The University Record, January 24, 2000

Allen: ‘Pay attention to who’s not at the table’

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Elizabeth Allen, associate professor of nursing, described herself as “queen of the barrier-breakers” during last week’s 13th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. In a presentation sponsored by the MLK Health Science Committee, she talked about the barriers to health care she encountered growing up in segregated West Virginia during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as barriers that remain today.

Allen described how, at age 14, she traveled with her high school band to give a concert at the colored state hospital for the mentally ill. “They led us into a large, gym-like room with a drainage hole in the center,” she said. “It was full of women wearing no underwear and what I call strong dresses—the kind that won’t tear easily. I smelled water. Suddenly I realized they had hosed these women off with cold water before they put these dresses on. I was stunned. How could anyone be so inhumane?”

With tears running down her cheeks, Allen continued: “I remembered my mother who died in a T.B. hospital and thought about how she probably was hosed down, too. That’s when I decided to become a nurse, because I knew I had a job to do.”

Allen explained how this job has led her to fight for desegregation of mental institutions throughout the South, serve as one of fewer than 30 Black nurses during the Vietnam War, demand accessible and appropriate health care in inner city Detroit, and confront discrimination wherever she encounters it, even at the U-M.

Allen told the story of her initial rocky relationship with Ada Sue Hinshaw, dean of the School of Nursing — who was in the audience — and how they both had to make an effort to forgive transgressions and understand their differences. “Martin [Luther King Jr.] talked about joining forces and how we don’t all have to be alike,” she said. “It’s the melding of different thoughts and backgrounds that will carry us into the new millennium. Ada Sue wears conservative suits and speaks in a quiet voice, but under her leadership, we had the first African American nurse to receive tenure in the history of the School of Nursing.”

Many of the barriers to equality Allen and others fought so hard to break down are returning, she warned. “If they dismantle freedoms for Blacks, the rest of you don’t have a chance. Especially women, because women too often speak with a soft voice.

“God gave you a voice,” she said. “When you see an injustice, speak to it, so others will hear and start to speak,” Allen said. “Health care is important to the health of our nation. Everyone must have equal access to the highest quality of care. It’s up to all of us to pay attention to who is not at the table.”