1971. The United States is still embroiled in the Vietnam War, and The New York Times fuels the fire by publishing the Pentagon Papers. National Public Radio transmits its first broadcast, Walt Disney World Resort opens in Florida, NASDAQ debuts on Wall Street, and a specialized nursing organization, the National Black Nurses Association, is born.

This is the NBNA through the eyes of those who know it best—the nurses who were there from the beginning and the nurses who are carrying the organization into the future. 

A history lesson

Dr. Lauranne Sams saw a deficiency. She was already a minority as a black woman, then part of an even smaller minority as a black nurse, and she had no way of connecting with other black nurses for support or career development. Black nurses needed a collective voice and a venue for collaboration, not just for professional advancement, but to represent the health care needs of all African Americans. 

Sams started by sharing her ideas with seven other black nurses at the 1969 National League for Nursing convention. At the American Nurses Association conference of 1970, she met with more than 150 additional nurses. By 1971, the group voted the National Black Nurses Association into existence. 

It was 40 years ago—half a lifetime—that Sams, a former Dean and Professor of Nursing at the Tuskegee University School of Nursing in Alabama, founded the National Black Nurses Association. It stands as a resource for black nurses everywhere, giving them a place to share best practices, discuss pressing issues, and foster unity through a set of common goals. Today, the NBNA represents 150,000 African American nurses, with 80 chapters in 34 states.

The NBNA in 2011

“NBNA advocates for the well-being of underserved populations,” says Debra A. Toney, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., current President of the NBNA and an administrator at TLC Health Care Services in Las Vegas, Nevada. “It provides a voice and vehicle for black nurses to advocate for change that is needed in our communities.”

Nurses are generally regarded as the most accessible and trusted members of the health care team. They also often serve as community liaisons, representing their patients’ interests in health care research and policymaking. The NBNA’s programs reflect both the clinical and political facets of nursing.

Members affect government policy; provide public health education and training; help ensure patient access to affordable, quality health care; and strive to eliminate health disparities. “By being a member I developed a keen sense of accountability to improve the conditions in communities of color,” Toney says.

The NBNA is responsible for National Black Nurses Day on Capitol Hill, and has been for over 20 years. Hundreds of nurses gather to promote awareness to legislators, particularly regarding health care disparities and overarching problems affecting nursing as a whole.

In its more recent past, the NBNA joined the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association, the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, and the Philippine Nurses Association of America to form the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations. Together they represent 350,000 nurses.

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The NBNA also advocates for African Americans by serving on the advisory committees for a slew of federal agencies, including the Office of Minority Health, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.

Other NBNA programs include the National Obesity Initiative, which challenged NBNA members to lose weight and exercise more in addition to hosting educational sessions, as well as the NBNA Women’s Health Research Program. The NBNA also publishes the peer-refereed Journal of the National Black Nurses Association and the National Black Nurses Association Newsletter.

“Your voice has a chance to be heard, at the local, state, and national level,” says Lola Denise Jefferson, R.N.C., B.S.N., C.V.R.N., a Nursing Supervisor at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas. “Also, there is more of a chance to serve as officers on the national level. NBNA has a newsletter and journal where you can have your articles published. There are various opportunities to present a lecture and/or a poster presentation at the annual national conference.”

A number of organizations, including the U.S. Office of Minority Health, have awarded the NBNA grants to further its mission. The NBNA, in turn, supports the goals of other individuals and organizations by awarding grants and scholarships.

Yet, some may point to improved race relations, even to the inauguration of the first black U.S. president, and wonder why an organization like the NBNA is still necessary. “Contrary to the notion of a post-racial society, we are not there yet,” says Patricia McManus, Ph.D., R.N., G.C.N.P.M., President/CEO of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, Inc. In the context of nursing, health and patient economic disparities persist, even run rampant in some areas.

“The NBNA is a vehicle to address disparities in health care by advocating for culturally competent care and for increasing in the number of black nurses providing that care,” McManus says. “NBNA also provides the emotional support to black nurses that is so critical for the growth and survival of black nurses in the educational settings and the workplace.”

“Business as usual no longer works,” Toney says, citing a need for higher health care standards. The NBNA hopes to serve as a change agent and resource in that effort. “I envision NBNA as an organization that accepts excellence in health care as minimum criteria in all that we do.”

Strength in numbers

Audwin B. Fletcher, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., F.N.P.-B.C., remembers watching nurses attentively care for his sick grandmother when he was just another college student studying biology. “Instantly, I knew this was I had to do,” he says. Now a professor and the Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Fletcher is committed to caring for the underserved and underinsured, promoting optimal health in the African American community.

