What do the first professionally trained African American nurse, the first black president of the American Nurses Association, the current CEO of the National League for Nursing and the president of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations have in common? They have all been inducted into the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA)’s Institute of Excellence (IOE).

Launched a year and a half ago, the IOE’s purpose is to recognize and celebrate the exceptional accomplishments of African American nurses who have attained the highest standards in the nursing profession and have made significant contributions to improving health care in the U.S. and in the global community. In addition to highlighting the achievements of black nursing leaders, the institute also offers resources for continued leadership development.

The IOE is the brainchild of NBNA immediate past president Bettye Davis-Lewis, EdD, RN, FAAN. During her tenure as president, Davis-Lewis began to feel that black nurses’ outstanding contributions to the profession over the years had all too often gone unrecognized by the larger nursing and health care communities. She shared her concerns with a small group of other African American nursing leaders and presented them with ideas on how the NBNA could provide this long-overdue recognition. Her peers embraced the concept of the Institute of Excellence and formed a committee to develop the IOE’s mission, determine the criteria for inducting nurses into the institute and select the first group of inductees.

“I spoke with some colleagues and then we started working on it,” says Davis-Lewis, who is CEO of Diversified Health Care Systems in Houston, Texas. “We wanted to recognize clinicians, educators, administrators, researchers and other people who were doing outstanding community work in health care.”

After months of planning, the inaugural class of 20 IOE Scholars was inducted on August 11, 2006, at the NBNA’s 34th Annual Institute and Conference in Hollywood, Florida. According to Davis-Lewis, “the current IOE Scholars were chosen because of their significant contributions to the nursing field, both past and present,” particularly in the areas of community service, education, nursing practice, public policy and nursing research. “We want to encourage new and [innovative] leadership in these five domains,” she explains.

The Institute of Excellence’s overall mission is to address evidence-based mortality and morbidity issues that affect all people, with an emphasis on those who are associated with the African diaspora. One of the key objectives is to provide the IOE Scholars with opportunities for leadership in the creation of scientific knowledge that can be put into service to relieve human suffering and promote health improvements throughout the world.

Another of the institute’s goals is to help develop the next generation of IOE Scholars. “My vision includes a mentoring program,” says Davis-Lewis. “Today we’re living in a global society, and the world is looking for the best.”

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Trailblazers and Barrier-Breakers

The current class of IOE Scholars represents many trailblazers, some of whom were inducted posthumously. It includes Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN (1845-1926), who in 1879 became the first African American to graduate from a school of nursing.

Another IOE Scholar who achieved a more recent “first” in the nursing profession is Barbara L. Nichols, DHL, MS, RN, FAAN. In 1978 she became the first African American to serve as president of the American Nurses Association (ANA). “Being named an IOE Scholar is not only a personal honor for me, it also acknowledges the importance of nurses functioning in leadership positions,” says Nichols, who is currently CEO of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS), based in Philadelphia.

Nichols surprised many of her colleagues by winning the presidency of the ANA. “I think it was a shock to everybody, because I was the first minority to run for the highest office,” she says. Nichols notes that before her election, African Americans had served on the ANA’s board, but had not sought the presidency. By setting her sights higher, Nichols helped break down racial barriers and opened up a path for other nurses of color to follow.

“There was not a lot of belief that I would win, but I did! I served two terms, from 1978 to 1982,” she says. “Once somebody wins the election, the ANA is there to support whoever holds that role. Color has nothing to do with it. It’s all about being successful on behalf of the profession.”

Success has been a hallmark of Nichols’ entire nursing career, which includes service in both the public and private sectors. “I have been a practicing nurse for 48 years,” she says. “I am a retired U.S. Navy nurse. I’ve worked in private hospitals as a head nurse and a nursing supervisor, and I’ve taught at a school of nursing [at the University of Wisconsin, Madison], at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

Nichols has also held a gubernatorial appointment as secretary of the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Regulation and Licensing, an umbrella agency for various boards that license and regulate many different occupations and professions. She’s been executive director of both the Wisconsin Nurses Association and the California Nurses Association and she also served on the International Council of Nurses’ board of directors. In the 1970s, Nichols was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now known as the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nichols believes the recognition she has received from being an IOE Scholar will help her in networking with other experts to accomplish her current endeavors at the CGFNS. “My present job focuses on globalization of the nursing profession and the impact of that on the delivery of health care, not only in the United States but around the world,” she explains.

This includes improving health care access and quality in America’s minority communities. “Health disparity is an issue that impacts the African American community [tremendously],” Nichols emphasizes. “I think that we [IOE Scholars] and the NBNA can be a driving force in addressing that issue.”

