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How Nurses Can Celebrate Black History Month at Work

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated January 27, 2023
    Black History Month celebrates history and culture while promoting diversity and encouraging empathy. Support these activities in the workplace.
    • Celebrating Black History Month is an opportunity each year for nurses and other healthcare workers to learn about the history and culture of their Black colleagues and patients.
    • One survey revealed that 3 out of 4 Black nurses say racism has negatively impacted their professional well-being and 92% of Black nurses have experienced racism at work.
    • Consider incorporating Black History Month activities at work, such as bringing in speakers, attending virtual celebrations, and organizing corporate-wide reading activities.

    In a recent survey by the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, half the respondents reported widespread racism in nursing. According to some experts, racism is a sign a person lacks psychological integration and inner security. In other words, for many, racism stems from a fear of the unknown — unknown color, culture, and beliefs.

    Black History Month is an opportunity each year for nurses and other healthcare workers to learn more about the culture and history of their Black colleagues and patients. Knowledge, understanding, and exposure can help to reduce challenges faced by Black nurses, such as racism, thus improving relationships and reducing discrimination and violence.

    Learn more about Black History Month and ways nurses can promote celebrations that open doors to new beginnings.

    The Significance of Black History Month

    The celebration of Black History Month began in 1926 with the work of Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history.” He believed there should be a time to promote and educate people about Black history and culture.

    The recognition began as a week-long celebration during the second week of February, which are the birthdates of President Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. Lincoln was influential in freeing slaves in the U.S. and Douglass, a former slave, was a leader in the abolitionist movement that sought to end slavery before and during the Civil War.

    In 1976, President Ford formally recognized Black History Month and 40 years later, President Obama said, “Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington or from some of our sports heroes.”

    Celebrating Black History Month in healthcare helps to promote diversity, encourage empathy, and facilitate understanding, which is essential to work with and care for a wide range of populations. A survey by the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing revealed some telling and disturbing statistics:

    • Over 3 out of 4 Black nurses say that racism has negatively impacted their professional well-being.
    • Ninety-two percent of Black nurses and 73% of Asian nurses personally experienced racism in the workplace.
    • Three out of 4 nurses have witnessed racism at work, 70% of which was from leaders, 68% from patients, and 66% from their peers.
    • Fifty-seven percent of nurses have challenged racism at work, but 64% of those say it resulted in no change.

    Each year Black History Month celebrations are based on a theme. In 2023, the theme is Black resistance. According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH):

    “Nearly 179 years ago, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnett proposed that the only path to freedom, justice, and equality; self-determination; and/or social transformation is resistance. In thunder tones, Garnett shouted, ‘Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!'”

    By resisting oppression, including discrimination, lynching, and police killings, Black people have experienced successes and progress, albeit slowly. In 2023, the celebration of Black History Month is a call to examine the cultural response to establish a safe space where Black people can be respected, sustained, and fortified.

    7 Ways to Celebrate Black History Month as a Nurse

    According to a 2021 study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the workforce had become more diverse than in any other study year. Consider incorporating these seven Black History Month work ideas in your workplace.

    Bring in Speakers

    Consider bringing in speakers who can address civil rights and race relations with the staff. Local authors, speakers, historians, and activists can also answer questions and promote education rather than division.

    Not all staff can attend, so videotape the presentation and make it available on the organization’s website. The presentation can also become part of orientation for new staff so all employees are operating from the same information.

    Book Club

    Black authors have produced great fiction and nonfiction literary works that help expand readers’ horizons and drive home the reality of racism in society. The book club can promote the works of classic and contemporary authors.

    As one Black History Month work activity, consider promoting a unit or hospital-wide reading event. After the prescribed time to read the book, the hospital can host a virtual discussion with the book’s author or a prominent professor whose focus is Black literature to discuss the merits and weaknesses of the book.

    This can be a year-long event during which the hospital promotes one book each month by a person of color and a 30-60-minute virtual discussion for staff.

    Share Information About Black History in Your Area

    Every geographical area of the U.S. is affected by Black history, including contributions to business, medicine, society, and the resistance movement. Develop a way to share that information with all healthcare staff in your organization.

    This information can be shared monthly in a hospital-wide newsletter to build unity within the community. The organization can support the work of local Black artists and musicians and share their work with the staff. The history of Black contributions to the local area can be added to the organization’s website.

    Virtual Celebrations

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, museums and nonprofit organizations developed virtual tours to encourage continuing use of the facilities. This has allowed increased access so more people can enjoy virtual tour experiences. For example, choose from 12 Black history museums you can tour from your computer or phone.

    ASALH hosts a virtual celebration of Black History Month throughout February starting on Feb. 1. You can also try a virtual trivia team-building exercise centered on Black history that rewards knowledge and educates at the same time.

    Your organization can also send internal messaging focused on Black history and current events.

    Encourage Support of Black-Founded Community Businesses

    Create a list of locally owned shops for the staff to support as a Black History Month work activity. You are celebrating the success of the business and supporting entrepreneurs who have dedicated themselves to growing a business that supports their community.

    Investing your money in these businesses empowers them to continue their pursuits. You might expand this to online shopping at Black-founded businesses.

    Organize a Unit Project

    The focus of the project is to help a family or population within your community while increasing interaction for all of the staff. For example, volunteering for a local nonprofit or charity can help the community, create a bond with your team, and inspire greater motivation at work.

    Lending support as an organization can push a project forward and form lasting relationships. Look for national Black-led organizations, such as My Brother’s Keeper Alliance or the National Society of Black Engineers, that you can partner with to create a better future.

    Organize a DEI Event and Plan Year-Round Activities

    If you’ve ever watched “The Office” you know that not everyone is qualified to lead a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshop. Instead of trying to develop an internal workshop, consider hiring an outside expert, such as a nurse leader who advocates for health equity, with the skills needed to help the staff learn how to respect each other’s differences and work together.

    Most DEI workshop leaders use planned activities to help people incorporate the information. You can use this learning strategy throughout the year by incorporating year-round activities for the staff. This helps to keep the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion front and center throughout the year.

    What to Avoid

    It is crucial to understand the importance of celebrating Black History Month in the workplace. But it is equally important to understand some of the mistakes that organizations can make that can create greater problems.

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      Waiting until the last minute

      Waiting until the last minute to celebrate a month-long activity that has been on the calendar for 12 months shows disrespect.

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      Assuming the celebrations are just for Black employees

      The events should offer an opportunity to involve the whole staff in celebrations of culture and history to help promote cultural competence for nurses and staff. By the same token, involving only Black employees singles these nurses out and creates a greater rift instead of healing divides.

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      Celebrating only well-known leaders

      While Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman are notable and brave leaders, it’s likely there are Black leaders closer to home that can also be recognized and celebrated.

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      Stopping with February

      Weave education, recognition, and celebrations of Black history throughout events all year. February should be the culmination of a year of recognition and acknowledgment.