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Monday, October 24

PROTECT: Understanding the Importance of Cultural Competency in Social Work

Lu Rocha, MA, MSW

This article is intended to help you better understand how to Protect the Profession. If you have insight on legislation and advocacy that supports the social work profession, please consider contributing an article! Submit your article proposal online here.


 Article author Lu Rocha will be leading a cultural competency workshop on, “Understanding the Latina Domestic Violence Survivor.” This 3.0 hour continuing education workshop will take place on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, at the NASW Illinois Chapter office. To learn more and register for one of the few remaining spots, go to: http://www.naswil.org/calendar/events/4276/

What is cultural competency?

The NASW Standards for Cultural Competence define culture asthe process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully andeffectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, andother diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families,and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each (NASW, 2000b, p. 61).

In addition, cultural competence also requires an understanding and appreciation for how skin color, national origin, sexuality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, class, mental and physical ability, immigration status, education, geographic location, and other identifiers influence how an individual navigates and experiences the world.

Besides being a requirement for social workers renewing their license in Illinois, cultural competency is a vital element in the delivery of services to clients outside mainstream culture. And in social work, cultural competency can only occur when the social worker honors, respects, and values diversity in theory and in practice. 

Why is cultural competency important?

It is increasingly important for service providers to respond to the demographic changes in the United States. Social workers must have the ability to adapt and modify the ways they provide services to the ever-changing population around them. Not only does a culturally competent provider have the capability to communicate effectively across the barriers of language and culture, but he/she is more attuned to his/her client’s needs. By possessing this capability, one could directly affect a client’s treatment and outcome. A culturally competent provider can better assure that a client receives the most appropriate and effective services, especially a client from a historically neglected community and/or population group.

In short, being culturally competent is good practice!

An example of cultural competency

I was first introduced to the concept of cultural competency twenty years ago when I started working in the nonprofit community. I became involved with a domestic violence (DV) agency founded in the 1970s by Latina activists that provided bilingual services from a cultural perspective. The agency delivered services highly influenced by Latino values and traditions as they addressed the cultural barriers and challenges Latinas faced when living in a DV situation.  Women would call the agency for advice because they were unable to navigate the system which was set up to serve women from the mainstream culture. The founders of this organization were practicing cultural competency. 

This experience inspired me and enabled me to teach other service providers on how to provide appropriate DV services to the Latino community. I share some of this information in a book I co-authored called, Nuestras Historias/Our Stories. The book is about working with Latina survivors and their experience with DV and other forms of gender-based violence while being culturally aware and focused. In the book we discuss topics such as the specific effects of DV on Latinas, the obstacles, and the cultural challenges that make it difficult for women to leave abusive relationships. For example, we discuss how issues of immigration status and the fear of deportation prevent immigrant Latinas from seeking help. This book is intended to aide those who work with the Latino community become culturally competent and have a better understanding of how DV looks within the Latino culture.

What can you do to enhance cultural competence in your work?

It is important to remember that no one can ever truly be competent in any culture, not even in his/her own. However there are ways that one can effectively interact with people from diverse communities and groups. Cultural competence involves the following:

  • Exploring your own culture, beliefs, and values.
  • Being aware of your own world view.
  • Exploring the reasons you may feel uncomfortable with folks that are different than you.
  • Gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and world views—push yourself to learn about communities that are different from your own.
  • Developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures.
  • Becoming familiar with the history of community you work in and/or work with.
  • If you are working with immigrant populations, becoming familiar with their history of migration.
  • Believing you can serve individuals that are different from you.
  • Developing a list of professionals for consultation on multicultural issues.
  • Engaging in dialogue with colleagues and continue to increase cultural literacy.
  • Assuming that there is heterogeneity within an ethnic group—do not generalize!
  • When in doubt, ask! There is nothing worse than making assumptions about a group with whom you are not familiar.

Lu Rocha, MA, MSW, has been an advocate for survivors/victims of gender-based violence for twenty years. She has worked with women's organizations from a variety of cultural backgrounds to help establish programs that reflect their community's needs and cultural values. Lu owns a consulting business that offers service providers with the tools necessary to deliver culturally accessible services.  She recently published a book that documents the experiences of Latinas with gender-based violence. She teaches at an alternative high school and currently provides therapy services to survivors/victims of sexual violence.

Posted on 10/24/16 at 08:00 AM

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