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Nursing News HighlightsNurses Leading Innovation

Nurses You Should Know: Helping Change the Nursing Narrative

Nurses of color have long-shaped the nursing profession and transformed healthcare, but their stories are underrepresented in the broader nursing narrative. A new nurse-led project, “Nurses You Should Know,” is using storytelling to help close the representation gap by amplifying their contributions.

The article below is a guest written feature by Johnson & Johnson Nurse Innovation Fellow Joanna Seltzer Uribe, RN, MSN, to provide an overview of the 2021 Nurses You Should Know Project.

How The Project Began

Have you ever had an assignment for school that winds up changing the way you understand the world?

During the summer of 2019, in the first year of my doctorate in education, I thought I was writing a standard paper about the “history of nursing.” Like many nurses over the centuries I knew of the significance of the late 1800s and the accounts of nurses like Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. What I didn't know was their contributions alone did not comprise the full narrative of our profession.

While having foundational roots in Britain, the story of American professional nursing, in fact, unfolds with and mirrors American history itself – from slavery to Reconstruction; Jim Crow to Civil Rights; colonization to immigration policy. Since day one, nurses of color have fundamentally transformed the profession, advanced care outcomes, and played central roles in areas like abolition, midwifery and maternal and public health, nursing integration and advocacy, military service, civil rights, public policy, research, and through to present-day pioneers in informatics, entrepreneurship, innovation, and politics. The nurses of color who changed our history did so in spite of being denied pay or pension from the Union Army; were denied entry from nursing schools; were limited by which nursing roles they could fulfill, which patients they could serve, which hospitals or organizations would employ them; and were excluded from organization and sororities and so created their own.

Yet the contributions of nurses of color are rarely included in our professional origin story. Unlike other fields that include discussion of American history as part of degree programs, most nursing schools don’t require either American history or history of nursing for graduation and are devoted to clinical practice and scientific study. This means that nurses can graduate with blind spots and lack the historical context to even "see" the exclusionary practices, racism and discrimination in our past and present. Yet this makes us vulnerable to repeating our past mistakes. It is only through facing our real history, a history representative of all nurses, that we can truly own our reputation as the most trusted profession and be ready to lead from a place of inclusion.

The Nurses You Should Know Project

What started as a school assignment turned into a mission to re-learn the history of nursing. Along the way I reached out to dozens of nurse colleagues, who also sought to re-discover and share a more accurate history of our profession. It became clear that changing the nursing narrative would require a collaborative social innovation. Dr. Sandy Cayo, to whom I reached out to share that first assignment, helped to form a team of over half a dozen nurses who were willing to pitch in with research, writing, strategy, and advisory oversight. The goal was to leverage social media to re-introduce nurses to the history they thought they knew.

Nurses You Should Know launched this month on the first day of Black History Month. The project includes daily stories of Black nurse pioneers and will also incorporate Asian Pacific Heritage Month (May), Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept - Oct), and Indigenous Peoples Month (Nov). The year-long project will feature both past and present day nurses via an online library on Medium and posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. This de-centralized design empowers nurses on all platforms to widely share the contributions of nurses of color so that we don’t need to wait another century for the representation gap to narrow.

Meet The Team Members Collaborating to Help Change the Narrative

I asked a few members of our team, Dr. Sandy Cayo, Monique Cobbs, Dr. Sheldon D. Fields and Ravenne Aponte why they joined Nurses you Should Know for our Black History Month launch and what they hope to achieve with the project:

Dr. Sandy Cayo, DNP, FNP-BC, Vice President of Clinical Performance and Transformation at the New Jersey Hospital Association
“As a self-proclaimed equity advocate, I feel it is my life’s work to educate folks on the importance of Black history, nursing and the challenges as well as successes that have been endured. I am passionate about the work being disseminated not only in academic spaces but clinical spaces as well. Black History Month is a special time to celebrate the accomplishments of many that have worked tirelessly to advance the profession, and to be quite honest, a month is not enough. I look forward to putting yearlong efforts into ensuring that these stories be heard.”

