Dr. Barbara Nichols will be honored with the Women United Philanthropy Award at United Way’s annual Women United Breakfast this morning at the Overture Center for the Arts. The prestigious award celebrates and acknowledges a woman who is committed to helping make the community a better place to live for everybody.
“I’m excited and I’m humbled to be acknowledged and affirmed for the ability to give the gift of time and energy to what I think are relevant and meaningful areas of community service,” Nichols, the executive director of Wisconsin Center for Nursing, tells Madison365. “Although the award affirms me – through me – it acknowledges all women, in particular, women of color. I think that’s an important element.
“I will offer in my remarks today what I like to call a ‘black perspective’ on the areas of service that United Way’s Agenda for Change through its programs of health, education, and investment and what it means to our community,” she adds. “I think the big message is that the United Way – through its Agenda for Change and programs for service – is moving to a funding model that is holistic and provides wraparound services and sees people not singularly but in a way that is holistic. I think that is not only necessary but creative and relative for the times.”
Today’s United Way’s annual Women United Breakfast is centered around Women United’s commitment to the academic success of all Dane County youth, specifically in the areas of early childhood and tutoring. Other special guests will include MMSD Superintendent Jen Cheatham and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. All proceeds from the event will benefit United Way’s education portfolio including the Elementary Schools of Hope and Born Learning initiatives.
The Women United Philanthropy Award honors a woman’s achievements in educating, empowering and inspiring women and young girls to be philanthropic leaders in Dane County.
“We are inspired by Barbara’s passion to empower others. Our community is a better place because of her straight-talk, motivation and leadership,” says United Way President and CEO Renee Moe. “From serving on our board and committees, to giving generously and mentoring, to working to provide more Dane County residents with health supports and family stability, she is a wonderful role model for our community.”
Nichols has served on United Way of Dane County’s Board of Directors since 2014 and is currently Chair of Vision Council, where she is leading the organization through its investment process redesign to ensure that investments go farther and impact goes further by fostering collaboration across agencies and programs. Nichols has also participated in the Strategic Collaboration Capacity Building Team and the Task Force for Transformation in order to increase revenue and efficiency.
As Chair of the Self-Reliance and Independence Community Solutions Team, Nichols has also accelerated results in helping keep older adults independent. Under her leadership in 2018, 295 older adults received comprehensive medication reviews, and over 400 participated in falls prevention classes.
Through her volunteer work at her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Nichols has been a huge part of her community.
“Wisconsin for me, personally and professionally, has nurtured me and helped me to grow. My community work is my way of giving back,” says Nichols, who earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Case Western Reserve University and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think a legacy that I would like to leave is to provide service that is meaningful and relevant and I am a bodacious spokesperson for African Americans because in every indices blacks have more disenfranchisement, disability, disease and death.
“Whether you’re talking about early childhood and birth or you’re talking about the elderly and/or chronic diseases … if you’re talking about housing, employment, education – in every arena, we’re on the low end of the scale,” she continues. “So to be a pied piper or the champion to say ‘this work is needed’ … I guess because of my longevity, people listen to me as an elder.”
In 1959, Nichols graduated from the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Boston and soon became a nurse during a time when many hospitals were still racially segregated. During her long and distinguished career, Nichols has published more than 200 manuscripts on nursing and health care delivery and has been an outspoken advocate for diversity in the field of nursing across the country. She holds five honorary doctoral degrees for leadership contributions to the delivery of health care in urban and rural settings
“I feel privileged to have this opportunity to step up and to speak out because I think when you’re younger in your career you’re nervous about whether you’re going to offend somebody,” Nichols says. “At this point, my view is that I will say what needs to be said.
“And if I’ve offended you,” she adds, laughing, “just don’t invite me back.”
Nichols career has been full of some pretty amazing history. In 1970, she was elected president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, making her the first African American to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history. In 1979, she became the first African-American to be president of the American Nurses Association. There she served two terms and traveled 12,000 miles a month from coast to coast to speak on behalf of the organization.
In 1983, Nichols became the first African-American woman in Wisconsin to hold a cabinet-level position when she was appointed secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing. She also founded the Wisconsin Society for Healthcare Education and Training, where she created innovative professional development curricula for nurses in the area.
“The thing of it is, no one starts out thinking, ‘I’m going to be a pioneer or a trailblazer.’ You’re focused on the work that needs to be done,” she says. “I think what’s amazing is when you find out later that, ‘Oh, my goodness. You mean nobody was doing this?’ I think that’s an interesting observation and outcome. And if I’ve been an inspiration to people who have come after me, that makes me happy.”