Nurses advocate for patients every day on issues big and small, from helping secure hospital beds to connecting them with resources when they’re discharged.
But equally important, in Martha Paynter’s view, is advocating for change on a broader scale, something she has been doing for years through volunteer work and with the non-profit organization Women’s Wellness Within (WWW).
Formed in 2012, the group provides often-overlooked services such as doulas and breastfeeding support to incarcerated individuals before, during and after childbirth — the "perinatal period."
Now, Martha is using her position as a doctoral Nursing student at Dalhousie to research how to improve health outcomes for pregnant individuals or those experiencing early parenthood while behind bars and build the case for deeper change.
“There are so many barriers for criminalized women getting to parent their children,” she says, “but if we can support them to succeed, the returns on this investment of our time, our thoughtfulness, and money are profound.”
Martha is one of 10 individuals across Canada chosen this year to receive a 3M National Student Fellowship. The award, presented annually by the Society for Teaching and Learning in High Education, celebrates post-secondary students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and a vision of enhancing the educational experience in academia and beyond.
It’s one of several honours she has received in recent months. In March, she received one of Dal’s Board of Governors’ Awards for student leadership — the university’s top student life award — followed by a series of prestigious scholarships including the Killam Scholarship, the IWK Ruby Blois Scholarship and a Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
She says receiving a 3M award means a lot, especially given its national scope.
“I’m pleased because I think some of the things I say are a bit difficult and challenging, so it’s nice that that type of thought is being welcomed on a national platform,” she says.
An unconventional path
Martha’s path to nursing is rather unconventional compared to some of her colleagues. While many start out in a clinical setting, only later moving into policy work, she spent nearly a decade in health management for provincial governments in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia before entering the field.
“Sometimes I’m a little hard on myself about the time it took to get where I am, but I think my experience is deeply useful in terms of the work that I want to be doing,” she says.
With previous graduate degrees in economic development and health research methods, Martha also brings a critical perspective to larger questions of health funding and policy.
Gail Tomblin Murphy, director of the School of Nursing, says Martha’s willingness to shift directions despite already having an established career speaks to her passion and commitment for change.
“Very few people have that drive and that passion from within them to do whatever they need to do — which is hard work and long years — to make that difference,” says Dr. Murphy. “With everything she takes on, she does it with that enthusiasm.”
Platforms for speaking out
Indeed, in addition to her work with Women’s Wellness Within, Martha has offered peer breastfeeding and postpartum support with Public Health Nurses’ in North End Halifax, volunteers regularly with the Chebucto Family Centre Doula Program, and is a director on the Board of the Atlantic Milk Banking Coalition, which works to advance the donation and use of human donor milk in Nova Scotia.
She has also advocated for greater access to medical abortions in the Maritimes through her work as a member and former chair of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund Halifax Branch (LEAF).
“With all of these platforms, I’m speaking out against incarceration, for reproductive justice, for health equity and for harm reduction,” she says.
As a 3M National Student Fellow, Martha will connect with peer Fellows across Canada and, as a cohort, develop a collaborative project focused on enhancing teaching and learning at the post-secondary level. She also receives a $5,000 award and will also get to attend and present, together with the other Fellows, at the 2018 national conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE). Learn more about the 3M National Student Fellows program at the STLHE website.
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