Guest Contributor: Kathleen ‘Katie’ Clark, DNP
Edited by Kaija Freborg, DNP
“I can’t breathe.” If these words were uttered in any healthcare setting in the country, an influx of healthcare providers would rapidly respond, attempting to save the person’s life by providing immediate care. These words not only represent the recent murder of George Floyd, but mirror the racial inequities that exist for those who are struggling to breathe most in the worst pandemic in modern history.
As a nurse bearing witness to these atrocities in the city of Minneapolis, I have observed nurses organizing themselves to respond as a collective to these unthinkable problems in real-time by taking immediate action to both maintain safety and fight for justice. These nurses are engaging in emancipatory nursing, a form of nursing that has the potential to dismantle power systems that privilege some over others due to economic means, social status, or hierarchies that create health inequity.1 Nurses must struggle to find the freedom to uncover the dominant health practices that foster Western ideals of health and minimizes nurse’s role to that of a ‘helper’ or a ‘do-gooder.’2
The words, “I can’t breathe,” should call all nurses to action, first to look inward at our role in perpetuating systemic issues related to race and injustice, and then to respond as a collective to undo generations of harm that have traumatized communities and individuals for far too long. Witnessing a man struggle to find oxygen to survive, at the knee of someone who has sworn to protect and serve — undoubtedly warrants a public health crisis be declared and calls for immediate nursing action.
Many nurses voiced, in their stories, frustrations of the constantly changing guidelines from the CDC or the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) that have often created fear and conspiracy theories amongst some mostly well intended people. Unfortunately, while engaging in self-reflection, many of the nurses reported they lacked the energy to continue to participate in social media platforms as the push back from others on these sites felt frustrating and belittling with little change observed. Some nurses felt compelled to take a break from social media sites altogether because of the backlash experienced while trying to dismantle misinformation, such as information regarding wearing a mask in public spaces. Others have taken on this opportunity to do more and respond to needs in innovative ways outside of traditional systems.
Kagan, Smith, and Chinn have provided a framework of action to inspire us to break these shackles in place — known as ‘emancipatory action’ — which require four vital characteristics to be deemed such work. These elements include: “facilitating humanization, disrupting structural inequities, self-reflection, and engaging in communities.”1(p6) While strategically these four elements of emancipatory action have not been used together to tackle the racism that has existed in our care settings for the last 100 hundred years to my knowledge, I have witnessed them being practiced independently by nurses responding to the endless crises that have resulted from the COVID-19 virus and the recent racial justice unrest. While collecting stories from nursing students and nurses in my role as the director of the Health Commons and an assistant professor of nursing at Augsburg University, it is clear that during this pandemic we have taken on the burden of not only caring for patients in practice settings, but also have felt a moral obligation to provide health education to people in social circles, families, and communities.
Take for example Sarah Jane Keaveny, RN, public health nurse, activist, and Augsburg University nursing alum. While buildings closed in response to guidelines set by government bodies due to COVID-19, those who were experiencing homelessness were left with limited options. Typically those in the homeless community access the skyway system, light rail, public library, and other public spaces for shelter, toileting, and rest. But, as the social quarantine measures continued to heighten, more buildings closed, leaving them with limited options to get their basic needs met. One individual experiencing homelessness said to me while at the Health Commons , “It’s like no one cares that we are still out here. I haven’t met anyone with this disease, but I will know people who will die from it because of all these rules.”
Sarah Jane connected with the existing resources of outreach workers and community members engaged in mutual aid to respond to those displaced by social structural inequities in the pandemic through establishing Mobile Outdoor Outreach Drop-in (MOODI) where meals are offered and connections to resources are made everyday of the week at a local park. In addition, while many of the shelters began moving individuals experiencing homelessness into nearby hotels, many of those left on the streets formed or joined existing encampments. Because of the increased numbers in the unsheltered community, disproportionately representative of people of color or indigenous peoples, outreach workers were forced to secure food and water for this marginalized group rather than address long term housing or health issues. Sarah Jane has demonstrated emancipatory action through nursing practice and community engagement; while uplifting human dignity, she engages in communities to respond as a collective, outside of institutions or systems that have limited capacity to respond in the urgent manner required in this pandemic.1
As the infection rates of the pandemic heightened, where black and indigenous populations are dying at alarming rates in comparison to their white counterparts, came the news of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers when he was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit 20 dollar bill at a local grocery store.3 Nurses in our state are coming to know all too well the appalling racial health inequities that exist due to systemic racism; systems of oppression including slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and mass incarceration all tie directly to both wealth and health.4 While emancipatory knowing asks nurses to analyze root causes, such as inquiring why inequities of income related to race exist in the first place, it also requires us to take action in response to undoing these injustices.
