Affecting change through systems thinking

October 31, 2016

Margaret Milner incorporates social justice into the nursing curriculum

When Margaret Milner first heard about the injustices Indigenous people in Canada face, she was horrified. As a child, she was fascinated and confused by the concept of racism, and was shocked when her father first told her about residential schools.

“That’s what started me on my journey,” says Margaret, a 2015 recipient of MacEwan University’s Distinguished Teaching Award who is keen on indigenizing university curricula.

Since then, Margaret has tried to weave the common thread of social justice through everything she does.

As an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing and one of the instructors for MacEwan’s first-ever sustainability course, Margaret strives to help her students look at various concepts through a sustainability lens—particularly that of social sustainability.

“We are all stewards of the planet,” she says. “My interest in sustainability goes way back to when I had my first child, and I started to really look at the world through the eyes of the next generations. I realized that I have to play a part now if I want to ensure there’s going to be a place for all of us to coexist together in the future."

Image-SUSTNOV-MMilner2As a self-proclaimed “policy geek,” Margaret highlights how creating positive change can be done most effectively by working at the systems level.

“I want to move us away from the idea of environmental guilt,” she says. “People feel immobilized by that. They say, ‘What difference am I possibly going to make in the world?’”

While Margaret incorporates the principles of sustainability into her own life through the avenues of cycling and gardening, she says looking at governments and large corporations, and the policies they use, can impact sustainability on a much larger scale—similar to how professors can positively impact a large collective of students at post-secondary institutions.

The desire to plant ideas about paradigm shifts in young people’s minds is what encouraged Margaret to make the jump between nursing and teaching, after spending the majority of her nursing career working in acute care. During her time as a nurse, she witnessed the direct impacts of the social determinants of health, which is now one of the fundamental concepts that she focuses on in her teaching.

“Social justice is a hard thing to help people get their minds wrapped around,” she says. “The idea that there are many people impacted systemically by things like globalization and climate change isn’t always easily understood.”

Margaret says students are often overwhelmed by the concepts of sustainability and how social justice fits into it. While she recognizes that the definition of the word varies from person to person, she highlights how one overlapping principle in people’s definition should stem from Indigenous knowledge, focusing on how everything we take from the Earth is a gift that must be given back.

“For me, sustainability is about relationships. It’s about the ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s about the ability to transcend our individual experiences and to look at how our relationships with the environment, the economy, our culture and our social situations intersect, so we then can be more intentional about trying to create strategies and opportunities that will preserve what Mother Earth brings us for future generations,” she says  “It's living life with intention and finding meaning in living a good life.”

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