By Amber Charleville
As I traverse the bumpy and challenging terrain of higher education, I’ve been helped along by a few Wonder Women occupying the role of educator. It’s even made me aspire to follow in their footsteps one day after I pursue my first dream of running a women’s health clinic.
When Katie (of Graduate Assistant Fame here at the Women’s Center) suggested I do one or two profile pieces on professors who have inspired me, one of the first that came to mind was Professor Benda Walker-Williams. I had Professor Walker-Williams as my instructor in two classes this past spring: Nursing 101 (along with the equally wonderful Professor Jolene Lyn), and Anatomy and Physiology Lab.
Professor Walker Williams.
Picture from her personal collection.
Professor Walker-Williams has been in nursing for 30 years and has been a nurse educator about half that time. She’s been with us here at UMKC since 2008, full time since fall of 2010. Also an avid poet, one of her areas of focus is how art such as poetry, music, etc. can be used to facilitate healing. She was kind enough to make time for me in her busy schedule, and this past Friday we sat down to talk about nursing, science, being a woman professional, and some of the unique challenges she faces as a woman of color.
Amber Charleville (AC): Starting out with kind of a basic question, but what do you love about nursing?
Prof. Walker-Williams (WW): What I love about nursing is that you get to recreate yourself. […] I always feel like I want my mind to be growing and I want to be learning new things. I like to go outside my comfort zone, and so when I do that, in order to do that, sometimes you have to change your interest in nursing, and I love that nursing gives you the opportunity to do that.
AC: And what do you love about being a nurse educator?
WW: I love being among students who are serious and motivated about coming into nursing gives as it gives me hope for the future profession of nursing. I feel like I am contributing to them and their knowledge, their ability to take care of myself, family members, or other persons who might be entering into the healthcare arena. I feel like this is my way of giving back, passing on some of my pearls of wisdom for those who are interested and want to know.
AC: How do you feel like nursing empowers you as woman?
WW: For nurses, you have to be able to critically think. You have to be able to think on your feet. You need intelligence and fortitude. It helps you to be strong when you need to be strong, and to tap into your weak side when you need that, too. It teaches you to challenge situations, don’t just automatically accept what is – question, question, question.
I wish I had the gumption I have now when I first got into nursing because back then it was like what we taught you all in Nursing 101, talking about the folk image and the servant image*. We actually had the servant image more so when I first came into nursing. When doctors came around, you got out of the seat so they could sit in their special chair, and you brought them coffee or tea. You made sure they had a pen and access to all the charts which were put on a chart rack.
My first job in pediatrics it was like that, and I kept thinking, “That’s not what I came into nursing to do.” So I’m glad to see a lot of that has changed. Particularly with nursing today, it does give you that fortitude to be strong. Sometimes you need to be strong, particularly when you’re dealing with different healthcare issues, advocating for the client to get them the assistance they need. It takes a strong and a motivated person to be able to do that.
[*AC: ”Folk image” or “Servant image” refers to the old image of nurses tirelessly slaving at the bedside without complaint, the white skirts and the cap, the doctor’s servant without any autonomy in patient care.]
AC: As you mentioned, we talked a lot about the image of nursing and the profession of nursing in Nursing 101. What does it mean to you to be a nursing professional?
WW: It’s about how you conduct yourself. It’s about your ethical and moral principles that guide you day to day. How you interact with not only patients, but staff and the students here at the school or other colleagues.
AC: How do you feel about nursing being seen as “Women’s Work” and therefore not as important?
WW: Well, women have always historically taken care of the sick before the profession started. So it’s hard for us to totally get away from that stereotype or that image because it’s what’s put on us because we happen to be female. So, again, I think as time evolves, I can see some changes coming about. We have more men, more people from the LGBTQ community, more people from all walks of life. I think is a good thing because why not have representatives of all walks of life in nursing? I mean, that’s what it’s going to take because sometimes you need someone that looks just like you when you’re that person lying in the bed. When you make that connection, it might be what they need to get them to the next step toward wellness.
AC: Speaking of inclusivity, how do you feel the challenges and the experience has been different for you as a woman of color in nursing?
WW: Well, there have been some challenges, and I know they still exist. We all know even with us having a black president, you still have people who are… narrow-minded, I’d say. And we have the same thing in healthcare. As far as the nursing profession, we still have people who are narrow-minded, and so sometimes just because you are a person of color […] they don’t give you a chance.
You always feel like you have to work that much harder than other people would have to work to get the same recognition, the same… even pay. There have been a lot of instances where just because you are who you are, that’s what you’re going to get paid. It doesn’t matter about your education background or your experience. They automatically will give you a lower pay than some of your colleagues. There are a lot of injustices as far as that goes.
That’s a whole issue that I’m thinking someone will tackle one day, and who knows? It might even be me. I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but I know it exists. It’s something that needs to be dealt with.
AC: Definitely, and I know even in my class, the majority of the students are white like myself. So I think it’s important that the students of color do have persons of color on the faculty and staff, especially such a strong role model like you. It’s like you were saying with patients, it helps when there’s someone that looks like you. As a student, it lets you know there’s someone that understands where you’re coming from, and makes it easier to picture yourself in that position.
WW: Yes, right, it does!
AC: So, I know that you’re the director of the Anatomy and Physiology labs. Can you tell me a little about nursing as a science, why it’s important for nurses to be scientists?
WW: Well, that’s the spirit of inquiry, where you question. So that automatically leads you to using the scientific method. You need to figure out what is the answer? Why is the answer what it is? Do I need to challenge that answer? And that’s important for when you have patients and you need to advise and teach them about their disease and how their body is responding, why they’re having the problem that they’re having.
AC: I just want to wrap things up by asking if you’re working on any research yourself right now?
WW: I have a few things in mind. I’ll be starting hopefully by the end of the year. I’m not sure if you know I write poetry and it’s kind of my therapy. And in grad school, I came up with an intervention that had not been done before, using my poetry. And so that’s the first thing on my plate that I want to address. How you can use poetry to deal with families and some family issues. It’s a way to make people feel important particularly when you write something about them. Sometimes people don’t see their own worth. They’re never told they have worth, and when an outsider shows them they have worth, it makes all the difference in the world.
I just want to thank Professor Walker-Williams again for taking time out of her schedule to speak with me for the Women’s Center blog. She truly is a Wonder Woman, and I hope that she sees her own worth just as much as she helps her patients and students to see theirs!