Monique Cobbs, MSN, RN, Clinical Development Specialist at Hartford Healthcare at Home
“When I first started talking with this team, I was excited to contribute to such a meaningful story. In the beginning I was simply gathering information to share with the group, but it turned out that I was learning about people who had helped shaped my own career. It dawned on me that these nurses were people who made significant contributions to the profession and I should have learned of them sooner than the end of my MSN program. The purpose of the project became personal for several reasons: I am a Black nurse and most of my nursing education was centered around what we consider the norm. To really create purposeful change that leads to inclusiveness in healthcare, we must change the narrative—and this project does just that. You really never know until you know, and I think it is important for nurses of color to read the stories of leaders and pioneers that resemble themselves.”

Dr. Sheldon D. Fields, PhD, RN, CRNP, FNP-BC, AACRN, FNAP, FAANP, FAAN, Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion & Research Professor at Penn State University
“2021 will mark my 30th year as a nurse, yet when most conjure up an image of a nurse today, that image is not of me. Despite numerous degrees, certifications, fellowships, and other accolades, as a Black/Latino male nurse I often feel ignored and invisible to the very profession I love. This project gives me the opportunity to right a long-standing historical injustice within nursing, which for far too long has cast the profession as being only the purview of White women. Nursing has embraced, largely without challenge, the attribution of all its great accomplishments to a handful of iconic White women and centered around a White Eurocentric perspective. Thus, with this project we make space for a more complete and inclusive telling of a great many others who have also made contributions to the profession. Those others include the many Black, Indigenous and other people of color nurses who like me have also been ignored and made invisible, but no more—our time has come. And with this project our stories will finally be told.”

Ravenne Aponte, Ph.D. Student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
“’Sankofa’ is a word from the West African Akan tribe that translates to ‘go back and get it.’ The term reminds us that we must learn from our past to move forward, and it has guided my scholarly endeavors and nursing practice. I am a first-year doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing studying nursing history—this combination often confuses people, but for me, nursing and history are intimately connected. Given my academic and personal background, I had spent time studying the often-overlooked contributions of Black scholars and leaders in the U.S., which includes nurses. Yet, when I entered nursing school and practice, there was a hegemonic hierarchy of what a nurse looks like and does. I was often one of the few Black nurses on my units, and Florence Nightingale was always the historical nurse of inspiration. It was almost like I did not exist. I wanted to change that narrative. I immediately knew I had to be involved with Nurses You Should Know—it reconstructs the narrative of nursing. The project allows me to share those stories and achievements in an easily accessible medium: social media! I’m hoping this project continues to center the voices and experiences of nurses of color who have often been overlooked and excluded.”

Inform the Future By Knowing the Past

Last year showed us the vital role nurses play in the health and functioning of society. In order for us to fully meet the complex and demanding healthcare and social challenges currently facing us, we need an inclusive profession where all of our voices are valued and sought out.

Nursing has more than one pioneer, all of whom continue to shape the next phase of nursing. Our true story reflects a collective and evolving practice that is strengthened and shared across cultures and ethnicities. Ours is a story of individuals and groups of nurses speaking up as change agents to shape not only the profession, but patient care and society at large. As we work to make these stories more widely known, it helps us to recognize the collective power nurses have to shift the status quo and reinvent a more equitable future.

Join us to help #changethenarrative by sharing the Nurses You Should Know project with peers, colleagues and allies on social media. To join the team, submit nurses to be included in the project, partner to make the contribution of nurses of color more widely known, or to provide feedback, click here.


Joanna Seltzer Uribe, RN, MSN, is a founding member of SONSIEL (Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs & Leaders) and a member of the inaugural cohort of the Johnson & Johnson Nurse Innovation Fellowship. She is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary Doctor of Education degree at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change & Leadership.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article reflect the experiences and opinions of the nurses themselves and belong solely to the individuals and not necessarily to the individual's employer, organization, committee or other group nor necessarily endorsed by Johnson & Johnson.

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