I run into a consistent portrait every time I head to the bank in Courtenay. A person in borrowed clothing with a head bowed in shame asks, “Can you spare some change?”
I wonder, “How can a person like me… a citizen in a democratic society filled with opportunity who eats three meals a day and can afford tuition to start a career, not spare some time to consider what other ways I can help?” Vancouver Island is not untouched from the epidemic of homelessness that rages in urban centres like Vancouver. To date we count 300 homeless persons with an additional 3,000 at-risk individuals, right here in the Comox Valley.
A year and half ago, I was beginning my third year of nursing school. I was overwhelmed with writing papers and exhausted after my clinical rotations. My social life was taking a backseat and I felt like my life was consumed with school. One day as I was rushing to class, I noticed an advertisement for an ARNBC network meeting posted on the classroom door. My previous experience participating in committees has been disappointing with much debate occurring about issues, but rarely any action resulting from the discussion. I hesitated, but in the end my curiosity got the best of me.
At the first meeting, I was surprised by the number of nurses present. I soon learned that the Comox Valley ARNBC Network is home to nurses from a variety of backgrounds who have taken an active leadership role in promoting positive change in the health of our local community. Our group represents nurses working with mental health and addictions, nurse practitioners, BSN faculty and students, nurses from the local nursing centre, new graduates, and Care-A-Van/street nursing, to name a few.
During the meeting, I was flooded with the feeling that I had finally found a group of people who cared about their community and nursing issues, and who addressed serious community concerns with the intent to do something about it. I felt inspired and invigorated.
Within the first year of attending network meetings, some of the members expressed concerns about the issue of homelessness and lack of supportive and affordable housing in the Comox Valley. As a group, we collectively identified the need to explore systemic barriers experienced by low-income and homeless individuals, and questioned how we could be involved as agents of change. We discussed how social determinants impact health, specifically homelessness and lack of housing, and agreed that nurses need to educate the general public and our local political leaders about the seriousness of the current housing deficiency for at-risk populations.
This meeting led to the development of our ARNBC Network sub-committee, which we call the Political Action Committee (PAC). That night a few core members volunteered to participate in the new initiative. I immediately felt compelled to join them, but I was nervous and unsure of myself – how could I, a third-year nursing student, possibly affect change in health and social policy? How could I make a difference?
I didn’t volunteer to join that night, but when I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about PAC’s intention. I wanted to learn about health policy and how nurses could participate in tackling something big like homelessness. It boiled down to social justice. I couldn’t face another trip to the bank with the knowledge that I had the power to make a change for the person sitting on those steps: it was my responsibility to do something.
So, with much trepidation, I emailed the co-lead of our ARNBC network and volunteered. After I sent the email, I fretted that I had made a bad decision – that the more experienced nurses might think I was being presumptuous and naïve.
Either way, I pulled up my socks and headed to the first PAC meeting. I sat at the conference table surrounded by a group of very politically experienced nurses: individuals who established the first nursing centre in Canada, experienced nurse educators, a nurse who started a street nursing Care-A-Van, a mental health nurse eloquently versed in local politics, and a nurse practitioner experienced in health policy development. And then there was me, a student. “This is going to be embarrassing,” I thought.
But I stayed and listened. I was completely shocked that none of the other nurses seemed surprised that I was there. They all welcomed me like a colleague, and included me in the discussions and decision-making. I left that meeting feeling like I had come home. I was fully aware of my lack of experience, but I knew I wanted to be around these political powerhouses, and learn from these nurses who have already moved mountains.
Within a year, PAC had morphed and grown into a group of experienced nurses who were passionate about social justice. The timing was right; the municipal elections were arriving in November and we wanted our message about homelessness and supportive housing to be heard by the public and local council members. We knew there would be a question put to voters asking them how much they would be willing to contribute in taxes to ending homelessness.
We began collaborating with a social planning society who had similar goals about addressing the supportive-housing crisis. We brainstormed ways to inform the general public, and made plans about approaching local politicians. We had momentum, but we were experiencing difficulty in moving forward with a clear strategy.
Around this time, we learned that ARNBC had developed a pilot project for an issues workshop. Our committee could participate in the pilot, which would help us develop clear strategies and a strong nursing voice to help address important health policy issues. At the same time, we could provide ARNBC with feedback on how to strengthen the workshop so it could be rolled out to other nursing groups. We couldn’t believe our luck; this was exactly what we needed to move forward.
PAC jumped on the opportunity and participated in the workshop. Following the session, we achieved astronomical strides in developing communication strategies to inform the general public and our local politicians about the housing crisis. We learned how to succinctly explain the importance of this issue in a way that would gain attention, and developed plans to keep this issue at the forefront of local politics. We developed information strategies for the recent election, using the format of a community flyer, an inter-agency letter, and a health policy brief for elected council members.
When I first enrolled in nursing school, I had a romantic vision that I would pursue a career healing the sick as a sort of local Florence Nightingale. Nursing and politics together never crossed my mind. Throughout my experience with PAC, I’ve learned that issues such as social justice, leadership, health promotion, and accountability are attributes of nursing that are essential to provide safe client care for everyone; in the society we live in, nursing and politics are not mutually exclusive. When nurses identify social justice issues within our hospitals, clinics, and community at large, we can inform the public about positive changes that can be made. It is also our responsibility as nurses to lobby our local governments in order to make those changes a reality.
Oh – our efforts paid off. During the Municipal Election, voters were asked “How much annual property tax would you be willing to pay to reduce homelessness?”
- 4425 – $0
- 3657 – Up to $5 per year (for a home assessed at $300,000)
- 6860 – Up to $10 per year (for a home assessed at $300,000)
ARNBC’s November Tweetchat will discuss political action and nursing with Jess and other members of the Comox Valley ARNBC Network. Join us on Twitter, November 27 from 11-12pm!
Jess Shannon is a 4th year BSN student at North Island College. She has been an active member and is now a co-lead with the Comox Valley ARNBC network. Over the past year, she has been participating in the development of an ARNBC Political Action Sub-Committee (PAC) in the Comox Valley, with a core group of politically motivated nurses who are passionate about addressing the issue of homelessness and lack of supportive housing in the region. Upon graduation, Jess would like to find employment within her local community, integrating attributes of social justice and nurse leadership within her work, and is considering pursuing a graduate degree in public health and social policy.