As the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (NCEMNA), the unique “association of associations” dedicated to eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities through the creation of a cadre of minority nurse scientists, moves forward into its second decade, who better to guide the continuation and expansion of its mission than Antonia M. Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN—one of the nation’s most preeminent nursing researchers, educators and minority health advocates?

Last March, Dr. Villarruel, the founding vice president of NCEMNA since its inception 11 years ago, became the coalition’s new president. She succeeds originating president Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN, who led the organization for its first 10 years.

The National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations was founded in December 1998 to provide a strong, unified voice for all nurses of color, regardless of their different ethnicities. Its five member associations are:

  • The Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association (AAPINA)
  • The National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association (NANAINA)
  • The National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN)
  • The National Black Nurses Association (NBNA)
  • The Philippine Nurses Association of America (PNAA).

Dr. Villarruel, who is associate dean of research and the Nola J. Pender Collegiate Chair in Health Promotion at the University of Michigan School of Nursing in Ann Arbor, brings to NCEMNA’s presidency an extensive background in health disparities research and practice. She has held many national leadership positions, including president of NAHN (1996-1998) and co-chair of the Diversity Working Group of the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Advisory Council on Nursing Education and Practice. She has also served on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s HIV/STD/TB Prevention Advisory Council. In 2007 she was elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM), where she is working to shape national health policy on issues like health reform and HIV screening.

Dr. Villarruel, whose own research focuses on health promotion in Latino populations and HIV risk reduction interventions for Latino youth, has been recognized by numerous national and local organizations for her service and scholarship. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and in 2004 she was inducted into the Michigan Nurses Hall of Fame.

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In an interview with Minority Nurse in fall 2009, Dr. Villarruel discussed NCEMNA’s history and accomplishments as well as future directions and her presidential goals. Here are some highlights of that conversation.

Q: Why was NCEMNA founded?

Eleven years ago, a group of leaders from the four founding minority nursing associations (NBNA, NAHN, AAPINA and NANAINA) who were attending the Third Invitational Minority Nursing Congress, “Caring for the Emerging Majority: A Blueprint for Action,” sponsored by the [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’] Division of Nursing, met informally and thought of an innovative strategy: to form a united coalition that would enable [the associations] to leverage their combined expertise. We saw the value of uniting to create one voice to advocate for equity and justice in nursing and in health care for all ethnic minority populations. When the Philippine Nurses Association of America learned about the coalition, it joined us, bringing the total number of member associations to five.

Q: As you look back on the early days of NCEMNA, what memories do you have?

Working with the intergenerational minority nurse leaders who helped found NCEMNA was a wonderful learning experience, both personally and professionally. I learned so much from wise and experienced older nurses who continue to be energetically committed to NCEMNA’s mission and vision, and who continue to share their rich legacies. Betty Smith Williams and Hilda Richards from the NBNA, Melen McBride from the PNAA and Mi Ja Kim from AAPINA are just some of the nurses who have shared their distinctive and valuable leadership experiences, challenges, styles and methods of negotiation and communication that have woven together to form our common voice.

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Q: What were some of NCEMNA’s greatest accomplishments during its first decade?

The establishment and sustainability of the organization has been a great achievement [in and of itself. In terms of specific programs,] NCEMNA developed the Nurse Scientist Stimulation Project, through a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, to increase the number of minority nurse researchers [who can investigate solutions for eliminating racial and ethnic] health disparities. The Nurse Scientist Stimulation Project has developed mechanisms to support the researchers at all levels of their careers and has engaged ethnic minority nursing students to consider nursing research as a career.

[In 2003] the coalition received a grant from the Aetna Foundation to support the annual Aetna/NCEMNA Scholars Program, which provides nurse researchers with opportunities for learning and career advancement through mentorship experiences.

We also launched a Web site and created a database for minority nurse researchers and students, to help promote communication and exchange of ideas among current and potential NCEMNA researchers. In 2001 and 2002, NCEMNA published five white papers on the health status of ethnic minority populations, including recommendations for nursing research. The coalition also participated in two collaborative workshops with the National Institute of Nursing Research and presented “Eliminating the Nursing Shortage: Ethnic Minority Nurses, An Untapped Resource” at the national biennial convention of the American Nurses Association in 2002.

