I have served as a community health nurse for most of my 22 years of service as an RN. Currently, I coordinate the associate degree in nursing program for Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, New York. I try to bring a holistic approach to the role, employing my health and wellness assessment skills in support of student success and overall program outcomes. As a black nurse, I pay special attention to the program's ability to meet minority needs. Personal culture, lifestyle, disabilities, and socioeconomic levels have all been found to impact individual learning styles and student success.
In March 2009, MCC reentered what had become a contentious, politically charged, and controversial presidential search process. The MCC Diversity Council sought to engage the entire college community in a thoughtful series of panel discussions entitled "Combating Whispers and Suspicions, Valuing Diverse Hires: Why Diversity and Inclusion in Hiring are Important to MCC." This voluntary group of faculty members deserves ample credit for their proactive corrective measure concerning hiring practices and for exposing this subject, bringing it to the forefront of public discourse. In April of that same year, New York Governor Paterson announced his creation of a statewide task force to improve diversity in the workforce.
Though I was unable to participate in the panel discussions, they inspired me to reflect on the importance of nursing program faculty diversity. I believe I bring a unique perspective as a community health nurse, as a black woman, as an idealist, and as an active civic participant. Had I been able to attend the series, I would have shared my personal perspective, professional interest, and passion associated with the outcomes of diverse hiring and retention in all public institutions, especially those in higher education.
The National League of Nursing (NLN) had already brought the subject to light, espousing workforce diversity, and the National Honor Society of Nursing drew attention to its importance in their Create the Future newsletter, saying "an increase of more than 20,000 minority nurses is needed to increase their proportion of the nursing workforce by just 1%." They went on to say that the lack of ethnic, gender, and generational diversity is a concern not only for the profession, but also for patients: the nursing workforce should be at least as diverse as the population it serves. Not only is a lack of diversity in nursing linked to health disparities, but minority health care professionals are more likely than their majority peers to work in underserved communities, which in turn improves access among underrepresented groups. Additional studies have outlined how faculty diversity at all educational levels is linked to improved learning outcomes.
There is compelling governmental and constituent interest, locally and nationally, calling for institutions of higher education to advance the objectives of diverse faculty hires and retention for the benefit of all students, including underrepresented and under-performing minority students. There are secondary quality of life and economic residuals to be gained in their respective home communities, and that goes beyond health care. A recent issue of the higher education journal Diverse cites Winnefred Brown-Glaude's research and newest book, Doing Diversity in Higher Education. A professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, she writes, "The debate over diversity is often hijacked by opponents who keep the focus on race, instead of broader definitions to include women, ethnicity, people with disabilities, and other kinds of differences. They tend to reduce conversations around diversity to quotas, which are then described as systems of racial preferences. These types of debates tend to lock us in to a back-and-forth tug of war, which really has not been productive."
A National Urban League report entitled "The State of Black America" itemized the disturbing challenges and statistics seen in the black community with respect to poverty, health care, education, joblessness, and more. Higher education is in a unique position to take up this mantle, leading by example, to put an end to these disparities. According to the report, blacks are three times as likely to be in poverty, six times more often in prison, and disproportionately struck by joblessness in the current economic recession. (As of July 2010, over 15% of blacks are unemployed, compared to 9.5% of the total U.S. population and 8.6% of whites.) The NUL described these disparities as "America's greatest wound." Until black America participates and succeeds gainfully and equitably, all of America will continue to pay a steep price. Through reflective bureaucratic representation at administrative levels, community partnerships, and sacrificial investment, this wound can be effectively treated and the entire nation's well-being advanced. If the plight of black America is permitted to fester, the growing needs for shelter, food, monetary assistance, social services, and costly emergency care (due to lacking preventative health care) will impede the growth of the entire country. Accessible, quality, effective education and workforce development, including strengthened student advisement and retention strategies, may be the most powerful deterrent and preventive measure in response to this nationwide epidemic.
I have experienced firsthand the impact of diversity and reflective representation as a means to affect educational and economic outcomes. Growing up in Spencerport, New York, an almost entirely white suburb in the 1960s and 1970s, I remained the only black female in my class of more than 400 students from the time I entered kindergarten in 1968 to my high school graduation in 1981. In high school, I heard a black woman had been hired to teach business courses. She was the first black educator within my scope of vision and my first professional role model, even though I never knew her personally. I could not help but admire her from afar, observing how she dressed, spoke, and carried herself. I stopped breathing when fellow students mentioned her. No one in my family had achieved a college degree at that point, and she unknowingly affirmed my beliefs, hopes, and determination. I thank God for her, recalling how my selfimage had often wavered. To this day, I wonder if she knew what she meant to me.
Though I had wonderful white teachers who encouraged and informed me, nothing replaced seeing my potential for success mirrored before me in that woman. In the coming years, I was fortunate to encounter more support. The Urban League of Rochester promoted its first group of Black Scholars in 1981, and the Rochester Institute of Technology sponsored an initiation to higher learning through their Minority Introduction to Engineering summer program. In these venues, educators mentored and exposed minority students to the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.
Coordinating the MCC nursing program, I often find myself inspired by my students. (I wonder if my presence had a similar effect on my faraway mentor in Spencerport.) Students of color at MCC frequently question me about my accomplishments, as they inspect my degrees and ask about my experiences as a student nurse, a registered nurse, and a single mom. They confide in me, vent to me, and cry with me. I have gratefully provided this empathy, emphasizing their ability to succeed though perseverance. I have no doubt that LGBT, Latino, disabled faculty, and others provide similar support and insights to students.
Indeed, faculty members of all ethnicities and backgrounds serve as exceptional educators and role models every day— yet, each faculty member cannot be everything to each student, and the importance of faculty diversity should not be denied. I cannot help but think of our nation's pluralistic foundations; a pluralistic society is one in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, and social groups maintain participation in and development of their traditions and special interests while cooperatively working toward the interdependence needed for a nation's unity. It fosters an inclusive, critical, and constructive discourse where different—even opposing—perspectives are valued. This is the nature of democracy. Pluralism is a noble goal, one that we must continue to strive toward, for we have not achieved it yet.
In a recent volume of the NEA Higher Education Advocate, data from the 2009 Higher Education Almanac illustrates how minority faculty remain significantly underrepresented, having slipped further over the last year and well below parity for the larger population. There is a clear need for serious efforts to encourage scholars from minority backgrounds to work in U.S. colleges and universities. These efforts should include strategies for increasing minority nursing faculty in consideration of the compelling governmental interest in responding to minority health needs.
Consider this gem in women's history: Esther Petersen, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) grassroots organizer, was instrumental in promoting integrated access to the YWCA. In 1961, John F. Kennedy appointed her to lead the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor. She went on to create the President's Commission on the Status of Women and National Women's Organization. Peterson invigorated the feminist movement and facilitated the inclusion of African American women in the language of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation. She brought her perspective as a woman to the table, and she personified the importance of bureaucratic representation and voice. I am not at all surprised to see an educator acting as a pioneer. Higher education must model this.
Hopefully, at MCC and all colleges and universities, faculty diversity will become more fully appreciated as one means to close the gaps in minority participation and success. Again, the MCC Diversity Council should be commended for its response to this urgent and compelling call to action, for advancing MCC's priorities, and for supporting those in the surrounding community. Public institutions, including community colleges, are empowered by legislators to represent and influence the community; in turn, they should also be held to account by the community within and without.
At the end of their presidential search, Monroe Community College chose a woman to lead. Well done.