In mid-September, I had an extraordinary opportunity to participate in a trip to Washington DC to focus on opportunities for getting involved in public policy. The trip was primarily for Emory Scholars from the College of Arts and Sciences, but Ericka Armstead and I were able to join the group to represent the School of Nursing. We were able to speak with many inspirational people in a variety of influential positions including accomplished Emory alumni, lobbyists, five members of Congress, and their staff members.
I believe that the work of the recent alumni that I was able to meet personifies Emory University’s commitment to civic engagement and community building. Some roles that stood out to me include “think tank” employees advising policymakers on how to best develop low-income housing, a hate crimes prosecutor for the Department of Justice, and the President’s assistant. Seeing these Emory alumni who had graduated within the past 10 years in such powerful positions made me quickly realize that with passion for an issue and commitment to a vision, anyone has the potential to make a substantive difference for the lives of others.
I also had the opportunity to speak with a handful of lobbyists and advocates who work on Capitol Hill. These individuals were advocating for things like full reimbursement of the care for the Ebola patients that Emory provided, Multiple Sclerosis research funding, and funding for the development of Winship’s experimental oncology drugs. I knew very little about what lobbyists actually do in Washington DC and assumed they are mostly corporate representatives trying to change laws in favor of their company. Seeing the advocacy for public health policy initiatives was an eye-opening experience, showing how we, as involved future nurses, have many opportunities to have our voice heard by policymakers through membership in nursing organizations or directly lobbying or advocating for specific issues.
I was very excited to learn that we would be meeting with some of the actual policymakers for question and answer sessions. We met with 5 members of Congress and their chiefs of staff, representing a variety of geographical locations, special interests, and political affiliations. Some highlights of the meetings are as follows:
· Representative Kathy Castor, an Emory alumna whose district is primarily Tampa, Florida, spoke about her commitment to clean energy and education.
· Georgia Representative Tom Price, a surgeon who had completed his residency at Emory, spoke about his job as the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and how fiscal conservatism can sometimes clash with funding worthy causes.
· Georgia Representatives John Lewis and Sanford Bishop talked about their involvement in and commitment to civil rights issues. Speaking with Representative Lewis was particularly moving for me, because he spoke about his leadership position in the sit-ins in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee and the recent sit-in on the House floor. He stressed the importance of being organized, controlled, and non-violent when trying to make social change. It was no surprise to me that President Obama called Representative Lewis his role model two days later as they each spoke at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—Representative Lewis truly is an inspirational man.
· Georgia Senior Senator Johnny Isakson, who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Department of Veterans Affairs, responded to my question regarding his stance on expansion of scope of practice for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) in the Veteran’s Health Administration.
This trip to Washington DC showed me how there is a lot more to public health than epidemiology and community health events—there is significant potential for nurses to influence and educate policymakers on important and relevant healthcare and nursing-specific issues. A nurse’s role as a patient advocate is easily translatable into advocating for certain public policies—we try to help make decisions in someone’s best interest, especially when advocating for those who might have a health knowledge deficit or be disabled or otherwise marginalized. Nurses have a unique opportunity to bring real life stories from direct patient care to Capitol Hill, adding an additional dimension of emotion and humility to a decision making progress. A nurse’s role should not be seen as one limited to a clinical setting; advocating for public policy provides tremendous potential to become a nurse leader and agent of widespread change.