Stand Up and Stand By It: Student Nurses Advocate for Equality
By Joseph Gaccione
“In 10 years, will you look back and say, ‘You know what? I did my part as a human being.’ That’s where I’m at right now.”
Nikule Abel can’t predict if her actions will have a long-term impact when it comes to fighting for social equality. But that’s not stopping her from trying. “[My kids] will ask, ‘What did you do, Mom, in that time?’ I was out there rallying with my community.”
Abel wears many hats. UNLV nursing student. A mother. Secretary of the Student Nurses Association (SNA) and new director of the National Student Nurses Association (NSNA). She put on another hat these past few weeks: equality advocate. Nurses are advocates by nature. They don’t judge race, ethnicity, or background in order to prioritize treating a patient. They frequently see firsthand the factors that can contribute to inequity, not just for the patient, but the nurses themselves.
On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee down on his neck for several minutes, even while Floyd was handcuffed and said he couldn’t breathe. Floyd’s death has reignited calls across the country to address societal injustices. Racism, discrimination, police brutality, all volatile issues, once again sparked conversations.
Abel and several other SNA students are getting involved here in Las Vegas to promote racial equality. They raised money to buy supplies for local peaceful protesters. The goal was to donate to a cause bigger than themselves, to support the movement fighting for stronger race relations. Not everyone saw it that way. But amid negative feedback, these students stand by their decision and their humanity.
IT STARTS WITH A CONVERSATION
How do you stand up for what you believe in? Is there a universally acceptable way?
For SNA, it started with a conversation. Maricel Gomez is a UNLV nursing student. She also serves on the SNA Board of Directors and represents level 2 students in the group. On June 1st, Gomez says the SNA Board met to discuss ways to get involved with supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in Las Vegas.
“It was a little uncomfortable, because no one knew if it was political enough to talk about or not. Our first lesson is to treat anybody despite their ethnicity, gender, racial, or cultural background. So, we decided that supporting people, who are in this hundred-degree heat and taking time out of their days to stand for something they believe in, was a good idea.” From there, she and another SNA representative, Aron Choi, sent a message to their fellow students asking for financial help. Within one hour, they raised $500 to use toward items like water and first-aid kits. They also agreed to donate money to a local charity, the Vegas Freedom Fund, which raises money to help free incarcerated people in Clark County.
Janelle Willis, UNLV Nursing lecturer and faculty advisor for SNA, backed up her students’ wish to take a stand. “I felt like their intrinsic desire was just to do good and to try to reach out beyond themselves. There was definitely a desire from the students to do their part, so that's been really inspiring to watch.” She added the students felt it was important to give to a local group they saw as deserving and could see where the money went.
Normally, SNA members have numerous opportunities to volunteer in the community. The coronavirus pandemic took away those chances, which motivated these students to find another way to give back. But as Victoria Maenner, another SNA member explains, donating to peaceful protesters was not the only idea discussed. “We were so eager to be a part of something, so we were coming up with ideas, like providing tents at the protest; sending out, kindness cards, or a virtual live campaign.” She supports the notion that as nurses, they have a responsibility to rally against inequity. “We have an obligation to speak out against the racism and inequality that affects our black coworkers, our patients, our community. We're not supporting violence or racism. We're not supporting the looters. We're supporting coming together for a positive change.”
Maenner states even with protests happening at the same time as a global pandemic, she didn’t panic. “If something like COVID-19, or the fear of politics would prevent us from moving forward, what kind of nurses would that make us if we were afraid?”
DISCRIMINATION IN THEIR LIVES
Despite being young nurses, this group of students knows the pangs of discrimination. Some of them have experienced stereotyping at various degrees, but the recent outrage over George Floyd and ensuing national commentary has furthered their empathy.
Gomez says, “Now that you see all these posts and all these people commenting on these things, or even making the post dedicated to personal problems, it makes you understand what they have personally gone through. I think it made me have a certain feeling toward it, because people are starting to share their personal experiences, and these are people who are your family and your friends."