The unrest, riots, and violence in response to George Floyd’s death resulted in further displacement of those who were living on the streets of Minneapolis; homeless encampments were destroyed due to false accusations of riot participation, curfews were enforced, and members of the National Guard were deployed. One nurse practitioner, Rosemary Fister, demonstrated disruption of racial policies in this moment when she fought for change in real-time. As people living on the streets sought to find protection from the rubber bullets and tear gas released, she organized herself and others to respond to those left without protection due to structural inequities, or “a host of offenses against human dignity including…poverty, social inequalities….war, genocide, and terrorism.” 5(p8) She was able to negotiate shelter at a local hotel for the unhoused to seek temporary protection.
As those who sought refuge in this space continued their stay past the days of the unrest, later named The Sanctuary Hotel, Rosemary envisioned a way to mobilize and change the policies and procedures relied upon in current systems. She helped organize volunteers to operate the hotel in solidarity founded on the principles of mutual aid, where everyone had membership and human connections were made. Knowing that the complexities of previous traumas and suffering wouldn’t simply end by having shelter, and as more barriers presented themselves, she knew the hotel stay for those unsheltered had to come to an end.
However, this story has inspired a movement in Minneapolis to care for those displaced, to tackle issues of poverty through various means, to approach change using all forms of knowledge while forging a plan ahead with the very people experiencing the targeted oppression as means of disrupting structural inequities. Rosemary has engaged in social justice work in ways that will shape the discipline for the future to come.
These stories of nurses engaging in elements of emancipatory action while caring for marginalized communities in innovative ways during a pandemic and during social unrest, has shed light on what nursing practice can embody. Many nurses fail to recognize, and most have yet to understand, the root source and impact of racial health disparities, which offers an opportunity to challenge our beliefs in what nursing practice should or shouldn’t entail as we are called to respond to unjust situations through collaborative action.1
Whether providing care in our acute care settings or shaping our communities, nurses can no longer ignore the words, “I can’t breathe” as we collectively gasp for air.
1Kagan PN, Smith MC, Chinn PL. Philosophies and Practices of Emancipatory Nursing: Social Justice as Praxis. New York, NY: Routledge; 2014.
2Chinn PL, Kramer MK. Integrated Theory and Knowledge Development in Nursing. 8th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc; 2011.
3Rosalsky G. National Public Radio. How The Crisis Is Making Racial Inequality Worse. May 26, 2020.
4Alexander,M. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press; 2010.
5Farmer, P. Pathologies of power: Human rights, and the new war on the poor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 2004.
About Kathleen (Katie) Clark (pronouns she/her):
Katie is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Augsburg University and is the Director of the Health Commons. She has taught at Augsburg University since 2009 where her primary responsibilities are in the graduate program in courses focused on transcultural nursing, social justice, and civic agency. She also practiced for over eight years in an in-patient hospital in both oncology-hematology and medical intensive care. She has a Masters of Arts in Nursing degree focused on transcultural care and a Doctor of Nursing Practice in transcultural leadership, both from Augsburg University. Katie has been involved in the homeless community of Minneapolis for over 15 years and has traveled to over twenty countries. She lives with her husband and three children in Stillwater, Minnesota.
About Kaija Freborg
Kaija Freborg is the Director of the BSN program at Augsburg University and has been teaching as an assistant professor in the undergraduate and the graduate nursing programs since 2011. Her focus in teaching includes transcultural nursing practice as well as addressing social and racial justice issues in healthcare. She obtained a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in Transcultural Nursing Leadership in 2011 at Augsburg before teaching at her alma mater. Currently her scholarly interest in whiteness studies has her engaging in anti-racist activism work both in nursing education and locally; her aspirations include disrupting and dismantling white supremacy within white nursing education spaces. Previously Kaija had worked at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis, in both pediatrics and neonatal care, for over 15 years