By: Thomas McDonough, RCSWI
I was a brand new foundation year intern, charged with the task of resurrecting the agency’s lifeless parenting program in Overtown, Florida. In fact, I was assigned the title of program coordinator. As such, my duties consisted of parent recruitment, community networking, home visitations, and conducting psychoeducation sessions with groups and individuals in Overtown. Overtown is a 95% black community containing Haitian and African-American families. Overtown is known as an impoverished community, infused with drug trafficking and violence.
As a young Caucasian male, I found the task of recruiting parents to come into the program even more challenging than I could have anticipated. The parenting program had been defunct for approximately five months, and many of the parents who had been involved were unable to finish the program as a result of the sudden departure of the coordinating social worker. This interruption in the program and services resulted in feelings of ill-will among the women in the community, especially those previously in the program, as evidenced by their reaction when I approached them to let them know the program was up and running once again with me as the program coordinator. “I was already in the program, and the last worker left. How do I know you’ll stay?” asked one of the women outright.
I felt frustrated with the prospect of the population of this small community not trusting me or possibly not even giving me a chance. On the other hand, I couldn’t blame them for their frustration of past promises never kept by other workers for whatever reason.
Lum (2004) discusses that cultural competency involves reframing what workers would commonly label “resistance” in order to read the message the “resistant behavior” may be intended to convey. The women of Overtown were openly telling me that they could not trust the agency and the services it represented. As an agent of that agency, they could not trust me. On top of that, I was a white guy! I knew, going into the experience, that it would be difficult to engage superficially with the residents of Overtown. Lum’s work advises that people of diverse cultures often are hesitant to approach social services that are managed by Caucasians.
Ethnic Competence Principles and Engagement of Clients
My use of the cultural competence principles learned to that point in the various courses taken in the social work program played a huge role in how I went about the task of resurrecting the program and assuring its maintenance during my tenure in the field internship. One key principle I utilized was that of simple rapport building with parents in the community. This type of rapport building includes an open invitation to the community for a meeting, friendly discussions with community members in their natural settings, and mingling among community members to foster comfort and build connections (Pinderhues, 1989).
I began my process by contacting those parents who were in the program prior to my arrival, thinking that I could invite them to return to the program and complete it. This invitation was met with disinterest, and I received a similar response from meetings with other parents in the childcare center (linked with the program) and face-to-face interactions on the street with potential recruits. Finally, I hit the streets with fliers as a method of recruitment. I found that few of the parents in the community wanted to talk with me about the program, even though they took the fliers. I kept an open mind and made a point to use friendly language and a comfortable, respectful demeanor with those I approached, all to no avail. An overwhelming feeling of discouragement began to invade my thinking. Later, I would find out that this frustrating puzzle would be the foundation for my work with the clients of the Overtown parenting program.
Two months passed, and I had only recruited two clients into the program. I was becoming desperate, foreseeing yet another failed program with a community that could certainly benefit greatly from the services that it provided. I realized I had to assess the situation from a cultural perspective and pay attention to the significance of the previously failed program for the people (especially the parents) in this impoverished community. I recognized that as the outsider and a white male, I faced a wall that was thick with resistance based in experiences that resulted in feelings of powerlessness. Although my own thought process became somewhat discouraged because I had also reached a pinnacle of frustration and powerlessness, I still struggled to find alternative resources to aid me in working with this community. I found the course content on ethnic competent practice to be a good starting point for finding those resources. Utilizing Pinderhues’s insights on powerlessness and people’s response to it, I recognized that my sense of powerlessness could be altered by “accommodation.” Accommodation as described by Pinderhues involves transforming negative viewpoints into positive ones. This concept is usually applied when working clinically with clients. However, much of the time, the worker may utilize the “accommodation” process in self-reflection about the work at hand.
