority nurses.”

While the ANA released in 2022 a “reckoning statement” acknowledging the organizations’ history of racism and perpetuating systemic racism, vowing to improve diversity from within as well as to engage in efforts to address racism in the wider nursing community, the challenge is deep. Working with the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, they found that “almost all Black nurses surveyed (92 percent) said they have personally experienced racism at work, and 70 percent said it came from leaders.”

Like all nurses who want to advance their careers, Fields was expected to become a member of the ANA. And if he wanted to apply to become a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing—a designation that indicates significant contributions to the nursing profession—he also had to be an ANA member because the ANA owns that Fellowship. That makes organizations like the NBNA and others that engage underrepresented minority nurses critical for holding the ANA and large nursing associations to their equity and diversity goals. The NBNA also allows Black nurses to work together more autonomously to improve equity and create a national community among nurses.

Fields was the first Black man to receive his PhD in nursing science at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, and he was the only Black man in his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral cohorts. He was moved to leadership by engaging in the Mary E. Mahoney Minority Nursing support group at Binghamton University, where he received his BSN—and he served as President of the Graduate Student Organization for Nursing at Penn while pursuing his PhD. He says, “It’s important to give students the opportunity to see Black nurses in leadership roles, who in turn will talk about the hurdles Black nurses face.”

For Fields, Penn Nursing was a place where he found Black nursing leaders—for instance, Loretta Sweet Jemmott, PhD, RN, FAAN, GNu’82, GR’87. He says, “She was really the first Black nurse scientist to be doing this successfully NIHfunded research in HIV prevention.” Fields was also inspired by Dr. Freida Outlaw, director of the graduate program in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing from 1991 to 2005, and the late Dr. Ruth McCorkle, director of Cancer Control at Penn’s Cancer Comprehensive Center and director of the Nursing School’s Center for Advancing Care in Serious Illness.

Jemmott, Outlaw, and McCorkle inspired Fields, but his first NBNA conference in 1998 was a life-changing moment. He says, “Walking into a room where for the first time I felt affirmed as a Black man in nursing, I knew that someday I would play an important role in the association, and here we are today with me getting ready to assume the presidency.”

That feeling of affirmation and belonging can create waves of positive change—giving shape to mentorship opportunities, policy reformation that improves outcomes for communities of color, and ultimately empowering and uplifting the nursing workforce.

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Adrianna Nava, PhD, MPA, RN, GNu’12, says for her, being involved in an underrepresented minority organization for nurses is about empowering and uplifting the part of the nursing workforce that doesn’t normally get heard. She was elected President of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) in 2021, following in the footsteps of Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing Antonia M. Villarruel who served as NAHN President in the mid-1990s. She is the first millennial nurse to serve as the national president of the association. Nava says, “Being Latina myself, I hope to serve as a mentor and open doors for nurses looking to get involved in health policy-related work. I also hope to encourage our student members to consider their role in policy early in their nursing careers.” Nava is currently a Research Scientist at the National Committee for Quality Assurance, where she serves as the scientific lead for the development of quality measures for addressing social determinants.

The President’s role at NAHN is to oversee operations and strategy, and to build culture within the organization, contributing to projects that project a unified voice for Hispanic health issues and preparing nurses to be leaders of change. This involves planning for their national conference in Portland, OR, where Nava spoke on the topic of “Leading from Within: Expanding Your Emotional Capacity to Lead,” as well as their Hispanic Health Policy Summit in Washington D.C., where NAHN gathers with other Latinx focused medical professionals across disciplines to talk healthcare policy and research, bringing priorities to members of Congress.

In 2022, Nava—who earned her Masters in Health Leadership (with a concentration in Health Policy) from Penn Nursing after serving as a Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar in HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra’s former D.C. congressional office in 2009—received an invitation to represent NAHN at the signing of President Biden’s Executive Order on Strengthening Access to the ACA and Medicaid, a policy that was a focal point of her PhD dissertation. She says, “I have seen how access-related disparities, especially among Latinos, prevents my community from receiving timley care. As nurses, our participation in the policy process is integral to addressing health care. I felt validated that our voices [as Hispanics] are important. I wasn’t there just as me—I was representing a larger community of Hispanic nurses and their families.”

More recently, Nava spoke alongside Senator Tom Carper of Delaware at the U.S. Capitol during a press conference to discuss the impact of pollution on public health and the pressing need for solutions.

Elevating the voices of underrepresented minorities in the nursing community through organizations like NBNA and NAHN are key for foregrounding the importance of addressing racism in nursing, transforming nursing leadership opportunities, and highlighting policy that impacts specific segments of our communities. Fields notes, though, that these organizations also play a role in diversifying the nursing workforce.

In Fields’ current role as Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion at the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing at Penn State University, he’s able to dedicate his efforts directly toward ensuring the nursing workforce is as diverse as the patients they serve—through mentoring students and introducing them to opportunities like the ones he found through the NBNA. He says, “It’s been 32 years since I first became an RN, and I’m surprised that the percentages of men and of people of color in the nursing profession have not kept pace with the demographics of this country.”

“We don’t often see ourselves in positions of power, inf luence, or authority. I hope my leadership inspires our members to dream big and reach higher.”

Adrianna Nava, PhD, MPA, RN, GNu’12

This is a crucial challenge to overcome in nursing: cultural competency and the ability to meet the unique needs of patients equates to better care and better patient outcomes. Fields notes that nursing’s continuing workforce diversity issues relate to gatekeepers in the nursing profession and academics, which the June 2023 SCOTUS decision overturning affirmative action in college admissions won’t help. Without affirmative action in place to promote diverse student bodies, universities will need to think differently about their admissions processes.

Fields says, “The qualities of a good nurse are empathy and compassion—but those skills aren’t tested in college admissions.”

Nava adds that she’s fortunate her leadership experiences as NAHN’s President have highlighted the value of nursing voices in addressing some of the country’s most pressing health care problems. “Especially as a Latina nurse leader, we don’t often see ourselves in positions of power, influence, or authority. I hope my leadership inspires our members to dream big and reach higher.”


Information about Penn Nursing minority student organizations can be found here: nursing.upenn.edu/studentorgs; University-wide organizations can be found at: diversity.upenn.edu

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