What Can One Person Do? Ask Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have – Margaret Mead

What Can One Person Do?

Can nurses bring social justice to the correctional environment? Are we too few in number and without power in the criminal justice system? Margaret Mead thought a few caring people can change the world. In fact, caring people have changed the world for similar vulnerable and marginalized patient populations. What can we learn from the actions and outcomes of social reformers like Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix?

Lillian Wald: Helping the Disadvantaged

Lillian Wald was born to a life of privilege in the late 19th century; yet, as a nurse, she saw the needs of disadvantaged immigrants in New York City and took action. She started the Henry Street Settlement (originally called the Nurse’s Settlement) in 1893 to provide health care and education to immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She is widely regarded as the founder of public health nursing. Nurse Wald was moved to action by observing the living conditions of the urban poor.

Dorthea Dix: Reforming Treatment of Prisoners and the Mentally Ill

Dorthea Dix, although never trained as a nurse, was a social reformer in the mid 19th century and managed nursing services during the Civil War. Her greatest accomplishments were in agitating for improved health conditions for the mentally ill and prisoners who were often housed together. She struggled with her own mental breakdown early in life that brought her into contact with British social reformers during a rest-cure trip to England. Upon returning to America she launched a review of the conditions of mental illness treatment in New England and found inhumane conditions of extreme neglect. Her efforts brought about sweeping changes to the treatment of both prisoners and the mentally ill.

Be One of the Few that Changes the World

Margaret Mead thinks you can change the world. Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix provide proof that one person can make a difference.

  • It just takes one. Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix started as a single individual who saw a need and acted. It can seem overwhelming to consider being a force for good in your setting. Yet even small actions can create momentum and change. Maybe you have heard the story of the little boy on the seashore.

Every day a little boy would go to the shore to pick up starfish left by the tide, walked them down to the water’s edge, and tossed them back into the ocean. One day a hurricane left hundreds of starfish on the beach. The little boy went out as usual and started picking them up one at a time and returning them to the water. A man walking his dog stopped to watch the little boy. Finally the man said to the boy, “Why do you keep picking up those starfish? There are so many of them you can’t make a difference”. The little boy picked up one starfish and looked at the man and said, “To this one I can make a difference”.

  • People wait for a leader. Are others waiting for someone (like you!) to take the lead? Malcomb Gladwell, in his highly recommended book, The Tipping Point, suggests that people don’t act in the face of need in a group setting for two reasons.

1) They see that others are also experiencing this need and no one sees it as an issue. Therefore, they assume they are misinterpreting what they are experiencing.
2) They assume that someone else must be taking care of it; say, someone else in authority. In a group, people often wait for an indication from others as to how they should act.

Maybe like-minded others around you need to know you are concerned, too, and that action is needed. Others rallied around Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix once they sounded the alarm and took action. It may seem that you are the only one, but you may be one of many.

  • Start where you are. Dix and Wald were women in the 19th century; not a very powerful position to be in. Health care professionals in the criminal justice system are rarely in positions of power; yet, like these two reformers, we have the power to take action that can lead to powerful good. Even small actions can have big consequence.

What can one nurse do? We can speak up when we see social injustice and can band together with like-minded nurses and others to initiate change. Correctional nurses have opportunities to see into the criminal justice system and support necessary change that leads to improved treatment and increased respect for human dignity.

A few caring correctional nurses, you and me, can change the world. Do you believe it? Let’s do it!

Share your thoughts about correctional nursing and social justice in the comments section of this post.

One thought on “What Can One Person Do? Ask Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix

  1. Nice article. A reminder of the power one person dedicated to improving the life of others can make. We certainly need leaders like those today.


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