A Nursing Program Goes Public
How an academic nursing program is training students to be agents of change in health systems by treating their patients—and themselves—as civic agents.
Since 2014, the nursing department at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, MN, has been learning the theory and practice of public work, translated into the project of preparing “citizen nurses”: nurses who can be change agents in health systems and the broader society while helping their patients to be the same. These curricular and pedagogical innovations prepared them to respond quickly and effectively as the Covid-19 pandemic and racial unrest swept over Minneapolis in the spring and summer of 2020.
Augsburg’s nursing faculty and students were jolted into action. Increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity were forced to live in crowded encampments within the city limits. For these citizens, the trials and hardships of homelessness were compounded by the danger of coronavirus infection. For their fellow citizens in frontline health and human service fields, the reality of ever-increasing numbers of people facing ever-increasing dangers to their immediate and long-term health and wellbeing was a source of constant anxiety, frustration, and sadness.
As the stories of the displaced assumed the proportions of a collectively authored epic tragedy, Augsburg’s citizen nurses decided that they must respond: not through the making of statements or in the language of statistics, but to real people, in real-time, on a local scale. Nursing faculty and students began organizing themselves to bring fresh food and clean water to the encampments, many of which were located in parts of the city desolate of any amenity, public or private, in the flaming wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Then, based on these interactions, they
reached out to mutual aid groups, non-profits, and county workers to ask how their talents, skills, and passions could be tapped to meet the directly expressed needs of their fellow Minneapolitans.
The work of these citizen nurses exemplifies the attitude of “citizen professionalism” that IPLW co-founder Harry Boyte has helped administrators, faculty, and students weave throughout the Augsburg nursing curriculum since the early 2000s. Citizen professionalism invites professionals to explore a more rewarding and meaningful vision of their curriculum vitae, or “life’s course”: a public life, working with communities, not for them or on them. It requires an ethos of co-creation, a commitment to the idea that everyone implicated in any problem must work together not only to solve the problem, but to name and define it in the first place.
In the words of Katie Clark, assistant professor of nursing and executive director of the Augsburg Health Commons, “being citizen nurses means that we are working to strengthen our communities in ways that avoid the expert model. We see people as collaborators and co-creators.” By adopting this public-work approach, Clark continues, “Augsburg nursing students are changing their worldviews in ways that benefit our society. Our hope is to continue to do just that.”