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“NBNA is as strong or as weak as the sum total of its parts,” Fletcher says, and his NBNA colleagues echo his sentiment. “The degree to which we are willing to be guided by our historical development; the amount of time we are willing to put in; the enthusiasm we wish to show; the problems we are willing to personally tackle; and the proposals we are willing to generate will all collectively shape the course that the organization will inevitably take.” The NBNA, Fletcher says, must set an example. 

“The mission of the organization sums it up,” Fletcher says. “To provide a forum for collective action by black nurses to investigate, define, and advocate for the health care needs of African Americans and to implement strategies that ensure access to health care, equal to, or above health care standards of the larger society. Needless to say, the struggle—the plight of the African American nurse—continues.”

The annual NBNA conference

Professional conferences and annual meetings may conjure images of long lectures in stuffy hotel ballrooms and weekends spent in not-so-exotic locales. But they’re part of the job, right? For many members, the NBNA’s annual conference held a much deeper significance.

Catherine Roscoe-Herbert, D.N.P., R.N., G.N.P.-B.C., C.N.S.Catherine Roscoe-Herbert, D.N.P., R.N., G.N.P.-B.C., C.N.S.

“In 1984 I was a student and heard that the National Black Nurses Conference was convening in New Orleans, Louisiana. While attending the conference and seminars, I was overwhelmed with the intelligence and educational preparation of so many African American nurses who held high positions across the nation,” says Eric J. Williams, D.N.P., M.S.N., B.S.N., R.N., a nursing professor at Santa Monica Community College in California. “‘Overwhelmed’ would describe my behavior at that time, mainly because I had no African American nurses to serve as role models or mentors while enrolled in my B.S.N. program at William Carey University. The conference was an exciting time for me. This was a mechanism to develop relationships and make friends with local members of NBNA and others from different regions.”

The NBNA has evolved from its first conference, held in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1973, the theme of which was Emerging Roles for Black Nurses: Responsibility, Accountability, and Militancy. Today, the annual conference brings over 1,000 nurses together for clinical lectures, product exhibits, and award and scholarship presentations.

President Toney first encountered the NBNA at its 1995 national conference. “Being in the presence of so many black nurses from all over the U.S. at one time was powerful to me,” Toney says. “After speaking with the national president for a moment it became apparent to me that I must become involved.” Motivated by the significant health disparities she saw in populations of color, Toney founded the NBNA’s Nevada chapter and worked her way through the ranks to NBNA President in YEAR. “I wanted to help people improve their quality of their lives,” she says. “That was 15 years ago. NBNA gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people along the way.”

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“I went to my first NBNA conference in 1980. I was in awe,” McManus says. The nurses in attendance showed her that leadership opportunities existed outside of her current clinical role—and that black nurses held those positions. “We did not have black nurses running schools of nursing or nursing departments in Milwaukee. . . . I knew that if I wanted to make a difference in my community, I had to be in a leadership position.” Since that first meeting, McManus has missed only one NBNA conference. “It is an annual renewal of my spirit,” she says.

Mentored toward success

“Each one, reach one; each one, teach one.” Patricia C. Lane, R.N., B.S.N., M.B.A., heard this mantra from her parents as a child growing up in Virginia. They instilled in her a belief that caring for others isn’t just an ideal, but a necessity. Her childhood fascination with microbiology, paired with the nurturing instinct, became a passion for neuroscience nursing. Now the Neuroscience Coordinator for the Bon Secours Richmond Health System in Virginia, Lane was yet another NBNA scholarship recipient, and the money funded her education at George Mason University.

Eric J. Williams, D.N.P., M.S.N., B.S.N., R.N.Eric J. Williams, D.N.P., M.S.N., B.S.N., R.N.

Lane credits the NBNA for giving her the opportunity to work with some of the biggest movers and shakers in health care, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Senator Harry Reid, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health Garth Graham. “The mentorship, support, and resources I have received as being part of this organization is truly amazing,” she says. “I truly believe being part of NBNA was in my blood.

“The National Black Nurses is the only organization for black nurses that fosters caring specifically for the African American community,” Lane says. “Nurses are able to embrace, nurture, and educate.” Such a focus is crucial, she says, to drive a foundational shift toward culturally competent and preventive care. Lane predicts the NBNA will become a future research and policy leader.

“I do not think I would have matriculated from a staff nurse to supervisor or instructor of nursing to professor of nursing if it had not been for NBNA,” Williams says. “The high level of mentorship and role models in the organization assisted me to develop as a professional nurse. The leadership institutes and symposiums held each year by well-credentialed and qualified leaders often helps in developing minorities in the pipeline.”   

