Empowering Nurses for Social Justice

Donna Sabella, a nursing professor, knows that prostituted women are almost universally scorned and shunned. But for her, every woman is someone’s daughter, mother, wife, or sister—and someone she intends to help. As the first Seedworks Endowed Professor of Nursing and Social Justice, Sabella has the means and prestige to help these vulnerable and voiceless women.

Susan Hagedorn ’77, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and a filmmaker, funded the Seedworks professorship. The professorship is believed to be the only endowed nursing professorship with social justice at its heart. Hagedorn’s motivation was simple. “I am not out to cure the world,” she says. “I wish I could. But I wanted to have social justice be the foundation of what we do in the College of Nursing.” A symposium on social justice in nursing was held at UMass Amherst in 2015, and Hagedorn participated in a panel discussion. 

Sabella, who began her teaching, research and outreach at UMass Amherst in the 2016 fall academic semester, made significant inroads into helping prostituted and trafficked women in Philadelphia. A psychiatric nurse practioner and then a faculty member at Drexel University, she founded outreach support services and a residential recovery program for these women. Drexel also offers a certificate program in human trafficking. Sabella cofounded and is an associate editor for the Journal of Human Trafficking. “I was always interested in what makes us human,” she says.

She plans to build on this previous work, launching courses in human trafficking and exploring programs to help victims in Massachusetts. Her inspiration for continuing her work stems from witnessing its impact. “I see the faces.  I think of the women I worked with in Philadelphia that got help and improved their lives.”

Her overarching mission, she says, is to offer students a broad picture of nursing. “You can’t talk about social justice unless you understand social injustice,” she says. “You can’t do anything unless you dig deeper and learn the causes of social problems.”

The social benefits that will accrue from Sabella honors the UMass Amherst mission. Joseph Berger, senior associate dean for research and engagement in the College of Education whose expertise is in postsecondary educational leadership and organizational development, says, “There is nothing but an upside to this. We have a responsibility to make our communities better and if we don’t use our expertise and talents to address challenges that face us we are not fulfilling the social contract we have with the larger society.”

The Seedworks professorship is one of 24 created during the UMass Rising Campaign.