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Nurse of the Week Marie Manthey is a very busy 85-year-old nurse, entrepreneur, advocate, and activist in the anti-racism movement. After the American Academy of Nursing presented her with a Living Legends award in 2015 for her pioneering work in developing the Primary Nursing model, she did not retire to rest on her laurels. Manthey continues to host her Nursing Salons (regular gatherings in which nurses meet to share conversations and support), works with the company she founded and is still an active advocate for nurses suffering from substance use disorder.

Marie Manthey, 85-year-old AAN Living Legend nurse and anti-racism activist.
Marie Manthey, at a U Minnesota celebration of the Marie Manthey Professorship.

Manthey is also a leader among nurses in the anti-racism movement. After the summer wave of anti-racism protests, she met with DailyNurse to talk about what it means to take action against racism, her journey as a White ally, and her latest Creative Nursing article, which takes a look at trailblazing Black nurse Frances McHie (pronounced “mic-hye”) and the struggle to overcome racism at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

DailyNurse: How did you first hear about Frances McHie?

Marie Manthey: “The school of nursing at University of Minnesota has long had a group of very strong volunteers who have a very extensive collection and data [on the history of the nursing school]. So this group of alumni volunteers—who care passionately and energetically about the history of the school of nursing—are responsible for managing historical documents.

And in that documentation area, we found that our first African-American student, Frances McHie, had only been admitted by demand of the legislature. (We recently celebrated the centennial of her admission, which was attended by some of her descendants).”

DN: How did you become involved in the anti-racism movement?

MM: “My awareness began when, 4 or 5 years ago, the Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, Connie Delaney—who is a phenomenally transformative leader—brought in a speaker to talk about white privilege. That was the first time I had heard that term. She also brought in a university-wide task force on diversity and equity, and I attended some of their open discussions about what is happening to African-American students in our school today.

The next step for me, was I became friends with an African-American person. Her name is Tammy, and she’s a nurse in an administrative position at a local hospital. Well, we met at a statewide leadership meeting, where we made a commitment to develop our relationship and became friends. Tammy started to come to the nursing “salons” I had formed earlier—where we would have dinner, and talk, where the question would be asked, “what’s on your mind about nursing?” and at the end of the evening we would go around and respond to the question “what’s on your mind about nursing now?” After Tammy joined us, we often found ourselves discussing issues affecting nurses of color, and Tammy went on to open a Black nursing salon. We held the first one at my house, and mine was the only white face there. That was part of my leap to a different level of understanding because I listened to what these nurses were talking about. And as I’m listening to them, I’m hearing about what systemic racism really looks like! I had not understood it before; I thought it was about the way we individually deal with racism.

[At the Black Nurses’ Salon] I began to understand what the system has done. It was a big breakthrough. I could finally see where I was in the system as a nursing leader. I could see where some of the decisions I made that involved a person of color versus a White person going for a promotion or better hours, and my decision would sometimes be ‘well, it would work out better if we give this to a White person; she’ll get along better.’ And I didn’t see that until I heard these nurses talk about what it’s like to apply for better hours or something, and despite equal education, equal experience, the white nurse will get it. Also, until now, I didn’t really understand White privilege. Now—at the age of 85—I finally get how being born white has affected everything from my thought processes to my life experiences. It’s very clear to me that action is the only solution.

Tammy and I are going to start another Salon on diversity in nursing with an equal number of nurses of color and nurses who are white. To get us talking to each other.”

DN: It’s complicated. On one hand, it’s not the job of Black people to tell Whites, “this is what you need to do to stop being racist,” but at the same time, we can only learn by communicating in an open, willing dialogue.

MM: “I had to learn how to listen without judgment. At the Black Nurses Salon, I went in ready to just accept what everyone was saying without deciding whether I agreed with everything that was being said.”

DN: One of the biggest obstacles we face is that we are living in an age of “I’m not a racist” racism.

MM: “That’s very true. I discuss that in some detail in a piece I wrote on my journey toward becoming an anti-racist. I went from proudly saying, “I’m not racist!” to actually taking on responsibility for taking steps to dismantle systemic racism and acknowledging that my people with my skin color have been building this system for 400 years At the salons, I began to accept responsibility for what happened. I didn’t ask for it or personally cause it to happen, but it was part of my culture. People of color certainly didn’t ask for it either…..and both of us have experienced the impact of systemic racism.

After taking responsibility, I began to understand that the only solution—I’m a big follower of Nelson Mandela and the idea of reconciliation; it’s a big part of my value system—is reparations. I don’t necessarily mean financial, but the way I am in my world, how I present myself, how accept what other people are saying to me.”

DN: That brings us to the Frances McHie nursing school scholarship, which is a form of reparation, right?

Frances McHie Rains, first Black nurse to graduate from University of  Minnesota, was a lifelong anti-racism activist.
Frances McHie Rains (1911-2006)

MM: “Yes. When the idea of a scholarship in Frances McHie’s name came up, we found a relative of hers who was a nephew and began putting some flesh on the idea. And with his help, we established the Frances McHie Scholarship for nurses of color [at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing]. That was an action step following a public apology to the McHie family. Dean Connie Delaney made a public statement reflecting that the Frances McHie scholarship was a step in reparations and in accepting the school’s responsibility for racism.”

DN: What other actions are nursing schools taking to reduce the effects of systemic racism?

MM: “Some are changing admissions criteria from a hard GPA requirement, and are taking a person’s story into account as well. I think that’s a good idea. There’s no doubt that people of color don’t have equal opportunities. I have a book that was published in 1933, [Carter G. Woodson’s] The Mis-Education of the Negro. It tells the story of how Jim Crow schools started. It says they were teaching them at a lower level, and that’s been carried on through the years.”

DN: What sorts of things can individuals do to fight racism, on an immediate level?

MM: “We can look at big-picture issues—who we elect as our representatives, our senators, etcetera, but we also have to work on a personal level. We need to make deliberate, conscious, intentional choices about the way we live our lives. What is my circle of responsibility and control, and how do I want to be in those areas? I have to look at the way I interact with my children, my friends, my family, my associates, and ask “what are the things that I can influence?” For me writing—for instance, the article [on Frances McHie] and my personal story about my journey—can help me to influence others to work toward change. I just feel that that is what I need to be doing at this point in my life. This is a personal choice we make: are we going to continue to be the way we’ve been, or are we prepared to step into an area where we can’t predict what people’s reactions will be?”

DN: Are more people sincerely examining their own views and trying to move forward?

MM: “I feel very hopeful because so many people are having these conversations. I have these conversations with a lot of my friends. A lot of [other White people] are talking to me about racism. And my company is creating a task force; we are engaged in looking at everything we do.

I’m also the chairman of the board of Directors of the Nurses Peer Review Network, which helps nurses who have been struggling with addiction and are trying to regain their licenses. I’ve been asking people, “can you help me find African-Americans or other people of color for our board?” We recently added our first Black board member, and we have two more we are considering for our [organization. And I think that I’m not the only person who is doing this. Best Buy is looking for enough people of color and women to make up 30% of their new hires. A number of companies are taking action, and I think that’s a hopeful sign.”

Marie Manthey is the author of the award-winning book, The Practice of Primary Nursing, and is a co-founder of the journal Creative Nursing. Manthey’s recent article on Frances McHie—the nurse, activist, and entrepreneur who broke the color barrier at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing—is available here.​​

Koren Thomas
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