In my accommodation process, I first recognized that much of the resistance (verbal or non-verbal cues) I was experiencing wasn’t personal, but the mistrust of a system that had neglected them through fear, reputation, funding, and other issues associated with a vulnerable community. Through the reflection process, I recognized that my own assumptions about the Overtown residents added to my own frustration with their resistance. I sought to gain a greater understanding of the cultural mix and the cultural differences and similarities between myself and the Overtown population. I thought to myself, “What makes me different from the other workers who come into Overtown?” and “How can I utilize my skills to help the residents?” I finally realized that my outlook must remain positive no matter what the circumstance. If my attitude was negative, others would sense it and categorize me as “just another worker.” That sentiment would get around Overtown quickly, and I would have no hope of getting in. I began to realize that I had to let them know that I understood that the system had failed them in many ways. I vowed that I would engage them in a way that may make them feel positive and trustful of me, even if not right away. I would not stop. When I went to the office, I would make sure and greet each and every person on the street that I met, recognizing the children in the neighborhood. When I interacted with the residents, I focused on their issues while still attempting to enroll them in the program, but was accepting of their denial of services instead of internalizing the frustration of it. After some time, I began to speak to more of the residents, then their sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and then fathers, husbands. My growing confidence began to carry the work for me as time went on. Although I recognized the progress much later, I was focused only on maintaining a positive outlook and reaching out, not ignoring the resistance, but placing it aside.
Assertion and Accommodation
Another concept that I researched and found particularly helpful was that of assertion and accommodation. Cox and Ephross (1998) describe assertion as the process in which persons resist new cultural or institutional interactions, and accommodation is the process of accepting these interactions. Assertion and accommodation, according to Cox and Ephross, come into play when a worker attempts to find success in working with vulnerable ethnic communities. To understand how I could utilize this concept more fully, I sought help from other workers who I knew had extensive experience working with those of diverse ethnic backgrounds to aid me in discovery of the clients of Overtown. To supplement what I had learned regarding this principle, I e-mailed a mentor, Charles Vanderwell in Michigan, who gave me insightful information. He informed me that in communities such as Overtown, to have success in program recruitment, I may need to target the middle-aged females in the project apartments, rather than the younger mothers. Oftentimes, he described, they are a source of community influence and have a strong connection with many parents (even if their own children are grown or no longer live in the community). Mr. Vanderwell’s use of the ecological perspective aided me in several ways with networking in the Overtown community with the middle-aged women.
The ecological perspective allows the practitioner to view the client’s interactions with systems in the community (family, extended family, community relationships) coupled with the person-in-environment framework (adaptation, social, and developmental transitions). The ecological approach allowed me to target those individuals who could be sources of influence in the Overtown community (Devore & Schlesinger, 1999; Lum, 2004; Rothman, 2008). The Africentric theory as mentioned in Fong & Faruto (2001) also supports the identification of the experienced, middle-aged black female as a power source in primarily black communities.
Additional research yielded guidance from the works of Devore and Schlesinger (1999), who discussed the relationship of “personal work” previous to meeting a client, meaning that a worker must educate oneself and discover as much information as possible about the ethnic world of the client. This includes learning the history, problem areas, and the overall profile of the ethnic community. Problem resistance should be expected by the worker and handled through problem identification and process skills, such as the recognition of issues related to problem disclosure, orientation, and the identification of racial/ethnic themes (Lum, 1999). Lum (1999) describes the understanding of the particular ethnic community, relationship protocols, problem identification, and problem resistance in beginning relationships with vulnerable populations. When using these skills effectively, a worker can identify groups that hold power and influence in a culturally diverse population along with groups that do not hold such power and influence.
Interested, excited, and armed with this knowledge, I sought to network with one such power player—a mother from the childcare center. I invited her to participate in the parenting program and told her of the incentives for completing the program (a t-shirt, CDs for both herself and her children, and a food voucher of $100 for a local grocery store. She expressed frustration that she had already completed the program but never received her incentives from the last worker. I apologized and assured her I would help see her through. I realized she was skeptical, and with good reason. The question at hand was: “Why should she trust that I’ll still be there till the end of the program?” Everyone else had left the parents like so many of the other programs, with nothing to show for it.
Instead of associating myself with the institution or agency, I found that my interaction with families was more effective when I identified informally as a committed individual worker who happened to be lucky enough to be assigned through the agency to work with the Overtown community. This was easy, as the agency I worked for as an intern was not established in Overtown. To establish myself first and the agency second, I sought to disconnect from the organization and relate as an individual worker rather than a representative of an agency. The work to bridge a relationship with the client as an individual proved more effective than identifying myself as an agency worker (Lum, 2004; Rothman, 2008). I was able to present the parenting program at a local organization developed to empower families in the community (Cox & Ephross, 1998).
