by Melissa Murphy Thompson, LCSW, OSW-C
Our semester began with the usual fast-paced fervor. Syllabi to review, questions to ask, and faces – some new, some old. Although the course content did not change in the classes I taught this semester, a new need arose for all of us. We all needed space to process terror and hate.
September gave room for dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the power of a collective community to get a message out in the hopes of making social change. But as the semester unfolded, the learning communities that I led felt the impact of several campus shootings that occurred throughout the semester. Mississippi. Oregon. Texas. Arizona. As that list continued to accumulate, so did additional acts of terror. It seemed each week we were coming back together affected by more school shootings and acts of terror. In addition, police brutality was front and center in our minds, as our campus is not far from Chicago. Finally, we had to process the reality that many of the leaders in our country were willing to keep marginalized and oppressed refugees from finding safety in our country.
For many students, a tipping point was hate coming from those who desire to lead our country. How do social workers help? Can I really help refugees? Shooting victims? What about students protesting on campuses? Can policy change truly have an impact on what’s happening in our country? The more we processed and the more we shared, the clearer it became – we are the helpers and we were beginning to acknowledge that we feel just as powerless as the victims at times. Sometimes we don’t know what to do. And then what? What happens when the helpers don’t know how to help?
We spent a good deal of time considering topics such as self-care, education, and advocacy as skills workers can utilize in times like these. We brainstormed how to work with uncertainty while collectively working toward addressing the ongoing injustices affecting our communities, our country, and the world. And those students, eager to make change, realized two things they can do: create space for those who are affected to share their stories, and normalize experiences that just don’t seem normal. Or maybe seem too normal.
While we worked through these concepts in the classroom, NASW was working on updating our standard practices for cultural competency. The powerful inclusion in this standard of practice was the addition of cultural humility. According to Carol Bonner, chairwoman of the NASW National Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, “These standards reinforce the concept of culture as being inclusive beyond race and ethnicity, inclusive of but not limited to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and religious identity or spirituality” (NASW News, January 2016).
Cultural humility is not a new concept. In fact, it was originally developed to train physicians and other medical personnel to be mindful of the power differential they have when working with their patients (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). The strength of this addition to our standards is that it allows us to say we are not the experts – but the client is. It is not to say that we are not competent, but affirms that we are humbled to acknowledge our clients’ expertise in their experiences and identity. It provides us with the tool to stand up and say, “We do not believe the stereotypes or the hate statements that are being made in our country today. We acknowledge that we do not know everything about your culture or your people.”
For our students, and ourselves, the concept of cultural humility may not seem new, but it is oh so powerful. Cultural humility allows us all to acknowledge that we do not know a client’s cultural narrative, or a group’s story or experience .It provides us with a strong platform to stand on and share that we are not experts, but we are willing to be with you during this time of struggle. We are willing to walk with you collaboratively and understand your experience and its importance. We are willing to support you in your journey, whether it is recovery from police brutality, campus shootings, or living through the waiting period to find a safe haven to live.
Cultural humility reminds us that we are not alone in this work. The partnerships and relationships we develop with other like-minded people, professions, and organizations can help us make real change. It is through coming together and acknowledging power differentials that are influencing hate and terror that we can have a profound impact on the systems that we work with.
Our new workers, as well as some of our older ones, need to remember that in trying times we do not have to solve the big questions in society all at once. We do not have to have all the solutions to the terror and hate in the world. We can offer our skills and knowledge along with our cultural humility. We can model how to demonstrate empathy for those most vulnerable, those most affected by terror and hate, by utilizing the tools in our toolkit. And cultural humility, with the understanding of the unique intersections and experiences of each client, is worthy of our support and advocacy. As individual workers and a group of professions with a commitment to serve all on the margins of our society, we can practice cultural humility, hoping that our behaviors and professional practices will reach our clients, our communities, and be modeled by our leaders.
Pace, P. (2016, January). NASW updates cultural competence standards. NASW News.
Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117-125.
Melissa Murphy Thompson, LCSW, OSW-C, is a faculty member at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and a clinical social worker in private practice. She is currently the interim director of the Military Social Work Program at Dominican. Her areas of practice specialization include the psychosocial needs of cancer survivors and their family members, education and advocacy regarding the clinical needs of members of the LGBT community, and meeting the needs of children who have experienced trauma through divorce or medical conditions.