Every February, in honor of Black History Month, the nation is given a special opportunity to recognize the contributions of African-Americans in every walk of life, across every profession. This includes nursing, a field in which African-American clinicians play a special role, providing much needed culturally competent, patient-centered care to men, women and children in their communities. They also serve as important role models, inspiring others to take up the mantle of health and healing.
Debra Barksdale, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, ANP-BC, CNE, FAANP, FAAN, is just such a role model. In her March 2014 TED Talk Rising from the Mud, she discusses how the groundbreaking TV show ”Julia,” from the late 1960s, which featured Diahann Carroll as one of the first African-American women in a leading, nonstereotypical role, set her on her lifes course. The character Carroll portrayed was a nurse, not a servant or a domestic, but a professional woman. ”I watched the show and was mesmerized,” she said. “I was 9 nine years old when it came on the air, but I decided I would become a nurse when I grew up as well.”
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. Starting in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged, the organization now covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues in more than 100 languages.
Today, Barksdale is a nurse practitioner and a veteran clinician, has a doctorate in philosophy and is a full professor with tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, where she’s been funded by the National Institutes of Health to study cardiovascular disease in African-Americans, specifically, the relationships of the disease to contextual factors, physiological stress responses and blood pressure in African-American adults.
Barksdale is the immediate past president of the prestigious National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, and is the only RN or NP on the 21-member board of governors for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute by the U.S. Government Accountability Office under the Obama administration. She chairs the PCORI’s engagement, dissemination and implementation committee, which is working to speed the implementation and use of scientific evidence in healthcare. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and has launched a leadership program connecting minority nursing professionals to others at later stages in their careers.
Barksdale attributes her achievements to an intellectual curiosity and desire for change she remembers harboring all throughout her life, even during her early childhood in rural Virginia where, in the absence of books, she first learned to read the labels on cans of food.
Poverty was the first challenge for Barksdale, but not the only one. She, like many, has experienced racism, usually manifested as surprise or disbelief that she, an African-American woman and a nursing professional, was worthy of a role most often reserved for Caucasians. As a result, she’s had to prove herself again and again, ”It helps that I try to see the best in everything and I expect things to always turn out for the best,” Barksdale said. “I don’t like stagnancy and I’m not afraid to fail. That pushes me to reach for my goals.”
When the task requires more than self-motivation, Barksdale is a proponent of mentorship. She insists that formalized relationships aren’t necessary but said that it’s enormously valuable to surround yourself with others who have the professional responsibilities or characteristics you admire and hope to emulate. ”Through careful observation, a skill we already cultivate for clinical practice, we can all push ourselves out of our comfort zones, which is often the first step toward transformation,” Barksdale said.
Barksdale takes self-improvement seriously on both a professional and personal level. Several years ago she made the commitment to improve her own health lost 35 pounds, following the cardiovascular-specific advice she had long researched and brought to her patients. She remarks that like so many others, the journey of health and well-being is one that she will continuously take.
Given that it’s also Heart Awareness Month, “I do hope people realize that cardiovascular disease is still a major problem, one that we still haven’t truly been able to get our hands around,” she said. ”What I’ve found personally and try to impress on others is that achieving better heart health doesn’t necessarily require radical shifts. We need to follow the nursing model we were all taught and seek to understand what works best for each individual patient. That’s the definition of patient-centered care, and in my mind it’s also the first step toward providing culturally competent care.”
With all of Barksdale’s accomplishments, she recalls a visit to an elementary school as one of the most impactful moments of her life. Following her presentation about healthcare, the children lined up and offered the opportunity for her to deliver a succession of rapid-fire high fives. She recalls that on her way out the door, a young girl remarked in surprise, ”Oh my! We can touch her?” — a moment she remembers vividly to this day.
”I want to be accessible like that to all kinds of people to children, to other NPs, to patients, to academics,” Barksdale said. “I want to be there for them and for them to be there for me.”
Barksdale’s TED Talk begins and ends with her describing how the African Sankofa, a symbol depicting a bird reaching back with its neck and head teaches us how to look back at our past: ”san” to look, “ko” to seek and ”fa” to take. She closes her presentation with the quote, ”Even if you are from the mud, find the inspiration and the direction that you need from life. It’s OK to look back, it’s OK to take. But ultimately give back to the next generation. Pull someone out of the mud. Sankofa.”