The protests around the killing of George Floyd have brought a lot of things into the public conversation. Though first and foremost about police brutality against black people, the wider conversation involves power, biases, and inequality. Discussions about race, long taboo especially in well-meaning white communities, are being had at an unprecedented rate.
The fact that these protests and conversations are happening in the first place speak to the upheavals in culture. Long suppressed, so-called 'minority' groups are speaking louder and louder. This is a great thing, and it has implications for social work. It drives home the point that we and our organizations need to not only recognize other cultures and power imbalances, but we must seek to change our own behavior. This is done both for reasons of social justice, and to better serve and partner with others.
The actions a social worker can take in their partnerships with people from other cultures is known as cultural responsiveness.
Bridging the Divide
To understand what cultural responsiveness responds to, we should picture a canyon with two sides. On one side are the people in power: government, agencies, schools, businesses, wealth, etc. On the other side are the people out of power. Those that are oppressed and marginalized, but loaded with strengths and assets. An efficient society, one with humanity running at its best, would fill the entire canyon in with steel, removing all distance, difference, and barriers. That is the ultimate goal, but to start with a bridge must be built.
Social workers, among others, are the ones that build that bridge and run back and forth. Cultural responsiveness asks us to first acknowledge that as professionals we live primarily on the power side of the canyon. It is the world we know our way around best. The pavement between the power side and the start of the bridge is smooth and well maintained, with no barriers to access.
On the opposite side, the opposite is true. The road is loose gravel at best, pockmarked with holes. Systemic racism, segregation, redlining, and dis-empowerment have made sure of this.
What does travel through to this side are primarily service delivery ‘trucks’. Many have tried to send community development ‘vehicles’ in, but their success has been relatively limited. We all know of success stories, but these rags to riches tales are usually the exception, and often a narrative pushed in order to promote the 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' fallacy.
Cultural responsiveness critiques the bridge; it is what points to the ground and says “the divide can not be repaired because the people cannot get across the bridge.”
Theories of cultural responsiveness emphasize the need to demonstrate and build, communicate, and respond. To demonstrate and build, in our metaphor, would be to seek permission to set up camp on that other side of the bridge. This shows people that you do care deeply about their well-being beyond mere survival, and builds trust by validating peoples’ culture and strengths (Gay 2002). Vitally, permission to demonstrate and build must be granted by the community, rather than imposed on them.
Next comes cross-cultural communications. Social workers are carriers of messages from the power side. But these messages were historically crafted by those whose primary experiences occurred on the power side, and are not always well-received or clearly articulated. It is up to social workers as the bridge runners to adjust our communication, not the responsibility of the ‘recipients’.
Adjusting ourselves to communicate cross-culturally has an additional benefit. In the process we shift away from the expert-client relationship of telling into a more egalitarian relationship that includes listening. Cross-cultural communication does not just mean learning the words of a language, but beginning to understand a person and a community’s “ways of knowing, being, and doing” (Green, Bennett, & Betteridge, 2016, para. 7).
Demonstrating caring, building trust, perfecting cross-cultural communication, these are all ways of responding. We have crossed over to the other side of the bridge and will necessarily return to the power side changed. We return with knowledge of the culture and strengths of the people we met.
We have thought critically and reached conclusions on how the services that those on the power side would like to transport over can be delivered with efficiency. But more importantly than that, culturally responsive social work labors along side the community to fill in the pot holes, erode the barriers, and pave the way for those on the ‘other’ side to access the power side.
Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. 53(2), 106-116.
Green, S., Bennett, B., Betteridge, S. (2016). Cultural responsiveness and social work – a discussion. Social Alternatives. 35(4), 66-72.
Monte Verde, P. (2020). Culturally Responsive Social Work with Refugees. (Unpublished master's thesis). Nazareth College, Rochester, New York.