For Abel, she says fighting the stereotypes of being African American has influenced how she uses her voice to convey her thoughts. “I feel like I hold responsibility, because as a black human being, I try to carry myself in a way where even commenting on things, I don't want people to automatically say, ‘Well, there's the ghetto black girl. I feel like as a black person, trying to get her voice heard, you almost have to be very calculated. You have to have a plan, like people are already going to be looking at you because you're black, and you don't want them to turn away [and say], ‘Oh, there's another black person talking’”.
But racism persecutes more than skin color, it goes after entire cultures. Before George Floyd’s death and the public outrage that followed, racism was an issue for Asian Americans in response to COVID-19. Diagold Salvador, the activities director for SNA, says she was discriminated against as a result. “A couple of weeks after the quarantine started, I was hounded in the store by this guy. Anytime I turned around, he called me a dirty chink and not to look at him. He said I was a disease and kept following me around the store until I decided to leave.” Salvador says this wasn’t the first time she’s dealt with prejudice in her life (she also noted her mother was mocked when her family moved to Las Vegas for having an accent).
Inequity is something nurses face in their everyday roles. “There are social determinants and inequality”, Willis says. “Some cultures have a mistrust of leaders and healthcare workers. Recognizing and working through that and trying to reach people at their level is an important skill of a nurse.” But that inequity is unfortunately not exclusive just to patients, according to Willis. She’s seen student nurses discriminated by their patients based on their race. “We talk about it. We have to have those moments of debrief and reflection. We talk about what's appropriate, what's not appropriate and what boundaries we set, because we still have to take care of [the patients].” Another quality of nursing is having the strength to focus on the patient’s treatment, regardless of what’s said to them. But that doesn’t mean they have to always accept the abuse. “Every student has a different opinion or a different offensive level", says Willis. "We talk about what is appropriate and options that are available for the nurse.”
“AN INJUSTICE IS AN INJUSTICE”
On the night of June 1st, LVMPD Officer Shay Mikalonis was shot in the head during late night riots on the Las Vegas Strip. He remains in critical condition, while his suspected shooter is in custody. With this new complication to the equality movement in Las Vegas, the participating SNA students regrouped the next day to talk about moving forward.
Willis says, “We discussed how to proceed, and I knew that it was a hard situation. There was a lot of heartbreak on both sides, and there was an injustice on both sides.” The group agreed to keep on supporting the peaceful protesters. The timing of the Mikalonis shooting put the SNA protest donations in a different external spotlight. Although investigators now say the suspect Edgar Samaniego wasn’t rioting (or part of any protest), there was, at least online, an implication these students only cared about protesters and not a police officer, that their cause was one-sided. But Willis strongly disagrees. “I feel like in today's society, you can't support both [sides], and I think that's so wrong. An injustice is an injustice. These nurses were taught to serve, no matter the color, no matter the person. So, I believe that we can advocate for black injustice as much as we can advocate for the officer.”
In fact, the group attended the recent tribute “Shay Day” and donated to Officer Mikalonis’ Injured Police Officer’s account. Willis says, “Nurses work so closely with police officers, so we think it's important to be able to support our community members, but also keep that moment going from Black Lives Matter. It doesn't mean that they're not heartbroken over the riots, the violence and the shooting, but they decided to do this before the shooting, and they wanted to follow through on it.”
Abel says standing by both the officer and peaceful protesters is important, regardless of politics. “This is not about picking sides. It's just about wanting equality. This man is on life support. If I'm saving someone's life, am I going to say, ‘Are you with Black Lives Matter? Absolutely not. Even if they call me the N-word, am I going to stop? No, it's a human life. To support his family, it should be a no brainer.”
Abel’s concern for Officer Mikalonis and his family comes from her humanity and her understanding of a person beyond the color of their skin. She admits her perspective on race has come a long way since she was a child. “I’ve always known from the time I was a little girl that I was black. I was different. Everyone's pointed it out to me. I've been called the N-word. It made me start looking at white people differently.” But last September, a week before nursing school started, her viewpoint was shaken after a close friend of hers died from an accidental drowning. “His nurses were white men. The compassion they showed…it shifted my entire life. Not everyone is like that. It was a wakeup call. So, when I found out the officer was shot, it was just automatic [to ask], ‘What can we do? I also want to stand with him.’”
TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER
Social media’s role during this time of peaceful protesting (and essentially, in general) serves two roles: spreading positivity while also fueling misconceptions and anger. Some see the protests as something good. Others interpret “protesting” as “rioting”. Online disharmony is not a new concept, and when you combine elements of racism, political strife, and conflicting opinions, that disharmony becomes exacerbated.
For Gomez, she knows how difficult it can be to change someone’s opinion on certain issues, so instead of showing disdain, she shows sympathy. “Student nurses are taught to care for and feel compassionate toward anybody. It's not even just an expectation at this point. It is part of the job.” Maenner says while she saw both positive and negative comments online about their donation project, she also understands some people can’t be persuaded, and that’s their choice. She prefers to look toward the future. “We're all trying to come to an understanding of each other. I don't necessarily want to argue online, because people tend to have a bigger ego or feel braver saying things behind a screen. I believe with us having the common goal of equality and justice and love, I think that is a clear enough message that will go a long way.”
Abel says she was tempted to write back online to those who disagreed with her, but she relented. “These people have their opinions. My comment is not going to all of a sudden change [that]. You have the people on this side, you have the people on that side, and all you can do is hope the people in the middle are educated enough to make the decision on what they believe in.” For Abel, her position as NSNA director and SNA representative also carries weight; she realizes she has to sometimes hold back her personal opinions.
When Salvador saw the criticisms from social media, she said it didn’t sway her, because the people with negative attitudes and comments couldn’t see the whole picture. “We help people in the hospital, at Three Square (Food Bank), homeless shelters, everywhere, not just one demographic. For anyone to judge you to help one group, just because you’re not plastering it all over the city that you’re helping everyone else, it shouldn’t stop you from doing something.” She added most of the feedback she received from other students in SNA was positive, which reinforced the reason they took this project on. “It spoke to me that this was something that was on such a personal level for so many people in the program, especially because the majority of people in the program are minorities.”
While conversations about race are separating people, COVID-19 is literally keeping people apart at the same time. The outbreak has made it difficult for social interactions, especially for students. Yet the students involved in this project all agree the experience brought them closer together.
Gomez says, “We haven’t been able to talk [face-to-face] as a cohort for a long time because of COVID-19. But you hear all these things that people say in uncomfortable conversations and instead of getting defensive with each other - because everyone has their own little take in a viewer opinion on it - you were able to hear each other out and listen to what each other had to say.” Maenner says, “We really saw how much we came together when the opportunity presented itself. And it just made us a stronger cohort and a stronger presence. Through these uncomfortable conversations and collaboration, I'm bringing to the table my strengths and hearing your strengths and talking about our weaknesses. I'm grateful for the opportunity for us to do this as a group. I think when we do come back together as a class in person, we'll have a deeper appreciation and understanding of each other.”
There is no singular method to stand up for what you believe in. Regardless of how the SNA’s donations might have appeared to some members of the Las Vegas community, Willis came away impressed by what the students accomplished. “We try to be the voice and advocate and help those who don't have a voice. [The students] took a stand, and it's controversial. There's no right answer. No right organization to support. But I was proud of them for taking a stand and for being dedicated to it and for doing all they could at this time in their lives to try to make a difference.”
Conversations about racism can lead to painful and awkward moments, but that doesn’t make those discussions any less important. Gomez encourages people to be a resource or a tool to educate others. Maenner agrees on finding resources to have a more informed opinion, but she also believes it starts with an internal dialogue. “You could even ask yourself, ‘Where are these feelings coming from?’, if you have certain prejudices. Ask yourself, 'What can you do to support your community? How can you be an actively anti-racist instead of simply not racist?"
Abel says anyone who wants to make a change needs that sense of compassion and human dignity, specifically the ability to relate. She argues being able to connect to someone being discriminated against or attacked can inspire change, especially if you can relate as a parent. “If that was your baby on the ground being murdered in front of people as it's being filmed and broadcast all over the United States, how would you respond?” She shared a recent conversation she had with a white mother, who had an opposing opinion on George Floyd. “I said, ‘Picture your little white, 10-year-old boy under that cop’s leg. Really envision that. And she got tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘I never thought of it like that. ‘”