Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership aims to train next generation to implement change

By Melinda Rogers
with additional material by VUSN Communications
Originally published on May 11 here >>

Leaders at the forefront of systemic change make a difference by thinking about how to shift old patterns that have kept people marginalized. Thirteen students, including three from the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, nominated by deans across Vanderbilt this year got the chance to engage in such big-picture thinking as participants in the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership’s interprofessional student fellowship. Housed in the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the program brings together students from various disciplines to engage around socio-moral concerns.  

A core foundation of the fellowship program is to teach students how to advocate for and mobilize others, including future employers, around decisions that benefit the common good and improve justice, especially when it comes to serving a diverse public. 

“So many people are just trying to survive in the world—moral leadership should not be a luxury of the thinking class. It should not be an optional thing for the survival and continuing of the human planet,” said Laine Walters Young, director of the fellowship and assistant director of the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership.   

Nursing student Hali Ledet from Louisiana was one of this year’s fellows. She brings her life experiences growing up with a front-row view of the racial inequities of the prison system in her home state to bear on her goals of changing the narrative for underserved populations. She is pursuing certification as a midwife and family nurse practitioner. 

“Perhaps most importantly, it provided me with a space of true fellowship and renewed sense of optimism during some very trying times,” Ledet said. “This fellowship served as a reminder of the bigger picture and why I came into nursing and midwifery in the first place—to do real healing work.” 

Ledet and the other fellows, who are pursuing degrees in medicine, divinity, education, law and nursing, recently gathered to share research projects that examined social inequities and provided solutions on how to integrate behaviors designed to better support moral decision-making in their respective careers. The projects included research on health care disparities, particularly maternity deaths in African American women; health care in prisons; dominance in educational spaces; and early education success. 

“My involvement as a fellow in the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership has, without a doubt, been the highlight of my Vanderbilt experience,” said Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner student Mark D. Miller. “From the mission of the program to the multidisciplinary involvement of students from other VU graduate schools, I’ve learned so much about the importance of recognizing my privilege and unique opportunities as a future VUSN alum to always be a voice for those who cannot speak up because of systemic barriers and injustice.” 

Nurse-Midwifery/Family Nurse Practitioner student Anna Dennis is VUSN’s third Cal Turner fellow.  “Time spent with this group of people has expanded my mind and heart to understand pressing problems from a moral lens, and to unapologetically prioritize morality as we imagine solutions,” Dennis said.  “I hope to carry this spirit of imagination, justice and vulnerability with me as our formal time together comes to a close. As a future nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner, this fellowship has pushed me to imagine what I think it means to truly care for people’s health, wellness and healing—and, in doing so, it has helped me be direct and honest about the forces in our health care systems and institutions that do not promote health, wellness and healing.” 

Amany Alshibli, Zeke Arteaga, Justin Brooks, Toni Cross, Noah Harrison, Joryan Hernandez, Linken Lam, Risa Roth, Nirali Vyas, Veerain Gupta, Dennis, Miller and Ledet each presented their research to a crowd of faculty members and Vanderbilt co-curricular organizations and departments. They spoke about how working as a team over the course of several months gave them a chance to think about how to lead people differently in the future.  

“We do our best work when we bring various voices in varying ways to the table together rather than in silence,” said Rev. Quentin W. Cox, the fellowship program’s co-coordinator. “I hope that students walk away having a better understanding of the complexities of morality. That morality isn’t necessarily right and wrong. There are a variety of ways to think about what is moral or immoral, and how morality is situated within the community is important.”  

Some of the students’ ideas for tangible steps included practical advice, such as health care providers better explaining patient rights or as providers better understanding their duty to serve all. The broader call to action, however, is that moral leadership is a practice that takes repeated conversations over time in complex organizations. The practice will always be challenging as other priorities and bottom lines may easily dominate hard conversations, some in attendance at the recent research presentation said.  

Walters Young said that for many fellows, the program is the first time they’ve had to stop and consider moral implications of the growing leadership responsibilities in their respective fields. Tackling difficult situations with peers from other disciplines often provides a perspective students wouldn’t otherwise receive, she noted.  

“The curriculum we have tried to develop is conversational, reflective and introspective and not based on case studies. So much is based on the case studies of their own lives and what they’ve experienced and the situations they envision,” Walters Young said.  

The CTP Fellowship program, which has been around for 12 years, gives fellows a chance to meet twice a month over lunch to discuss and reflect upon moral leadership, moral values, moral formation, moral power and moral conflict. As a co-curricular activity, students often are pursuing the opportunity to round out field-specific training.  

“What are we hoping that students get out of this experience? The first is the ability to have conversations across professional lines and an awareness that based on your position in life, whether that is your social location, whether it’s where you work, your chosen profession…there are different ways to think about these moral issues,” Cox said.   

Cox noted that polarization in the U.S., as well as current affairs in the country and across the globe, serves as evidence that decisions around moral issues have reached unprecedented points of tension. Training future leaders to navigate choppy waters in trying times is essential, he and Walters Young emphasized.  

“One of the important things about the program is to try to help people with their moral and ethical literacy, to help them think through the situations they’ve been in and the situations they will be in,” Walters Young said. “We try to instill in our fellows that being a moral leader is a lifelong effort.” 

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