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Dr. Harriet Fields
Health Care Activist in Africa


Harriet FieldsWhat has inspired your current career path?

The door recently opened to the rest of my life has been a long time coming and a natural evolution. I am now developing a global public health nursing model to implement in fragile societies for the empowerment of women. For once, women are empowered—their children, families and communities thrive and flourish. Otherwise, violence, rape, and abuse of women remain the primary fallout of war and disorganization in fragile societies. Holistic global public health nursing encompasses a broad definition of health, including programs such as, women and literacy and development of social entrepreneurship skills, trauma healing therapies, programs for children and villages with HIV/AIDS, collaborating with other groups, and building on models already developed and implemented. The goal for a humane world order is to empower women. 

My trajectory of what I do and my path is, and has always been, an extension of myself, of who I am, for which I am continually searching, a quest just beyond grasping, slightly on the other side of knowing. I have never been able to separate out what I do from who I am.  That is why the word career is slightly awkward to me, for to me it sounds like an artificial construct. 

My professional path follows my passion for health care policy and professional nursing leadership role in humane health care reform. As a nurse educator, I try to instill this in my university students, their responsibility to take leadership. My dissertation from Teachers College, Columbia University is “A Study of Professional Behavior in Education and Practice, With An Emphasis on Professional Nursing Education and Practice.” My passion and interest in how other people live, what motivates them, my desire to be understanding and to know other cultures is a seamless thread in the pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth through actual social justice behaviors. 

I sit on Teachers College, Columbia University Alumni Council, a great honor. At our February 2012 meeting, a recent graduate of TCs International Educational Development Program shared the work she had done the previous two summers as part of her master’s project. Samantha Basile by herself went to the eastern territories of the Congo and set-up a women’s and literacy project, now she was looking for research assistants to return to evaluate the program.  The plans were to fly to Kigali, Rwanda and then take ground transportation into the DRC.  Since the situation is too dangerous now in DRC, the plans are on hold, however, I had intended to get off the plane in Rwanda. When I was touring Indonesia about 15 years ago, we drove by a dirt village with three generations of females standing by the road – children, mothers, grandmothers. I thought to myself, I could get off the bus here and spend a month just seeing how the village lives.

Much like wanting to get off the bus in Indonesia, after much research and meetings with the Embassy of Rwanda here in Washington, in 2012, I did fly to Kigali and have proceeded to walk through the door to the rest of my life. I am now planning with university public health nursing educators and practitioners from across the globe to return to Rwanda and set-up an holistic global public health nursing model in rural villages. This will include The Mama Project, Samantha Basile’s original work in the Congo, of which I am now proud to say am on the Board, trauma healing therapies, and partnering with government and other programs in community healing villages in post genocide Rwanda. Once sustainability and capacity development are achieved, I want to bring these programs into other countries. In our ever-increasing smaller global community, what we do and implement in one place are lessons to be learned for all our countries and villages.  For human needs and wants are basically the same – love of our children, care for our elders, and in between rewarding and sustainable work.  Rwanda’s Reconciliation is a model for the world - actively moving beyond forgiveness from the genocide twenty years ago this April, to all sides coming together for community healing and striving to live as one. 

In graduate school at Columbia, it was a natural for me to take courses with Dr. Margaret Mead, for I wanted to understand health behaviors and patterns of being. Then, I became Dr. Mead’s research assistant at the Museum of Natural History. 

My “current path” is shaped and inspired by my history, steps taken, and choices made previously. My undergraduate college major was nursing with a minor in psychology, it was my public health nursing course in then called Watts, now South Central Los Angeles that brought me to my love and interest in how people live and their health behaviors.  Sitting on a flea-infested couch with a new mother, I saw her strength and her struggle in poverty to lovingly care for her infant. 

