Putting the pieces together

Forging unity is a critical goal; it can only happen when people see their common interests, instead of focusing on anger, fear and alienation.

As nurses, what are our common interests? Obvious answers: enough staff to care for our patients, a functional healthcare system, benefits that sustain our families and livelihoods, a dignified retirement, a violence- and intimidation-free workplace, resources and support that truly enhance our practice.

These are such reasonable needs! Why must we fight so hard for such sensible goals? Why, in a country with extraordinary wealth are these goals so elusive?

We are not an island

The answers lie in understanding the links between our workplace and our world. When some people say: “We should only involve ourselves with nursing,” or “Why are we getting involved in politics,” they are pretty much missing the point. We’ll never achieve these things if we are myopic. Injustice in the workplace cannot be isolated from injustices in society. The quality of life at work and at home cannot be separated from the quality of life of our broader community. That’s not what history teaches us; that’s not what nursing ethics teaches us.

In these times, it helps to look at pioneers and heroes. As a 95% female profession, we can look to nurses and other women for inspiration:

Dorothy Day, a suffragist, journalist, social activist and founder of the Catholic Workers Movement in the last century talked about hope:

“What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute…we can, to a certain extent, change the world...”

It takes a village

Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service of NY said:

“Ever since I have been conscious of my part in life, I have felt consecrated to the saving of human life.”

But Lillian recognized that acting alone had its limitations:

“Reform can be accomplished only when attitudes are changed.”

It may surprise some that Harriet Tubman was a nurse. After working for years in the Underground Railroad, she nursed union soldiers during the Civil War. A tireless caregiver, she always set her sights higher:

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Taking a stand against injustice

Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman from Honduras, grew up during the violence that swept through Central America in the 1980s. Her mother, a midwife and social activist, took in and cared for refugees from El Salvador, teaching her young children the value of standing up for disenfranchised people. Berta followed in her mother’s footsteps, organizing communities, taking on huge corporations who had free reign in her country after the 2009 Military Coup threatened the livelihoods of indigenous peoples with environmentally destructive construction projects, dams, mining operations and the intensification of privatization of rivers and lands.

Berta was brutally assassinated several months ago. The government has no interest in bringing the murderers to justice. But the Lenca people continue her work. I was privileged to hear her daughter speak at the Climate March in Philadelphia on July 24. There are always international connections to these tragedies: multi-national corporations have no boundaries.

Berta, in the face of numerous death threats, stated:

“I’m a human rights fighter and I won’t give up.”

RN advocacy knows no bounds

Every act of advocacy on behalf of our vulnerable patients and communities are acts of heroism as well. These times call for us to make it our business to understand “the bigger picture” and to see the parallels that exist beyond our tiny insulated realities. Not knowing is not an excuse — it only serves to imprison us in ignorance.

Harriet Tubman knew this when she said:

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.”

In today’s world, it just isn’t enough to do good deeds. We need to generalize our acts of individual kindness to respect and embrace those around us who are fighting for social justice in its broadest sense. Some of us have chosen to join with them in their battles. The struggle for human rights liberates all of us — and it’s serious business.

Dorothy Day’s most famous comment:

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

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