Nursing school continues summer discussions on racism, bias in the field

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Sandra Davis, the assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the nursing school, said the sessions have led some faculty to change certain aspects of their courses.

The School of Nursing is extending a virtual discussion series on systemic racism that began this summer into the fall semester.

The series “Continuing the Conversation” has been meeting each Tuesday over WebEx, beginning in June with discussions about issues of systemic racism throughout the United States and in health care specifically. Sandra Davis, the assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the nursing school, said groups of students, faculty members and staff attended the talks and she has heard that several faculty members are planning to adjust their courses based on what they learned.

“Faculty, staff and students are more cognizant of the ways that systemic racism operates on a daily basis,” she said in an email. “They are finding the voice to question and challenge policies, practices, attitudes and actions that once went unnoticed or were accepted as, ‘That’s just the ways things are.’ Attendees want to be a part of the solution.”

Davis said she and Mary Pearce, the nursing school’s director of student services, moderated each discussion by posing an open-ended question about a topic like implicit bias or the history of racism in the United States at the start of each session and facilitating an open discussion about that topic.

“Each discussion is really a safe space where students, faculty and staff bring their authenticity, their vulnerabilities and their ability to talk, listen and learn from each other about racism in America,” she said.

She said each discussion is guided by a set of ground rules that focus on ensuring each attendant feels welcome to speak openly and all attendees respect one another.

Davis said the attendees have made commitments, like altering their courses and teaching pedagogy, to challenge issues of systemic racism in their day-to-day lives. She said each session included a “small” and “intimate” group of people but didn’t specify how many people attended.

“The built respect and trust among the attendees are a testament to the commitment to work for change at all levels of society,” Davis said. “The next phase of ‘Continuing the Conversation’ may be ‘Unfinished Conversations’ because we can never stop.”

Experts in health care equity said holding conversations about systemic racism in the field is a starting point that should pave the way for permanent change.

Whitney Thurman, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Texas at Austin, said nursing research largely focuses on individual health issues but doesn’t typically consider social disparities that contribute to health.

“As nurses, our research, our education and our practice, really needs to be able to consider these broader social factors and how they influence health,” Thurman said. “While we’re working at it, we have been slow to really articulate the problem of structural and systemic racism.”

She said nursing schools should be cognizant of who they’re hiring and find ways to bring in more students of color without tokenizing them. She added that nursing professionals can also address systemic racism by speaking up if they notice something racist occurring in their workplace.

She said facilitating open conversations about racism in nursing will allow students and faculty to learn about how to incorporate anti-racist practices in their own work.

“I think we talk a lot about where theory meets practice, and I think having these conversations lets us do that,” she said.

Staja Booker, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Florida, said racial disparities in the nursing field are divided between internal professional issues and issues in care itself. She said nursing is focused on a “holistic” approach, meaning nurses try to care for each patient while taking into consideration mental and environmental factors that contribute to a person’s health.

“Because we operate under this holistic model, sometimes we tend forget that issues such as racism, discrimination, implicit bias can actually creep into our care of patients,” Booker said.

Booker said nursing research has shown that African American patients often don’t receive the same level of care as other populations because of implicit biases by nurses in a field that is predominantly White.

“If anything, nursing is probably one of the health care professions that are doing more to try to increase diversity,” she said. “I feel like we are on the cutting edge of including diversity and equity in the profession, but we still have a long way to go.”

Tyan Parker Dominguez, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said the health care field has a long history with racism, and widespread disparities still exist among patients in the level of care they receive.

She said nursing professionals’ approach to addressing systemic racism should be “sustained, coordinated” and “all-encompassing” to address the issue in a substantive way.

“There is real opportunity now to engage in challenging conversations about deeply entrenched social inequities and -isms that permeate our social institutions, including health care, and how we can act together to dismantle and undo them,” she said in an email.

Jarrod Wardwell contributed reporting.

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