My blog posts and other writings are my personal reflections on health care, social justice, and health humanities from my perspective as a nurse practitioner. By health humanities I mean the application of the arts and humanities to help transform health care. (See the International Health Humanities Network, of which I am a member.) Here is a brief digital storytelling video, “My Story of Community Health Nursing,” describing what drew me to, and what keeps me motivated to continue doing, my work as a nurse. Here is a link to my current CV: Ensign CV
Josephine Ensign was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1960. She received her BA (Biology and Religion) from Oberlin College in 1981, her masters in primary care nursing from the Medical College of Virginia in 1986, and her doctorate in public health from the Johns Hopkins University in 1996. She has done postgraduate work in medical ethics at Harvard University and in narrative medicine at Columbia University. Currently she is Professor of Community Health at the University of Washington (UW) School of Nursing in Seattle, Washington where she teaches health policy, narrative medicine, and health humanities. She is also Adjunct Professor, UW School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Affiliate Faculty, UW Simpson Center for the Humanities Certificate Program in Public Scholarship.
Ensign has worked as a family nurse practitioner for the past three decades, providing primary health care to homeless adolescents and adults in large urban areas on both coasts of the U.S. Through a Fulbright Fellowship, she expanded her research and advocacy internationally with work in Thailand and Venezuela–and most recently in New Zealand. The focus of her career has been to increase an understanding of the lives of marginalized populations, and to develop ways to increase their access to effective health care programs. As a university professor she has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on homelessness, health and human rights. Her literary non-fiction essays have appeared in the The Sun, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Silk RoadUniversity of Iowa’s Examined Life, and Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine, Pulse :Voices from the Heart of Medicine magazine, The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and The Front Porch Journal. An essay “Next of Kin” is included in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse (Lee Gutkind editor; In Fact Press, 2013). She received a Hedgebrook writing residency in 2014.
Ensign’s medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, was published by She Writes Press in August 2016. It was named the University of Washington’s Health Sciences Common Book for academic year 2016/17. It was named the American Journal of Nursing 2017 Book of the Year for creative works for a general audience. She is currently at work on two additional book/public scholarship projects, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins and Skid Road: The Intersection of Health and Homelessness. Her second creative nonfiction book, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins is forthcoming (Fall 2018) from the University of California Medical Humanities Press.
Who I am in first person (artist statement):
Through my writing and photography I engage in critiques of current social justice issues such as poverty and homelessness, trauma and resilience, and the wellbeing of marginalized populations. As a nurse and academic with the lived experience of homelessness, my writing and photography are ways to explore possible answers to complex ethical and existential questions. My aim is to humanize health care, to cultivate empathy leading to action.
I begin a project with a question currently plaguing me, such as “what are the limits of compassion?” I then begin collecting artifacts—found objects, photographs, sound recordings—and I listen for the whispers of stories they tell, for the partial answers they may provide. I engage with the growing collection of artifacts as a tinkerer. I play and experiment with the collection by writing an essay, taking more photographs, listening for more questions, digging through the layers of meaning. I am drawn to the margins, the liminal spaces, the shadowed and silent spaces of individuals, groups, and communities. I seek to document, as Katherine Boo says, “That small stories in so called hidden places matter.”
For the past decade my work has centered on using personal stories to highlight important public policy issues within an emancipatory framework. My writing has moved from traditional narrative nonfiction essays, to include more open form essays, as well as poetry. My current project, Soul Stories, is a collection of essays, poems, photographs, digital storytelling short videos, oral histories, and sound recordings of the stories of health and healing within the context of homelessness. Extending my cross-disciplinary approaches in new yet complementary directions, I create mixed-media collage and bricolage artwork using my photographs, bits of writings, and various found objects. These often help me work through issues that are difficult to translate into words. I resonate with this statement by Joanna Russ: “Minority art, vernacular art, is marginal art. Only on the margins does growth occur.” I enjoy working—and living—on the margins.
Examples of my artwork:
Note on my personal blogging ethical code:
- I blog as if my late mother were reading every word I write. If you knew my mother, you would understand that this is a much higher ethical code than any existing blogger’s code of ethics.
- The views expressed on my blog are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, the University of Washington.
- All materials on this website are copyrighted and can only be used with proper attribution.