Zoë Kondes on Nursing, Activism, and Community

December 17, 2020
Zoë Kondes

Written by Isabelle Snyder, UHP Communications Intern
Photo courtesy of Zoë Kondes


Zoë Kondes is a UHP senior and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) student who is also a very strong leader in her community. I sat down to talk with Zoë about her time in the Honors Program at the University of Minnesota as well some of the other experiences that have shaped her time here, including her role in the group Health Students for a Healthy Climate.


Q: You're a Nursing student, but your interests are very diverse. How are you aligning those personal interests with your academic pursuits?


Zoë: I was unsure about nursing because I had this very narrow perception of nursing going into the U. I was like, “I have so many interests. I can’t possibly just narrow this down.” My whole mom’s side of the family are English majors, so I said, “Maybe I want to do English. Maybe I want to do Art History. Maybe I want to be an editor. Maybe I want to not go to school and become a muralist. Or maybe I just want to study biology and then learn about the natural world.”

What I realized was that nursing incorporates all of my interests. Nursing deals with the biological sciences, and it deals with social justice. Social justice is baked into our Code of Ethics, and it’s baked into how we deliver care. If it isn’t, that’s a reflection on those people not doing the profession as they should. Nursing also incorporates art. One of the first things we talk about is the fact that nursing is an art and a science. It incorporates people’s stories. I love working with people. I knew I wanted to do that. 

After this realization, I thought, “Hold up, wait wait wait, you’re telling me I can do nursing and not compromise? I’m in!” I mentioned the big things I love about nursing, but there are all sorts of small things. I love the fact that I have this discipline and specific skill set I’m learning. I love that I’m in this profession that is taken very seriously and trusted. And that’s not inherent; we obviously have to work for that trust because you see so many examples of how people do not trust health care providers because of bad experiences they have had. But I just love the fact that nursing is also something that makes most people feel fulfilled. I don’t think there’s anyone who is truly so selfish that they really do not like it when someone asks them for help, or when someone asks them for care or support. I think that’s really cool, and I think that it’s hard to find something that’s so universal in that way.


Q: How long have you been a member of Health Students for a Healthy Climate (HSHC)? Can you tell us about your work there?


Zoë: I have been involved with Health Students for a Healthy Climate for a little over a year now. I was introduced to them because I was doing sustainability advocacy work through Minnesota Student Association (MSA) my sophomore year, and then I became really passionate about environmental justice after meeting some people from Voices for Environmental Justice. That got the ball rolling, and I met some really cool nurses who introduced me to Health Students for a Healthy Climate.

With HSHC, we do a lot of stuff primarily with education. It’s not necessarily education of the general public, although that can also be nice. We’re focused on interprofessional education. This organization is about looking at how all these different factors — like race, socioeconomic status, culture, access to resources, infrastructure — are all coming together to affect health, and how climate change, as a determinant of health that inherently impacts those structures, is woven through all of that. We’re about taking an interprofessional, team-based approach to determinants of health because climate change is going to be the biggest determinant in the next 20 years.

We’re still doing Climate Convos, which are little conversations where we present information on a certain topic and then have a discussion. I led a recent Climate Convo about decolonizing healthcare, where we dealt with questions like "What does it mean to have a healthcare system that serves everybody?"

HSHC has also been involved with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and their lobbying efforts around fuel for school buses. There was a lot of data gathered about that and how it’s negatively impacting kids — they’re re-inhaling fumes due to the structure of the buses. We helped with an email campaign around this issue, and the MPCA recently announced a pilot program to fund six electric school buses in Minnesota. We’ve also tried to organize events around community resources or different facilities. For example, we were thinking of scheduling a tour of the Recycling & Composting Facility here at the U. We were going to have an event where we ride around on bikes and look at the natural world. But we ended up having to cancel all of our community outreach events because of COVID-19.


Q: Nursing is a career in which you are always leading, always helping patients, and subsequently helping the wider community. How has studying nursing (newfound knowledge, experiences, etc.) strengthened / developed / changed your idea of what it means for someone to be a leader in their community?


Zoë: I think in many ways I’ve learned new things through nursing, but it’s also reinforced what I already believe. But I would say one of the first things nursing has taught me is that being a leader means listening, collaborating, and not putting yourself at a different level above your community. To be a leader is to be among your community and truly give them an equitable say in the work that you’re doing or the goal that you have or in the care that you’re giving. That also goes for working as part of an interprofessional team. If you look at a care team, many people would say the provider is the leader of the care team, but the idea is that you’re all coming together — in your separate disciplines with your separate bodies of knowledge and areas of expertise — to work for a patient. So being a leader is about treating others with respect and listening to them.

