The Problem: North Dakota's 1986 clean air law permitted smoking in some areas of public buildings. The Grand Forks Tobacco Free Coalition, established in 1992, came up against the usual roadblocks in trying to secure passage of a local ordinance stronger than the state's anti-smoking law: Business community fears of the potential economic impact and lack of awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke.
The Proposal: Deborah J. Swanson, B.S.N., R.N., nursing and nutrition supervisor of the Grand Forks Public Health Department, is a North Dakota native who knew its political and social climate well. She had more than 25 years of nursing experience that also included community organizing and grant writing, budget preparation, and public speaking. And Swanson had been active in the Grand Forks Tobacco Free Coalition since its founding. But she felt she needed to develop her leadership skills further, to help get a strong local anti-smoking ordinance passed and to improve public health in North Dakota.
Grantee Perspective/Results: Swanson entered the Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellows Program in 2002, receiving a grant that covered a project and personal development. Her project focused on getting the strongest possible anti-smoking ordinance passed in Grand Forks. Swanson used the project funds to conduct a public opinion poll assessing perceptions about secondhand smoke and support for anti-smoking legislation; conduct research on smoke-free laws; and hold a public forum on the science, politics and health aspects of secondhand smoke. She also helped support the Grand Forks Tobacco Free Coalition and funded a public relations and advertising campaign in support of a strong anti-smoking ordinance. Swanson used her personal development funds to attend professional conferences and stock her professional library.
In June 2005, Grand Forks passed an anti-smoking local ordinance stronger than the law adopted by the state two months earlier. For example, Grand Forks banned smoking in bars located inside restaurants while the new state law allowed it.
"Deborah's work is what the Foundation's work is all about," says Senior Program Officer Michelle A. Larkin, R.N., M.S., a member of RWJF's tobacco program management team. "She used her leadership skills to implement our strategy."
Swanson attributes some of those skills to her program mentor, Lucy Calautti, government relations director for Major League Baseball. Calautti was a Navy veteran and long-time Capitol Hill staffer with no significant public health background. But she taught Swanson how to work effectively within the political system and how to think strategically.
Participating in the Executive Nurse Fellows Program was "a life changing experience" according to Swanson. "I became a more effective communicator and strategic thinker." In the summer of 2007, she was still working for the Grand Forks Public Health Department and heading a local coalition to open a dental clinic for the underserved. She is thinking about running for political office some day.
"I've developed much greater moral courage," she says. "I speak out more for my values, which fits in very well with the mission of public health."
RWJF Perspective: The Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellows Program was created in 1997 to capitalize on the profession's strengths and build the leadership capacity of nursing. "Nurses are in a unique position to serve in leadership roles and contribute to transforming our health care system," says Susan Hassmiller, Ph.D., R.N., RWJF senior program officer. "The executive nurses program is part of the Foundation's building human capital strategy to attract, develop and retain diverse and high-quality leaders and a workforce to improve health and health care," says Hassmiller.