Nursing and activism: Decker alumni fight social injustice

Many Decker College nursing alumni incorporate activism into their practice of nursing. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Many Decker College nursing alumni incorporate activism into their practice of nursing.
Many Decker College nursing alumni incorporate activism into their practice of nursing. Photography: Pixabay.

Whether you call it activism or advocacy, it’s nothing new for nurses. Since the beginning of the profession, nurses have been standing up for others who may not be able to stand up for themselves, giving voices to those who aren’t being heard and working to effect positive changes in health and well-being. Nurses advocate for their patients, their communities and society in general.

Nursing alumni from Binghamton University’s Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences are no different. Here are a few of their stories.

A deep-rooted desire to help others

Sheldon D. Fields ’91, MS ’95, lives by a personal motto partly adapted from an African American proverb that dates back to the time of slavery: Each one, teach one, lift one. This motto has instilled in him an obligation to give back to the communities that nurtured his growth.

The family nurse practitioner, educator (he taught at Decker from 2000-01), researcher, health policy analyst, administrator and nurse entrepreneur has worked for years in the field of behavioral health research, specializing in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention.

“The crux of my research for my entire career has mainly been HIV and AIDS prevention in communities of color, primarily with men of color whose principal risk of acquisition has been sex with other men,” Fields said.

He previously conducted research in the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and HIV Prevention Trials Network, the world’s largest international collaborations focused on preventing the acquisition and transmission of HIV and developing vaccines to prevent it. Fields is currently performing biomedical research around pre-exposure prophylaxis, or prep, which is the taking of antiretroviral medications to prevent HIV infection in those who are most at risk.

“My commitment to my work is deeply personal and long standing, and it keeps me on the forefront as a researcher, as an advocate and as a health policy specialist,” he said.

In 2009, Fields was the first-ever male nurse selected for the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship Program, which brought him to the nation’s capital where he worked for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) on issues related to the Affordable Care Act. He advocated for and promoted the ACA, and when it passed, Fields presented workshops and information sessions to help with its implementation.

He believes that healthcare is a basic human right, and he continues to advocate for expanding access to quality healthcare nationwide. According to Fields, activism or advocacy is part of a nurse’s job.

“The role of being an advocate is part of the Code of Ethics in nursing, but it becomes more important for those working with populations that have been left out of the equation,” he said. “Nurses — especially in Black communities or marginalized communities — are trusted entities within those communities. We understand the very complex healthcare system and we know how to navigate it, so we are often the ones called on to assist people.”

In addition to advocating for patients, Fields advocates for Black nurses through his membership in, and now leadership of, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). He joined as a doctoral student in 1998, helped establish the Greater New York City Chapter in 2017, was appointed to the NBNA’s board of directors in 2017 and was elected national first vice president in July 2020.

The NBNA works “to serve as the voice for Black nurses and diverse populations, ensuring equal access to professional development, promoting educational opportunities and improving health.” Fields views his service to the NBNA as part of his “professional and personal calling to elevate the voices of Black nurses while also finding ways to combat social injustice.”

As he continues to work for both equality and equity, Fields calls upon nursing schools and professional nursing organizations to encourage greater diversity in the profession.

“Right now, the nursing profession is over 80% white and 90% female,” Fields said. “We cannot continue with those numbers. We need to diversify the nursing workforce. If we don’t, we are going to lose one of our basic tenets, which is serving our entire society. We cannot do that with the current makeup of our nursing workforce.”

He added, “One day, I’m going to need a nurse. When I do, I hope it will be someone who understands where I come from, my values and my experiences.”

Adversity builds community

Edwin Torres ’10, MS ’14, a family nurse practitioner at the Fleischer Institute for Diabetes and Metabolism at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, has a different way of fighting social injustice.

His approach: Community empowerment.