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Excellence in Academia

Other IOE Scholars achieved their “firsts” in the field of nursing education. “I was privileged to be asked to help open Medgar Evers College [when it was founded in 1970 as] part of the City University of New York, in Brooklyn,” says Hilda Richards, EdD, RN, FAAN, chancellor emerita of Indiana University Northwest and a past president of the NBNA. “I became associate dean of academic affairs at that campus. My mentor at Medgar Evers, who was my boss, encouraged me to continue to pursue my goals.

“I eventually moved to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where I was not only the first African American dean but also the first woman dean. From there, I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where I was the provost and academic vice president, and then I became chancellor at Indiana University Northwest [in Gary, Indiana].”

Richards’ own nursing education began under challenging circumstances. “I graduated with a diploma in nursing in 1956, and this was during segregation,” she recalls. “It was tough, but I became the first African American graduate of the St. John School of Nursing in St. Louis. From there, I started off [my career] as a staff nurse and went on to become a supervisor.”

Richards’ career journey eventually led her to New York City, where she helped set up a community-based psychiatric center in Harlem. Even as she was achieving new “firsts” in her own career, she still found time to contribute to the larger nursing community. “I was active in the National Black Nurses Association and other nursing organizations,” she notes. “I edited the NBNA’s journal for nearly 15 years.”

Even though she is now retired from her position at Indiana University Northwest, Richards continues to make significant contributions to the nursing profession and to efforts to improve the health of minority communities. “I’m officially retired, but I’m very active,” she says. In addition to her continued involvement in the National Black Nurses Association, she is also an officer of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (NCEMNA), an alliance of five associations that includes the NBNA. In addition, she serves on the board of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, is president of a local grassroots prison ministry organization and does volunteer work at area hospices and nonprofits.

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN, is an IOE Scholar who has demonstrated exceptional leadership in nursing education, not just in the U.S. but internationally. From 2001 to 2006, Malone served as general secretary of the prestigious Royal College of Nursing in the United Kingdom, and she is currently CEO of the National League for Nursing (NLN), a nursing education advocacy organization based in New York City.

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“[At NLN], we’re concerned about the science of teaching and nursing education,” she says. “We study ways to make sure we’re teaching in a productive manner and in ways that make a difference in the life of students. We also deal with government funding, faculty development and understanding the international components of nurse education.”

Like many of her fellow IOE Scholars, Malone’s career achievements encompass many different aspects of nursing, from clinical practice to teaching to public policy. She worked as a staff nurse, assistant administrator and director of nursing before accepting a position as dean of nursing at historically black North Carolina A&T State University. Following the trail blazed by Barbara Nichols, Malone served two terms as president of the ANA. She has been particularly active in the role of health care policy-maker. During the 1990s, she was appointed to many influential positions, including deputy assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

As an IOE Scholar, Malone says, she can be an example for her NLN members, which include both nursing schools and individual nursing educators. “It is a model of continued leadership for those who are moving into this career,” she maintains. “I think we [black nurses] should be celebrating our victories every chance we get.”

Innovators and Legislators

Still other IOE Scholars, like Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN, have been instrumental in pioneering new programs and organizations that have had a huge impact in increasing opportunities for minorities in nursing. Williams, who is currently president of NCEMNA, was not only a founding member of that organization but also a founding member of the NBNA, which was established in 1971. “We created the association to give [African American nurses] a voice and the opportunity to shape our destiny,” she says.

Williams is a past president of the NBNA and a former dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Colorado. “I started teaching public health nursing in 1956 in Los Angeles, and I was the first African American nurse to teach in a collegiate-level program in the state of California. Since then, I’ve just moved up the ranks. I’ve been involved in nursing education for my entire career.”

Williams believes that educational, career and leadership opportunities for African American nurses have advanced significantly in the past 30 years, but she feels there is still much work to be done. “Attaining equality and justice in health care for people in [the black] community is a major goal and focus for us,” she says.

As a past president of the NBNA, Davis-Lewis was also inducted as an IOE Scholar. She graduated from Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, and–in her words–has been “working ever since.” Davis-Lewis was the first African American nurse to be selected as a leadership extern in Sigma Theta Tau International, the Honor Society of Nursing, and she has served on several leadership committees in and around Houston. She also has experience in the clinical, administrative and academic aspects of nursing.

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“I guess I’m a workaholic in many ways,” she says. “Initially, my interest was in the area of psychology, but in order to make a living I realized I had to get into nursing. I eventually went on to pursue my master’s and doctorate in education.”

