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Social Work Profession: Diversity & Cultural Competence

Two recent events have made the need for “cultural competence”— understanding the specific cultural, language, social and economic nuances of particular people and families—more important than ever. One is the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s, in which African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities and other minority groups alerted the country to their distinct identities and long histories of oppression. The other is the growing number of new immigrants to this country, who bring with them unique cultural, language, religious, and political backgrounds. Histories of internal displacement within their own countries, torture, political oppression, and extreme poverty abound among immigrant communities. Melding these backgrounds with the history, experiences, and expectations of U.S. born ethnic and diverse populations creates both challenges and opportunities for social workers.

It is fair to say that both helping professionals and society at large have a long way to go to gain cultural competence. Fortunately, social workers represent a group of service providers with a longstanding history of understanding both people’s differences and the impact of social injustices on their well being. Today, many social workers are adding cultural competence to these already existing strengths and values, making them particularly well-equipped to deliver culturally competent care. Many schools of social work now include curricula on cultural competence, and the National Association of Social Workers recently developed standards that require social workers to strive to deliver culturally competent services to their increasingly diverse clientele.

It is no exaggeration to say that a culturally competent provider can mean the difference between a person “making it” or “falling through the cracks.” Here is an extreme example. Latina social worker Josie has a brother with schizophrenia who speaks only Spanish. When her brother failed to receive culturally competent care over a 20-year period, he was hospitalized 162 times. When he finally did receive culturally competent care, he was hospitalized only once in 15 years.

Language differences affect both majority and minority populations. For example, a refugee from war-torn Bosnia doesn’t understand English, and he lacks both material and financial resources. If he doesn’t get help, he faces many potential dangers that result from poverty and an inability to access the system. A social worker trained in culturally competent care connects him with a range of social services—the traditional assistance provided by social workers. In addition, she introduces him to a group of other Bosnians who have undergone similar experiences thus, providing an added support that she’s aware of because of her extra training.

Another example of how a culturally competent social worker can have an impact on people’s lives is in the area of international adoptions. Social workers trained in cultural competence can help adoptive parents understand their adopted child’s cultural heritage and create activities to keep the child’s culture alive. Adding this dimension to the child’s assimilation can foster the youngster’s sense of identity and make the adoption experience a smoother and happier one for both parents and child.
For Asian Americans, families are their primary source of support; thusly, they tend to keep problems inside the family rather than sharing them with others. A social worker who is culturally competent will therefore provide brief, task-oriented therapy that respects their privacy and helps them achieve concrete goals, instead of providing traditional Western-style therapy that is more individualistic and analytical. Similarly, African Americans often come from backgrounds that include extended-family bonds and a strong, community-oriented spiritual life. Trained social workers will make sure these cultural realities become an integral part of therapy by often times including other family members in therapy.

Culturally competent services are needed beyond race and ethnicity. Culturally competent social workers are also better able to address issues of gender and help persons with disabilities, older adults, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. A working knowledge of these groups’ cultures and values helps social workers tailor care so it is effective and appropriate for their clients’ needs.

It can be persuasively argued that effective care is impossible without a working knowledge and understanding of a person’s or group’s culture and background. As we move into an ever more pluralistic and multicultural society, social workers are among those best-equipped to deliver that care and to empower people from all backgrounds to lead connected, healthy lives.