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To Williams, there’s no question about it: the NBNA is a leader in health care, influencing changes that affect millions of people. “We have the best of the best appointed to governmental committees to represent the needs of African Americans and other minorities,” Williams says. “We are at the table making powerful decisions regarding health care policy and the development of resolutions to identify our stance on certain health care issues.” Williams cites a number of reform initiatives, including the Quality Safety Education for Nurses (QSEN) and National Patient Safety Goals programs. “I am excited about our future,” he says. “We are a premier nursing organization!”

Looking to the future

One of NBNA’s newest members, Bereshith Adams, M.S.N., B.S.N., originally wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Raised in Harlem, New York City, Adams is one of nine brothers and sisters. He says his mother, a maternity nurse at Harlem Hospital, encouraged him to look at the UConn School of Nursing. He says he met “wonderful people there and saw all that nursing had to offer.”

Lola Denise Jefferson, R.N.C., B.S.N., C.V.R.N.Lola Denise Jefferson, R.N.C., B.S.N., C.V.R.N.

As a nurse, you can travel all over the world, help those who need it most, and influence politics and policy, Adams says. “When they told me all that, I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’” He graduated from the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing on May 7 of this year.

Adams’ manager at Hartford Hospital, an NBNA member, suggested he join the organization, which he did. “It was a very uplifting experience to see that there were many black nurses,” he says. They were highly educated, pursuing graduate degrees, and entrepreneurial, Adams says. “That really showed me that if they can do it, I can do it.” Adams also received scholarships from the national and Connecticut NBNA chapters. “They also helped me pursue my graduate education,” he says.

Like many young professionals, Adams had moments of doubt surrounding his career choice. Then he attended the 2010 national NBNA conference in San Diego. Adams says he heard so many stories of struggles and triumph, of overcoming adversity. “It gave me not only hope, but it gave me determination. . . . I still keep in contact with some of those people,” he says. “They’re just a dial away.”

The NBNA welcome new nurses, Adams says. Veteran members understand the importance of the next generation and are dedicated to training them. “They’re not afraid of you taking their positions—they want you to!”

Adams hopes to see a flood of new young, enthusiastic nurses join the NBNA. He says he wants to see more black RNs become politically involved too. “We’re only as strong as our numbers,” he says. “It’s important that we get people’s voices heard.”

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So what lies ahead for the NBNA? Its members hope to see a number of advancements. Catherine Roscoe-Herbert, D.N.P., R.N., G.N.P.-B.C., C.N.S., is looking forward to a sustainable future with increased membership, ideally fostered by “a stronger position in recruiting minority nurses from high school.” Roscoe-Herbert has been with the NBNA for 24 of her 31 years in nursing. She currently serves various administrative roles in the University Hospitals Case Medical Center for Geriatric Medicine, as well as an adjunct clinical faculty member at the Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University, both in Ohio. “Each nurse must develop an identity, poise, professionalism. Each nurse needs encouragement and support. Each nurse needs mentorship and to later become a mentor,” Roscoe-Herbert says. “There is so much to achieve.”

Audwin B. Fletcher, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., F.N.P.-B.C.Audwin B. Fletcher, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., F.N.P.-B.C.

“This is an exciting time to be a black nurse,” Lane says. “Utilize the numerous opportunities to continue education and to network  . . . only NBNA can provide.”

“The networking and scholarly mentors available will assist you in the development of skills and knowledge integral to upward mobility in the profession of nursing,” Williams says. “The lifelong lessons you will discover will pave the way for your future endeavors.”

“Continue to get more education,” McManus says, and never turn down an opportunity to learn. Her advice for the next generation of black nurses? “Most importantly, they must not forget those who came before them and those they must help who are coming behind them.”

“I actually think my path would have been a lot different than it is now [without the NBNA],” Toney says. “I have met nurses who have served as mentors, role models, and friends to me. The organization gave me a sense of worth and the desire to be an advocate for nurses and the community. It taught me that the greatest gift is to give back to mankind to end human suffering.

“Everyone will need a nurse at some point in their life,” Toney says. “As society continues to become more diverse, there is an increasing demand for black nurses.” She goes on, addressing potential NBNA recruits with the assurance of a U.S. Army campaign. “Align yourself with the leaders of NBNA. Stay the course. Be the best in all that you do,” she says. “And join the NBNA today.”

For information regarding joining the NBNA or starting your own chapter, visit www.nbna.org, call 800-575-6298, or e-mail [email protected].

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