The Institute of Excellence even includes one inductee who is not a nurse. Former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, known for his work in civil rights, received an honorary IOE Scholar award. “Former Congressman Stokes deserves to be an honorary IOE Scholar because of his contributions to health care. In the commissions that he has served on, he’s always supported nurses,” Davis-Lewis explains.

Looking to the Future

Although there is much variety among their individual career paths, the entire group of IOE Scholars can be characterized as people with an uncommon dedication to advancing the quality of professional nursing care and improving the health of medically underserved populations. “All roads lead to quality patient care,” Nichols emphasizes. “No matter how much you accomplish [in your career], no matter what you do, it’s got to be about the quality of patient care.”

While the first group of IOE Scholar awards recognized black nursing excellence from the past to the present, the NBNA is developing new selection criteria for emerging recipients. No one was inducted into the IOE in 2007, but Davis-Lewis says that the selection committee has already identified the next class. “We’ve voted to bring in 10 new IOE Scholars for 2008.”

The NBNA is hoping to expand awareness of the Institute of Excellence. “We’re getting ready to do some fundraising for the IOE, and the nurses are excited,” Davis-Lewis reports. “In the short term, we will hold [some local] events here in Houston. We’ve already selected a diverse fundraising committee. The members come from various professions, not just the field of nursing. The reason we selected members from different fields is because everybody gets sick, so everybody wants a good nurse. There’s a wide variety of people who are interested.”

And in the long term, Davis-Lewis adds, the IOE will continue to help develop future generations of African American nurse leaders and make sure that their accomplishments receive the recognition they deserve. “I would tell young nurses to find good mentors and to pursue their education,” she says. “And we’ll be here to let them know we appreciate the work they do.”

Roster of Excellence

On August 11, 2006, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) inaugurated the Institute of Excellence (IOE). At the inaugural ceremony, 20 IOE Scholars were inducted into the institute for their relentless pursuit of excellence in nursing practice, education, research, community service and public policy. They are:

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Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN,* the first African American graduate nurse

E. Lorraine Baugh, president and CEO, Lena Park Community Development Corporation (Dorchester, Mass.); NBNA past president (1979-1983)

Hattie Bessent, EdD, RN, FAAN, director, Project LEAD (Leadership, Enhancement and Development), a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored program

Linda Burnes Bolton, DrPH, RN, FAAN, vice president and chief nursing officer, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles); president, American Academy of Nursing; NBNA past president (1991-1995)

Rosie Lee Calvin, DNS, RN, consultant/researcher, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Department of Medicine, Hypertension Education and Treatment Partnership (Jackson, Miss.); former NBNA board member

M. Elizabeth Carnegie, DrPA, RN, FAAN, past president, American Academy of Nursing; author, The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide

Bettye Davis-Lewis, EdD, RN, FAAN, CEO, Diversified Healthcare Systems (Houston); NBNA immediate past president (2003-2007)

Rhetaugh Dumas, PhD, RN, FAAN,* former dean, University of Michigan School of Nursing; former associate director, National Institute of Mental Health

Vernice Ferguson, RN, MA, FAAN, former associate chief medical director for nursing programs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

C. Alicia Georges, EdD, RN, FAAN, chairperson, Department of Nursing, Lehman College (Bronx, N.Y.); chairperson, National Black Nurses Foundation; NBNA past president (1987-1991)

Mary Starke Harper, PhD, RN, FAAN,* former program director, National Institute of Mental Health

Ophelia Long, RN, chairperson, Black Congress on Health, Law and Economics; NBNA past president (1983-1987)

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN, CEO, National League for Nursing; former general secretary, Royal College of Nursing (United Kingdom); past president, American Nurses Association; former dean, North Carolina A&T University School of Nursing

Barbara Nichols, DHL, MS, RN, FAAN, CEO, Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools; first African American president of the American Nurses Association

Hilda Richards, EdD, RN, FAAN, chancellor emerita, Indiana University Northwest; NBNA past president (1999-2003)

Carrie Rogers Brown, PhD, RN, NBNA past president (1977-1979)

Lauranne Sams, PhD, RN, NBNA founding president (1973-1977); former dean, Tuskegee University School of Nursing

Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN, president, National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations; former dean, University of Colorado School of Nursing; NBNA past president (1995-1999)

May Wykle, PhD, RN, FAAN, dean, Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing; past president, Sigma Theta Tau International

Louis Stokes, Esq., senior counsel, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey; former U.S. Congressman (Ohio)


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles examining leadership development initiatives at minority nursing associations.

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