I think nursing has also shown me that it’s always about the community. When we talk about patients and their health, their health is never ever separate from their community, even if a patient doesn’t necessarily have a strong sense of community or wouldn’t necessarily think of it in that way. It always comes back to the larger communities that a patient is a part of. 

Being a leader is also about not inserting your own vision. Obviously you’re bringing your perspective and championing a cause, but you are not only presenting your ideas or putting your vision of what should be onto the community. The idea is that you are listening and you are building it with them. The patient is the authority on their care, so that means when you’re out in the community — being a leader either directly in a care role or just in general — the community is the authority on their care. The community is the authority on how things should go and what they need. So that’s why the responsibility of nurses, in their roles as leaders, is to listen and respond.


Q: Everyone has their own little “community,” and especially now with social media, anything someone shares to their followers reaches this personal community. In what ways have you been leading / helping your personal community over the last several months?


Zoë: It’s been really remarkable to see how many ways people have been able to wield social media as a tool over the past few months. When the pandemic first started, I think what was really hard was that a lot of people had misconceptions about the disease, or they felt afraid and felt like they didn’t understand. Sometimes there is a mindset that information about health is only something that certain people understand after studying it for a long time. In reality, everyone has the ability to understand information about health, and everyone has the capacity to take care of themselves regardless of their educational background.

In general, using social media to publicly have conversations is important, even if you know they may not go anywhere. Like pushing back against someone even though you know they won’t necessarily respond directly to you or you know they’ll just blow you off — because maybe, I don’t know, they’re the governor. Public conversations like that are important because they can change someone’s mind indirectly. It’s about having people witness that conversation, that other perspective, so that maybe they will consider changing their mind or their perspective.

I get kind of rattled by the question about what I’m doing to help my community because I think it’s important to ask that of others and of ourselves, but I don’t think I’m doing anything remarkable. I know people who — for months — have been doing night security for people experiencing homelessness and living in sanctuaries. They have been there, in the tents, helping them out, answering their questions, getting them resources, and making sure that no one messes with their stuff. I’m just over here on the sidelines supporting, so I don’t think I’m doing anything remarkable by any means.


Q: What are some ways you recommend for people to get involved with their community, actions they can take online or in-person to aid their community, and resources they can utilize to better educate themselves and understand their community?


Zoë: I think if you are financially able, donating money is incredibly helpful. This is definitely more difficult for young people who have rent payments and lower paying jobs. At times I think, “Oh, I want to give money, but I’ve already given to these other causes. If I give just $5 to this person who needs an organ transplant, why am I even doing that? That’s just a drop in the ocean.” But part of the idea is symbolically saying, “I want to give you this resource. I want to help in any way I can.” So I think it’s still meaningful even if it’s not that much.

Another thing I recommend — especially now with Minneapolis — is literally walking out amongst your community and not being afraid to ask questions. Don’t be impertinent, don’t be rude — but there was a sanctuary near my family’s house in South Minneapolis, and I was worried because South Minneapolis can be kind of uppity. But it was incredibly encouraging and heartwarming because when people would walk past the sanctuary on the walking or bike path, they would stop and ask if they needed anything and offer to go get them stuff, like grab more plates or diapers. Or they would offer to make a meal and bring it down, and they would check if anyone had any allergies. People responded really well. And that’s the thing — when it’s hard to conceptualize “How am I connected to my community? What does my community need? What can I do?” — it really is meaningful to go out, look around, or connect with people who are online and active in the Twin Cities and tell them “I would love to help in some way.” On top of being proactive, it’s important to simply be curious, honest, and humble.

In conclusion: As a rule of thumb for self education, if you think you’ve learned a lot, you know a lot, and you’re really proud of that — think again. You can join an anti-ractist book club. You can write petitions. You can read think pieces. The options are endless. Part of our “jobs” as self-educating people is to always be open to learning. It’s about having that mindset of acceptance and growth.

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Self-education and critical thinking are imperative in this age of overwhelming information. In her role as a nurse and as a passionate participant in the activist community, Zoë strives to both educate herself and others about marginalized perspectives, and promote attentive listening and compassionate action. The process of self-education can be complex and challenging. Here are some resources recommended by Zoë to jumpstart your self-educational journey:

Health Students for a Healthy Climate

MPLS Sanctuary Movement

Alok Vaid-Menon

Isra Hirsi

Mona Chalabi