This nursing grad is leading the fight against anti-Black racism in health care
Nurses often a target of anti-Black racism and face limited career growth, says Athabasca University Master of Nursing grad
Donna Lawrence (Master of Nursing ’22) is paving the way for nurses so they don’t have to face the same anti-Black racism in health care that she did.
Lawrence would like to think that racism doesn’t play a role in hiring decisions. Unfortunately, she’s learned first-hand that it certainly does. Research also shows that minorities, including Black people, who “whiten” their resumes by removing references to race are more likely to land a job interview than other minority candidates.
“I don’t really have an ethnic-sounding name, so when I go for interviews for big roles, you can tell by the way they look at you that you’re not getting that job. That’s exactly what happens,” she said.
“I don’t really have an ethnic-sounding name, so when I go for interviews for big roles, you can tell by the way they look at you that you’re not getting that job. That’s exactly what happens.”– Donna Lawrence (Master of Nursing ’22)
The Black Nurses Leading Change
The group formed at the beginning of the pandemic due to the number of Black nurses with master’s degrees still working at the bedside due to a lack of career growth opportunities for Black graduates in healthcare.
Lawrence explained that the jobs are there, but Black people aren’t the ones getting them. And if they are, they face numerous challenges due to racial bias and inequality.
“When our members hear that every one of us has a shared experience, there is comfort and empowerment in seeing the executive members triumph over adversity,” she said.
Being part of the BNLC has helped Lawrence use her voice to advocate for equality in hiring practices so anyone with similar skills is on equal footing for the same job.
“You should be able to pursue any career you want without issue,” she said.
“You should be able to pursue any career you want without issue.”
Nurses experiencing anti-black racism at work
Since 2018, Lawrence has held the job title of clinical director of care and currently works at a long-term care facility in Ancaster, Ont., where she oversees a nursing department of roughly 100 staff members.
In a previous healthcare job, Lawrence had a horrible racist experience at work. It was in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and she became the target of racist remarks made by a colleague.
When she brought it up with human resources, she was told to “stop being a prima donna.” She knew she had to do something, and promptly resigned from her role.
Wanting to further her education so she could advance her healthcare career and advocate for change in the nursing profession, Lawrence turned to AU to pursue her master’s with a specialization in leadership. She also earned her long-term care administrator certification. But despite these credentials, Lawrence says she’s still often passed over for leadership roles.
“I have the qualifications, but I never get the jobs,” she said. “No one should have to justify their skill set.”
“I have the qualifications, but I never get the jobs. No one should have to justify their skill set.”
Racial inequities faced by Black people in health care
Of course, the implications of racism in nursing and in the health-care system are far-reaching and have impacts for patients, too. Black people face several inequities when it comes to their medical treatment, Lawrence says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are at 3 to 4 times more likely to die during pregnancy or the year following birth than white women. They are also known to be one of the most under-treated for pain.
Lawrence said more training and awareness would help health-care professionals understand such inequities. This would help build a culture of trust in health care.
“It would also be nice to be able to have crucial conversations that don’t result in the dismissal of basic human rights. We just want to have the same rights as anyone else.”
The BNLC creates a safe space for Black nurses and nursing students to share their experiences within the Ontario health-care system, so they don’t have to go through them alone.
“The BNLC has helped me learn how to stand up for myself in the workplace, advocating for change and equity. If it wasn’t for the mentorship and support, I would have resigned from many leadership roles I have had,” said Daria Adèle Juüdi-Hope, director of nursing at Shibogama First Nations Council in Ontario.
“We just want to have the same rights as anyone else.”
Using a Master of Nursing degree to fight anti-Black racism
Lessons from Lawrence’s master’s degree, including working with fellow students from diverse backgrounds, have helped her effect change at work. She’s learned how to advocate for herself, but also her employees.
With a mix of long-term and new staff, many of whom come from diverse backgrounds, she has worked hard to create a safe, supportive environment for her team.
“It’s about engaging with your team in a meaningful way,” she said.
Lawrence hopes her advocacy work with the BNLC, and her combination of lived experiences and education can help her make important changes to the profession. Ultimately, she doesn’t want other Black nurses to face the same discrimination she has throughout her career.
“It’s about trying to change the system and make it more fair for Black nurses.”