Why Do Nurses Stand Up for Social Justice?

Bonnie Castillo
May 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Patient advocacy ends at the bedside; nurses know it begins out in the world.

This IS patient care.

“Why are nurses out in the street protesting? Can’t they just stay in the hospital, where they belong?” This question arises from time to time, including this week, as National Nurses United RNs celebrate Nurses Week by gathering in D.C. to lobby members of Congress for their support on Medicare for all, patient protection legislation, and other bills to address social needs.

“Can’t nurses just stay in the hospital, where they belong?” has a beautiful answer, centered around a big picture view of health and healing. To better explain, let’s first rewind the journey of our patients, from the bedside, back out into the world — the asthma patient back out into the refinery town, the lead-poisoned child back into the house with corroded pipes, the cardiac patient back out into the apartment where debt collection notices and student loan bills have piled up over the course of sleepless nights.

Nurses rise up for social justice across the U.S. and around the world.

Nurses vow to advocate for the health and safety of our patients, and when we consider the full power of that oath, it’s easy for us to see that the walls of the hospital simply encompass the end result of illnesses and injuries that begin elsewhere. And many times, the beginning of those injuries and illnesses — is preventable. The refinery pollution, the poisoned water, and the economic inequality — these are not given forces that our patients must endure, until they break down. Not if nurses can help it.

Those who ask why we protest, lobby and speak out may not know that nurses have a long, proud history as social justice advocates. The founder of professional nursing, for example, Florence Nightingale (the inspiration behind Nurses Week), was not only famous for helping to heal soldiers during the Crimean War — she also fought to improve healthcare for all British people, advocate for better hunger relief in India, abolish prostitution laws that were endangering women, and expand opportunities for women workers. And there are so many more nurses who have stood up for social justice throughout history, including:

As nurses, we are acutely aware that any threat to the health and safety of our patients can eventually translate into injuries and illnesses that become our job to heal. So in an effort to curb the suffering we see every day, nurses feel compelled to follow the trajectory of a public health crisis out into the world, where it begins, to prevent our patients from ever becoming sick or injured in the first place.

This big picture view of healing is why you will see nurses today advocating for a single payer, Medicare for All healthcare system — including California’s nation-leading SB562 (sponsored by the California Nurses Association/NNU), which would guarantee comprehensive healthcare to all Californians. After all, we are the ones treating the uninsured and underinsured patients who come to us sicker (and who even lose their lives) due to lack of healthcare.

“Raise your hand if you’re not at the bedside because you’re in the California state capitol, supporting SB562 — guaranteed healthcare for all Californians?”

You will also see nurses standing up and saying “No!” to dirty oil pipelines like DAPL and Keystone XL, to coal trains spewing toxic dust, and to other corporate projects that put private profit over the health of our patients and of the communities in which they live. You will find us advocating for clean water, from Flint, to Standing Rock, and spending our vacation time volunteering with NNU’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), providing first aid after an earthquake in Haiti and post-hurricane Katrina.

On our days off, nurses will spend our free time fighting to end runaway greed, in the pharmaceutical industry and on Wall Street, because we know firsthand the ways in which our patients suffer when they must choose between paying for their medication or paying off their crushing debt.

And even when nurses are fighting for bedside protections, we have spent decades working tirelessly on the aspects of those fights that occur away from the bedside, in the legislative arenas where laws are enacted. The 2017 NNU-sponsored national safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios bills, for example, (which would put safety limits on how many patients a nurse can be assigned at one time) are the culmination of dedicated work between NNU nurses and elected officials. In fact, California is the only state in the country that currently has safe nurse-to-patient ratios, and it was the end result of nurses with CNA/NNU fighting for 13 years, rallying and lobbying and showing up at hearings until ratios were law. NNU is also currently sponsoring a safe staffing bill in Ohio, SB55 — and nurses have been rallying at hearings for the bill.

NNU Ohio RNs with Sen. Michael Skindell, author of SB55 (sponsored by NNU). Follow safe staffing for Ohio here.

So if you’ve ever wondered, “Why are those nurses out in the streets, or in elected officials’ offices, standing up for social justice? Why can’t they just stay in the hospital, where they belong?” — it’s important to consider that nurses belong everywhere our patients’ health is in jeopardy. We belong where our voice makes a difference for our patients. Advocating for better public health is not a distraction from our job as bedside nurses; it’s a natural extension of our job as patient advocates and healers.

From Flint, Michigan to Cannonball, North Dakota — yes, you will see NNU nurses in our red scrubs, following the factors that negatively impact our patients’ health, right back to their source. If we can prevent our patients from ever reaching the bedside, then that is the ultimate example of a nurse’s power to heal.

Please join us in our fight for greater health and safety, on all fronts, by joining NNU’s Nurse Health and Safety Campaign. And a special Nurses Week shout out to all nurses, who are constantly standing up for their patients, day in and day out, everywhere it’s necessary.

Bonnie Castillo

Written by

Union Nurse Leader & Medicare For All Activist. Executive Director of @NationalNurses, the Largest U.S. Organization of Registered Nurses.