Since 2005, NCEMNA has held [its own] annual national conferences to mentor minority nurse researchers from each of the five member minority nurse associations. On the occasion of NCEMNA’s 10th anniversary, the coalition hosted a reception on November 1, 2007 at the congressional Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and celebrated with its supporters.

Q: Where is NCEMNA headed as it enters its second decade?

NCEMNA will continue its strong focus on research—developing [a network of] ethnic minority nurse scientists who will make a difference [in eliminating] health care disparities. Research was the vehicle that brought us together, and [it has enabled us to make] a strong impact.

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However, NCEMNA also needs to be about more than research. For example, there is a clinical practice component in addressing health disparities.

We need to expand and advance into other areas. At this critical time, with all the changes and proposed changes in health care, we must be clear about [what needs to be done on behalf of minority nurses and communities] and have a voice around the health policy table. The biggest impact we can make is in the policy area.

Q: What are some of NCEMNA’s short- and long-term goals under your presidency?

Currently we are looking to secure funding for our ongoing initiatives and for future policy-related activities. We plan to continue as a force to advocate for minority nurses and minority populations, and to strengthen our core [member associations] and continue our synergistic relationship [with each other]. As a coalition of associations, we can only be as strong as our member organizations. NCEMNA strengthens the individual associations by providing resources and leadership opportunities, and we are strengthened by them.

Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with different ethnic minority nursing associations?

Each group has a sense of pride in its own identity that each has fought hard to establish. It is a challenge for each individual organization to stay true to itself and maintain its uniqueness while working together with the other groups.

I treasure the unique characteristics and strengths that each member association has brought to NCEMNA: a strong sense of advocacy and moving forward from the NBNA; a deep sense of spirituality from the NANAINA; the camaraderie of the NAHN; a sense of respect from AAPINA; and an open and welcoming embrace from the PNAA.

The coalition’s success has been built on a mutual respect for each other’s history, struggles and contributions to nursing and to our respective communities. An important piece of this effort was our ability to sit around the table and, on a one-on-one basis, share stories and issues [relating to both our individual and common concerns and goals]. By coming together, we widened the circle of support that we have outside of our own organizations. The work [of building our collective relationship] is a continual effort of building trust and a solid base as we move forward together. We work very hard at this.

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Q: Is NCEMNA looking to expand its membership to include other ethnic minority nursing associations?

We have five core member associations [representing populations] that are uniquely embedded in the history of this country and who have been historically underserved and discriminated against in the United States. We welcome other organizations but they would be considered in a different membership category. The National Association of [Asian] Indian Nurses of America, for example, has representatives participating in the Aetna/NCEMNA Scholars Program. Their membership came through the AAPINA, which includes nurses from India and Southeast Asia.

Q: What unique opportunities does NCEMNA provide for the minority nursing community?

As individual [nurses of color], we frequently find ourselves in the position where we are, or are expected to be, advocates for all minority nurses, students, patients and communities. So it makes sense to model this at a national level [by having an organization] that provides support and leadership for what [so many of us are already doing on an individual level in our workplaces and educational institutions].

Q: What does NCEMNA have to offer nursing in general?

NCEMNA is an important model for everyone in nursing, not just ethnic minority nurses and organizations. Our member associations, individually and collectively, create a vital link to medically underserved communities.

As a unified coalition, NCEMNA has been able to look at the things we share in common, rather than the things that make us different or set us apart. In nursing, there is often disagreement, even fighting, between different groups within the profession—for example, specialty areas of nursing. Instead of focusing on the things that divide us, NCEMNA believes that strength and collective power lies in speaking with one voice. To work together in this way takes commitment, energy and mutual respect. NCEMNA has demonstrated that we’ve been able to do this.

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Q: NCEMNA is an excellent national model for how ethnic minority organizations in other fields and professions can work together. What advice can you give them?

What has worked for us may or may not make sense for other organizations. One of the things that helped us early on was the fact that many of our five member associations were already mature. They had a history and had worked through their own internal issues within their groups. Minority organizations that are newly forming have to go through this process before they can reach out to other organizations. They need to find their own common voice and agenda, form a stable organization and maintain their identity before they can move forward to work with other groups who are different.

Twenty years ago, NCEMNA would not have been able to achieve its accomplishments, because we [as individual minority nursing associations] weren’t ready. At this point in time, NCEMNA [and its member associations are] sure of who we are and what our membership base is. Now it’s time to see what we can do as we collaborate with others.

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