In the next few weeks, I continued to do outreach with flyers in the childcare center and to interact with families who came to pick up their children. One by one, they began to respond as each would see a parent discussing the program with me. More parents seemed open to the program. The parents in the childcare center began to sign up for the program. I worked my way outside of the childcare center into the nearby project housing, discussing the program with other women who I thought may have been affiliated with children in the childcare center. Over a period of a few weeks, they began to discuss community problems and social issues in the neighborhood, as well as personal issues. As Shulman (2006) mentions, the skills of helping, such as reaching for client feedback, clarifying worker role, supporting the client in taboo areas, and partializing the client’s concerns, played major roles in the outreach to the community from the childcare center. However, previous to this, time and perseverance, as well as physically placing myself in the vicinity of community members and parents, aided in trust-building of the clients, and that resulted in initial interactions. Lum (1999) discussed “skills in understanding the ethnic community.” It is essential for the worker to place him or herself into the population through grassroots interaction, networking, and learning the profile of the ethnic community. This aids in trust building with individuals, groups, and organizations that have influence. This work included showing myself genuinely attempting to reach out to those who qualified for the program and maintaining perseverance through the difficult times (Devore & Schlesinger, 1999). Attending skills were a building block for me in every initial interaction with potential clients and networks in Overtown. Lum (2004) describes attending skills as an extremely effective tool (more effective than empathy, at times) and excellent trust-builders.
Outcomes and Conclusion
The establishment of grassroots community networks seemed to be the key to working with the Overtown population. As time went by, it seemed that the more people saw me, the more they recognized that I was a worker there to help and not an obstacle to their living. I was fortunate to have an array of different clients. Many of the parents and workers at the childcare center finished the 13-week program. Interaction with them included home visits, helping with Social Security applications, and teaching parenting skills. Some of the clients were open about the difficulties they experienced with their mates. This was an excellent opportunity to include the male population in the parenting program. Many of the male clients who signed up for the program seemed to have greater trust issues than the women. I found that I need to understand the perspective of the male role in the culture, as well as the role in the specific family context. Research suggests that young African-American males do not perceive themselves as “good providers.” The young African-American male in Overtown is at times a great challenge to engage, as a result of the historical context of racism and discrimination. However, when attending skills, patience, and cultural competence are applied, they seem to respond (Lum, 2004).
Through my tenure at the parenting program in Overtown, I saw 13 of my 26 clients graduate from the program. I was fortunate to have an interview with the Children’s Trust of Miami on the progress, success, and challenges of the Overtown program and found out just before I left that the program was to be funded again. Another student took over the program, and another worker was hired as her supervisor. I met with the student before I left and informed her of effective skills with the clients, as well as client background, to get her started. The challenge for me was to inform the clients that they would have a new student to work with. I assured them that services would be continued and the student would work to the best of her ability to serve their interests. Of course, through relationship building with the clients, it seemed difficult at first to say “goodbye,” but they seemed to understand as the clients of Overtown are a strong, resilient population.
Cox, C. B., & Ephross, P. H. (1998). Ethnicity and social work practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Devore, W. & Schlesinger, E. G. (1999). Ethnic–sensitive social work practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Fong, R., & Faruto, S. (Eds.). (2001). Culturally competent practice: Skills, interventions, and evaluations. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Lum, D. (1999). Culturally competent practice: A framework for growth and action. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Lum, D. (2004). Social work practice and people of color. Belmont, CA; Brooks/Cole.
Pinderhues, E. (1989). Understanding race, ethnicity, and power: The key to efficacy in clinical practice. New York: The Free Press.
Rothman, J.C. (2008). Cultural competence in progress and practice. Boston, MA. Pearson Education.
Shulman, L. (2006). The skills of helping individuals, families, groups, and communities. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Thomas McDonough, RCSWI, obtained his B.A. in sociology and political science at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, and his MSW from Barry University in Miami Shores, FL. He works at a psychiatric hospital and has experience with diverse and vulnerable populations.