Top Nurses 2022: Jessi Kendall helps dismantle racism and health disparities

UW Health diversity and cultural congruence resource nurse is a recipient of the Top Nurses 2022 Leadership Award.
A nurse wearing a yellow head wrap and a shirt that says "Black Nurse Magic" against a blue background
Photo by Patrick Stutz
Jessi Kendall, Top Nurses 2022 Leadership Award Winner

Jessi Kendall was only two years into her career as a bedside nurse when she took on the additional role of diversity and cultural congruence resource nurse at UW Health.

“Even though I didn’t feel like I was ready, I said, ‘OK, let me just try it,’ ” Kendall says. “Ultimately, it changed a lot about how I think about myself in terms of being able to support my colleagues and my community when it comes to making sure that we’re providing quality care to anyone who comes through our doors.”

Quality care and connecting with patients are at the core of Kendall’s work. She’s often surprised to hear that some patients, specifically Black patients, had never before felt comfortable asking certain questions or sharing vital information in a health care setting. Kendall doesn’t take this lightly.

“Barriers to full participation in your own health are barriers to high-quality care,” she says. “Diversity in the nursing workforce is not a nice-to-have. It’s directly related to quality care.”

Kendall has worked at UW Health since graduating in 2014. After attending school in Louisiana, she returned to Madison in the early 2000s and began working as a waitress. During that time, she would often listen to customers’ stories about their health challenges. Those conversations planted a seed for Kendall to return to school, but it was the birth of her daughter and a loved one’s illness that helped her make the final decision to go back. Returning as an adult student wasn’t easy, she says. She did it little by little, eventually graduating with her nursing degree.

Now she’s opening doors for others to become nurses. Kendall says some people think they shouldn’t become a nurse or feel that they’re not welcome in the nursing field because “they don’t look like what a nurse is supposed to look like.” She is in the early stages of launching a small business centered on support and mentorship for Black future nurses.

Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, vice president and chief diversity officer for UW Health, says Kendall feels passionately about diversifying the nursing workforce. “She knows well that representation matters to our patients and community,” says Bidar-Sielaff. “As always, Jessi walks the talk. She has made a point to work with the UW Health HR recruitment team to assist with nurse recruitment and provide insight into ways we can continue to diversify our nursing workforce.”

Kendall believes her work is not limited to one role or title, and that’s what she hopes her legacy will be. “For me, when I’m coming in contact with patients every day and I’m standing in front of a room full of nursing students, or when I have a new nurse that I’m partnering with or checking in with them, those are the moments where it’s obvious I’m moving in the right direction and I need to keep doing what I’m doing,” says Kendall.

Whether it’s mentoring or speaking to future nurses, Kendall’s impact is profound, says Bidar-Sielaff. Kendall was also the inaugural co-chair of the hospital’s Black/African American Employee Resource Group. “She touches patients’ and families’ lives directly [and] daily through her compassionate, patient-centered approach,” she says. “But her impact does not stop there: Jessi volunteers her time and talent to many initiatives within UW Health and in the community, all of them tied to one purpose: dismantling racism and eliminating the long-standing health disparities that continue to impact the Black community.”

Meet the other Leadership Award recipient and see all six Top Nurses 2022 award winners by clicking here. This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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