In 2015, Torres established the Hamilton Heights Tenant Association to hold the landlord of his apartment building accountable for discrepancies in rent, refusing to make basic repairs and more than 150 housing violations. The group hired an attorney, worked with a tenants’ rights community organization and went on a rent strike until the landlord agreed to renovate all the apartments. Torres refused renovations in his apartment until all the others were completed.

“Creating the tenant’s association allowed us to balance the power between the landlord and the tenants,” he said.

Five years later, Torres still lives in the apartment and continues as the association’s president. His group works with tenants in other buildings, some owned by the same landlord he fought against.

“We try to empower people and get them to understand that when they come together as a unit they can demand what is just,” he said.

Coming together to solve a common problem has an added benefit: It creates a sense of family and community.

“Now, everybody talks to each other and knows each other,” Torres said. “When COVID-19 hit, we all started checking on our elderly neighbors, getting them groceries and making sure they’re OK.”

In addition to his work on the tenant association, Torres is on the City of New York Community Board 9 Manhattan, where he serves as co-chair of the Health and Environment Committee. He is also working on a PhD at Decker College, researching housing instability and the impact it has in patients diagnosed with diabetes.

While his roles on the tenant association and the community board could be considered political, Torres doesn’t like politics and never intended to get involved in them.

“But I understand that this is the system that rules us, and if you’re not engaged, you’re going to have other folks dictating how you will live and how things impact you,” he said.

As a result, Torres encourages nurses to become more involved. “We should be part of the conversation. More of us should be in Congress, in the Assembly,” he said.

“Nursing has been the most trusted profession for 18 years now, and that says something,” Torres added. “Nurses put others before themselves and we want to help; that’s just in us. And that gives us an advantage when we are in a position to affect change.”

A force to be reckoned with

Shantay Carter ’00 wants to empower others, so the registered nurse, bestselling author, public speaker and mentor created three nonprofit organizations to do just that.

Women Of Integrity Inc. educates and empowers women of all ages and ethnicities. The organization’s outreach efforts include an annual prom dress drive and giveaway, women in business brunch and high school mentoring programs. Women Of Integrity also advocates for women’s rights.

Like its “sister” organization, Men Of Integrity Inc. aims to empower young men to become future leaders through mentoring, education, entrepreneurship, leadership and service.

“Social justice reminds us that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities and to be treated without prejudice,” Carter said.

Her latest effort is co-launching Nurses Of Integrity “to uplift, celebrate and advocate for nurses.” The organization traveled to Albany to advocate on behalf of nurses and spread awareness about healthcare disparities.

“As a nurse, it’s my job to make sure that I am advocating for my patients, ensuring that they are being treated fairly, receiving adequate care and that their rights as patients are being upheld,” Carter said. “It is also my job to educate and empower my patients in order for them to make informed decisions.”

Carter, who works on the orthopedic and trauma units at Northshore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., said her desire to incorporate activism into nursing comes from her own life experiences.

“I have experienced racism and lack of opportunities due to the fact that I am Black or because I am a woman,” she said. “In our society, Black women are looked down upon and stereotyped. I knew that in order for me to break those barriers, I had to become a change agent. I had to become a voice for the voiceless, so that others would not have to go through what I did. I believe in things being fair and just.”

A member of the American Nurses Association, Carter recently advocated for her fellow nurses during the pandemic by writing to local legislators about the need for more personal protective equipment (PPE), safer working conditions and job security for frontline workers affected by the coronavirus.

Carter participates in a nurse mentorship program at Northwell Health. She also finds time to mentor others, including Decker students, women in her community and aspiring entrepreneurs.

“I believe in reaching back and pulling up the next person behind you,” she said. “Having the right mentor can make all the difference in a person’s life and career.”

One of her lessons for nursing students (read more in the sidebar above) is to speak out.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up against any injustice that you see,” she said. “If you remain silent, you remain complacent.”

“Use your voice, because there is strength in numbers,” Carter added. “When nurses come together as a profession, we are a force to be reckoned with.”