Leading By Care

The National League for Nursing, with a membership of 40,000 nurses, is the oldest professional association for nurses in the country. This year it celebrates its 125th anniversary, just as Carolina, the nation’s oldest public university, celebrates its 225th.

In these two landmark years, Rumay Alexander, EdD, RN, FAAN, holds important leadership positions at both: she is the president of the first and the associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the second.

It is indicative of how far the world has come, says Alexander, and the intrinsic leadership style that comes from nursing, to see these two things converge.

In 2016, Chancellor Carol L. Folt asked Alexander to be the first ever special assistant to the chancellor for diversity, and in 2017 she took her current role as associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion.

A career in nursing has been the perfect preparation.

“Care is part of our DNA. It’s a natural lens through which we see things. When there’s a need for healing, which we see so much in issues of diversity and inclusion, the experience of learning how to be with people where they are is essential. These people are in your care – what do they need?” Early on Alexander had a sense that she was made to do something big, but that the world around her was not automatically going to make room. She learned that when others saw her name, Rumay, on paper, that they expected to meet someone French or Italian. They were visibly caught off guard to find out she was African-American. It taught her to read the room, she says, to always know her environment and to confront stereotypes, implicit bias and discrimination with eloquent rage.

“I was put in so many situations where something – an unfair rule or an unkind person – was pushing against me, and I have always pushed back. I didn’t know what I was being prepared for, but I knew it was for something.”

When Alexander was in the seventh grade, her home state of Tennessee was ordered to integrate schools, and she was given the opportunity to leave her totally black school to attend a totally white school and make it diverse. Immediately she felt the tension within her new school, at which some assumed she wasn’t good enough or intelligent enough, and her close-knit community, which thought “maybe she now thinks she is too good or better than us”, says Alexander.

She felt caught between these two worlds and fully fitting, belonging or welcomed with neither. School had always been easy for Alexander, and with the transition to her new school, she saw her grades spiral downwards.

“I had always been a straight A student,” she says. “Something wasn’t right.”

Alexander discovered the school system had been supplying the all-black elementary school with outdated textbooks while giving the other school the most recent or cutting-edge textbooks. She had been intentionally undereducated. Repeating that realization, even now, still leaves her with a bit of shock.

“Throughout my childhood, there were different rules for different people, and it didn’t make sense to me. But I had a lot of grit. I’d think to myself – ‘manage it.’ So, I caught up. As a child, I was working at night until 2 a.m. because I wanted to be excellent.”

After graduation, Alexander enrolled in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She had an aptitude for science, which led her to health care. As a child, she’d only see white providers, the injustice at the hands of some that she’d long recognized. But, she’d also recognized the nursing care that had made her feel safe, the humanity of the nurses who had soothed her when she was injured.

“We needed black providers in health care. The health sciences had not come around to studying their black populations. Becoming a nurse was a way for me to give voice on behalf of these patients.”

Alexander’s first job was as a pediatric nurse, but she soon wanted more. She took a job as Senior Vice President for the Tennessee Hospital Association, one of two women in such roles across the country, the only African-American and the only nurse.

She felt herself tested by those who didn’t believe she belonged, so she once again turned to her grit and defied the expectations had on her. Realizing she needed bigger tools to do bigger things, she earned her Master of Science in Nursing from Vanderbilt University and her doctorate degree in education from Tennessee State University, and she used the skills she’d learned in advocacy and education to begin a career consulting on diversity and inclusion.

“I understood the patient side of it, the public policy side of it, the racial side of it, gender inequity side of it and the educational side of it,” she says.

In 2003, Alexander joined the faculty of UNC’s School of Nursing, which had recently become dedicated to having a class that reflected the demographics of the state. The school was the first on campus to hire a full-time chief diversity officer, focusing on curriculum, recruitment and retention and the organizational climate.

“I knew that if you don’t get the climate right, the other two won’t work. You need policies and practices and strategic planning,” she says. “So, all the work I’d done before had truly led me right to that place.” In 2008 she made history once again, becoming the School of Nursing’s frst AfricanAmerican full professor.

Her life experiences of so often trying to work through systems that weren’t going to easily accommodate her have instilled in her a desire for humanity and equality. She says these values are essential to making a difference and working toward inclusive and equitable environments of living and learning during these pivotal years for both Carolina and the National League of Nursing.

“I have worked my entire life to be a game-changer and to make sure that I am so well-prepared that the excuse of not being so could not be used as an eliminating factor for my presence, and the decision-makers would have to work hard to eliminate me based on my record of achievement. I have seen others do that, too, for my whole career, not be their whole selves because they worry others do not find them legitimate,” she says.

“But I understand this so well because I have lived it, and experienced it, and I can articulate it in ways those who are different from me can understand. To be here now, I can see everything that has come before makes perfect sense.”