As a nurse educator with my students in the South Bronx, I saw strength in the immigrant women bravely holding their families together amidst pocked-mark, bullet-holed, burnt-out neighborhoods, living in five-story walk-up apartment buildings wreaking of urine with every other step missing. I thought if they are brave enough to provide a refuge of love for their children and families alone on the top floor, I am not afraid to climb up to see them. All these women anywhere in the world possess a singular wealth of strength of character and dignity, keeping their families together against all odds.

Standing in line for first grade all by myself, and so excited and proud to be at the beginning of independence, the little girl behind me was crying and holding on tight to her mother’s hand. I remember thinking this little girl does not have to be afraid, this is just another great adventure in our lives.   

So, I suppose, part of what has “inspired” where I am today, is my independent streak, to be open to new adventures, and not to be afraid to take risks.

Then, there is my grandfather, W.C. Fields, who as a young man performed throughout the world. When seeing the photo of him on the deck of the ship to Africa, I always wondered looking into his eyes, what does he know, what does he see, what is it in him that gives him the courage to do this, and thought I would never know, now I do. I am just playing ‘catch-up’ to those who came before me. 

I have never been afraid to speak truth to authority, quite frankly I relish it. However, to have a passion for health care policy and humane health care reform, there is an art to ‘keeping your eye on the prize’ and compromise, give and take, negotiate for your goal, as long as your value of care and service for the public good is not lost.  

What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? How did you overcome them?

I suppose the answer to that question follows from the first. A “greatest challenge” or obstacle would likely come from within – we perhaps are our greatest obstacles and get in our own way. We each can be the vehicle for change for the good in our own way. There is an African proverb, If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.  Overcoming obstacles or challenges is not to give up.  To discover your passion and follow it wherever it takes you.  How do you follow your passion?  By striving to be in touch with nature and the realization that all of us are part of one universe, precious and to be nurtured.    

What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?

There are some very significant ones, and then living each day as fully as possible, when we can achieve that, it is an accomplishment to celebrate every day. The significant accomplishments - going to Teachers College, Columbia University, getting my doctorate from Columbia.  I remember the morning of commencement for our doctorate there was the ceremony for Teachers College graduates in Riverside Church. Entering the vestibule and marching up the aisle with my sister doctoral colleagues, knowing how much work I put in to participate in this ceremony, and seeing my dear Mother there and brother Ron who helped me so much on my dissertation was exhilarating. 

While in graduate school I was research assistant to Dr. Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I never read so much and felt so inspired from the lessons I was learning every moment. In Washington, DC, I was the Federal Court Monitor in the D.C. Village Nursing Home case, appointed by the Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This case was brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against the District of Columbia for the violation of the civil rights of the residents of the nursing home the District owned and operated, D.C. Village Nursing Home. In one year we were able to turn around a decades old seemingly hopeless and bleak situation, smiles came to faces long frozen in despair, sad eyes finally sparkled. A volunteer ombudsman said that in all of his years of visiting what struck him most was that the residents were not touched. We touched the residents, the staff, and the District government to right wrongs.  

Recently developing and implementing a Policy and Politics in Nursing and Health Care course for professional nurses, and bringing them to Capitol Hill for classes with health policy staff of key legislators in the U.S. Congress. A profound truth shared by a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow with my students, “Until nurses are at the policy table, we will not have change in health care in this country.” I live this truth through my passion for health policy and try to communicate and convince my students they have power to change for the good. 

My father’s father is W.C. Fields. I am most proud and humbled by mere happy accident of birth to know so intimately one human being that has had, and to this day continues to have such a profound influence on the world’s modern entertainment heritage. As the Librarian of Congress said to me in his office W.C. Fields is the Icon of American Culture and Humor. He strove to be his best, to develop and use his talents to the fullest, and simply said, “If I can make them laugh and through that laughter make this old world seem just a little brighter, then I am satisfied.”  To me that is the ultimate in humility and human inspiration. I feel deeply that it is my responsibility, along with my brothers, to ensure younger generations and generations to come know the joy and comfort my grandfather’s art through humor brings to the human condition. In August 2012, the Kwetu Film Institute screened two of my grandfather’s films under the stars in Kigali, Rwanda. Many attendees said they will remember the night forever; it was truly a magical experience. The founder of the Kwetu Film Institute, Eric Kabera told the audience, “W.C. Fields comic genius is unmatched in the world today….I want to teach the Kwetu film students how to make comedy, so they and the country can laugh again.” Do see www.wcfields.com for a very touching write-up with photos of the W.C. Fields in Africa segment of my Rwanda journey.     

Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?

Certainly, Margaret Mead was the first mentor to me, starting with working for Dr. Mead at the Museum of Natural History and taking graduate courses from her at Columbia.  My father was the most elegant man I have ever known, and my Mother the most feminine woman.  Their qualities of graciousness live within me.  Of course, my grandfather W.C. Fields is my spiritual inspiration.  His talent and commitment to his art, to perfect it when and where he could, all to share with the public around the world is a profound influence.  There is no instance in the human condition that we cannot find some solace in the art through humor of W.C. Fields.  That is a gift.  Music and humor are the two universal languages, and laughter is truly the best medicine. 

What would you describe as a turning point in your life?

It may very well be entering the beautiful thick rich wood doors of Teachers College, Columbia University for the first time.  From that entrance, I feel Teachers College, Columbia University launched me to do anything I choose for the rest of my life.  Whenever on 116th Street in front of Alma Mater, or entering those beautiful thick wood doors of TC as an Alumni Council member, I feel I have spiritually come home, only to go out again. 

Now the next open door, stepping onto the tarmac at Kigali Airport and to the work of the rest of my life. 

What are your goals for the future?

Certainly to continue developing the holistic global public health nursing model, networking and collaborating with other healing programs, and bring to other countries, by working first with their governments for ‘buy-in’ and their identification of needs.  I am now gathering a network of global public health nursing educators and practitioners, along with other trauma healing and therapeutic programs, to return to Rwanda to develop capacity and sustainability in Train the Trainer programs, then to replicate in other fragile societies. This is what helps build sustainable programs and develops internal and local capacity to implement.  I feel this is now and has always meant to be my life’s work.  Of course, I can never separate this out from continuing to influence and teach future professional nursing leaders to take an active advocacy role in health care policy and humane health care reform anywhere in the world.  This is particularly vital now in the United States, for of all developed countries the U.S. is the only one with a fee for service/for profit ‘sick care’ delivery.  Thus, the U.S. ranks #37 among all developed countries in basic health indices.  Professional nursing leadership in health maintenance, promotion, and prevention is now mandated as the cure.        

There is a seamless thread of my work and passions - commitment, pursuit of truth, justice, and honesty, beauty, authenticity.  This most certainly includes continuing to ensure that younger generations and generations to come know the joy and comfort of the art through humor of my grandfather, W.C. Fields. 

In all the work I do, I feel that it is the work of an educator – to instill hope, belief in self and the capacity of others, to help develop knowledge, humane attitude, and skill to empower toward a social justice commitment to the world order and the public good.  To me teaching is a pure act of love; you want your students to believe in themselves and their power and responsibility to affect change.  We want our students to blossom no matter what age or place in life.  Whether bringing professional nursing students to Capitol Hill and the U.S. Congress for classes with legislators and health policy staff, or literally fighting to improve the lives of our most vulnerable, poor, and elderly in nursing homes by educating staff, administration, and city government bureaucratic oversight, even when the heavy and just hand of the Court is needed.  And now, to bring this pure act of love to our global community to eventually empower nurse educators in Rwanda and other fragile societies, including pockets of our own, by collaborating with other programs and the local population for the empowerment of our most vulnerable. 

I shall return soon, beginning with the women, the key to hope and change, for empowering women in fragile societies, will help change the trajectory of the world order that so needs altering.#



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