UW Health’s Black/African American Employee Resource Group first met on a frosty morning in January 2020 at Wingra Clinic, shortly before the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial inequity swept the world.
The idea was to create a support network at UW Health, where the nursing workforce is about 96 percent white. The group is open to any employee who identifies as Black or African American.
“The isolation aspect is huge, the stress of being Black in predominantly white spaces, and coping with the ignorance about what the experience of being Black is like,” says group co-chair Jessi Kendall, BSN, RN, who works with cancer patients on B6/6. “Being able to come together and speak about the challenges in a safe space is so helpful.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the monthly meetings have gone online, but the need to support each other has become even stronger, says co-chair Adrian Jones, a program manager for community health improvement.
“We are very intentional in the meetings about how we can work to support each other in the era of COVID-19, and the racial inequity pandemic, and how that is all interconnected,” Jones said. “We want to make sure everyone has resources they need. The reality of what is going on deeply impacts everyone in our organization.”
Jones participates and serves as an additional resource in the Today Not Tomorrow Pregnancy and Infant Support group led by UW Health newborn hospitalist, Dr. Jasmine Zapata. Jones is also a board member at the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health and Foundation for Black Women’s Health, where Kendall is a health ambassador.
Kendall, a Madison native, went back to nursing school as an adult, and says she’s experienced the impact she has on Black patients.
“When I walk into the room, I see their shoulders relax, and they say, ‘I can actually tell you what I’m feeling.’ This is what quality of care looks like to the patients, it’s not an extra,” Kendall says.
Part of improving care, she said, also involves having “frank conversations” with co-workers to improve care for Black patients. Kendall has been a Diversity and Cultural Congruence Resource Nurse, and has spoken to the Cultural Diversity Resource Group, which Tracey Abitz, DNP, RN, CTN-B, NEA-BC, and director of nursing, helped start about eight years ago.
Abitz says the work grew out of a need to care for patients in a culturally congruent manner. She worked with nursing councils to choose and implement the Purnell Model, to guide nursing practice. In addition, cultural humility elements were woven into nursing orientation, competencies, education and documentation in Health Link. At the state level, she founded the Wisconsin Chapter for Transcultural Nursing in 2013. The global work for the organization has been accelerated by the hiring of Shiva Bidar-Sielaff as UW Health’s first chief diversity officer.
“We know that bias exists and that it affects health outcomes,” Abitz says. “We’ve made some movement forward, but there’s still work that needs to be done. It’s a journey, and we need to actively engage and commit to lifelong learning, self-reflection, and partnership in order to eliminate disparities in health outcomes.”
View the full nursing annual report: