There is a puzzling thing that happens for many of us when someone seems to notice that something we are doing or have done deserves notice. I have experienced this myself – when a representative from the American Nurses Association called to inform me that they were giving me a “Human Rights Award.” My response – “Thank you, but I can’t imagine what I have done to receive this.” Once I began to reflect on my knee-jerk response, I started to notice how common it is – amazing nurses who are involved in all sorts of remarkable activist work, who wonder if they “qualify” to be called an activist, or if their work deserves recognition.
Another couple of common responses that I have heard, and have in fact heard myself saying – “I was just doing my job,” or “I just did what had to be done.” These responses hold a possible clue as to what it means to be an “activist.” We see something that needs to be done, or changed, or addressed in some way, and we do what needs to be done. No standing by on the sidelines, and no turning the other way – but stepping up to respond and to do what seems obvious that needs to be done.
Another aspect that comes up as I reflect on this is the fact that many of us are women, and feel uncomfortable having a spotlight focused on us. We prefer to just go about our business and stay out of the limelight. Or, we have trouble blowing our own horn, and acknowledging our accomplishments. Some men of course may have similar responses but the fact remains that there is a long history of women (and nurses) remaining in the background and not being credited with the important work we do. And surprise – it turns out that it is not easy to now be among those who find ourselves being credited with something notable — who, me?
For many activists, there is a clear and important focus – a dedication to a specific cause, catastrophe, or injustice. Some of the causes are very demonstrable tragedies, such as gun violence. Some of the causes are “known” but instances of the problem that needs to change are elusive – such as racism or homophobia. But having a focus is not necessarily what defines activism, and in fact most of the ‘focused” forms of activism quickly spill over into other concerns, since the intersectionality of all social problems leads to vast and complex networks of injustices.
Sometimes a “cause” is very “small” – perhaps it is something close to home, and perhaps not very “political.” One of the most inspiring examples of this is the activism of a 13-year-old I know – he was upset that even after several children being injured and one killed at an intersection in his neighborhood, the city was paying no attention to certain safety measures that could be taken to make the intersection safer. So he organized a public demonstration to draw attention to the problem! Or consider the effort made by a couple of students enrolled in a nursing program where there was no mention of LGBTQ health problems. They asked for time on the agenda of a faculty meeting and prepared a 10 minute presentation to draw attention to the problem.
I am not sure if the 13-year-old kid, or the nursing students would call themselves “activists” – but I certainly do! I know that there are many nurses who I call activists who may not claim this title for themselves. Does it matter? As a label, probably not. But as a matter of collectively recognizing that our efforts, big and small, local or national or international, personal or political — these are all significant and do deserve to be acknowledged! Each and every act that challenges an unjust or dangerous status quo is important. In one way, these actions are never enough – the struggle to right injustices, harmful conditions, and dangers is never-ending. But in another way, each and every act is enough to deserve recognition and to inspire all of us to do the same!
Peggy Chinn is Professor Emerita of Nursing at the University of Connecticut. She is the founding Editor of Advances in Nursing Science and authors books and journal articles on nursing theory, feminism and nursing, the art of nursing, writing and publishing, and nursing education. She is co-founder and web manager of the Nurse Manifest Project, a project (www.nursemanifest.com) to inspire and empower grass-roots action by nurses to shape the future of nursing and health care based on nursing’s fundamental values. She is most recently manager of the new website Nursology.net (https://nursology.net/) a repository for resources and events related to the development, study and application of nursing knowledge. Her book and website focused on cooperative group process, Peace and Power (https://peaceandpowerblog.org/), is grounded in critical feminist theory and nursing philosophy, and is recognized as a model for critical research methods, teaching and learning, and political action.