This post is part of a five part series on cultural responsiveness in action. For an introduction to cultural responsiveness, click here. These posts are intended to be 'strategies' we can use, but more importantly point to an improved way of thinking. While written for social workers through the lens of refugee work, the lessons, it is hoped, are appropriate for all sorts of professionals.
To access the complete series, click here.
Listening is a skill that social workers usually naturally have when they come to the profession. It is one of our most significant strengths and should be utilized early and often in cultural responsiveness. Again we can imagine the refugee experience and empathetically picture what that has been like. What made them feel good or bad? What makes anyone feel good or bad?
In writing on migrants in general, Schinia (2017) speaks of the objectification and abjectification of people seeking to start a better life in a richer, more peaceful country. With objectification, migrants (or for that matter, refugees) are placed in categories like numbers on a spreadsheet. These measurements include total number, how vulnerable a government thinks a given ethnic group is, or what their perceived needs may be (Schinia, 2017). In losing their names and become numbers, people are often thought of more as objects.
Abjectification is harder to explain. It is when the suffering or death of migrants is highlighted by the media in order to heighten our awareness of the general plight. Here a migrant is neither an individual or a number on a spreadsheet, but a concrete image of death and suffering (Schinia, 2017). An example of this is the now infamous photo from 2019 (graphic) of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande River trying to get into the United States
It can be argued that objectification and abjectification are necessary when used for noble purposes, such as raising awareness. It may even be likely that those two ‘-ions’ are what led us into the so-called helping professions. But to be culturally responsive we have to keep a hold of the perspective of others; what it is like to be seen as an object, a number, or a walking-talking symbol of the cruelty of mankind.
Listening to a person re-humanizes them, facilitating them to feel no longer an object or abject.
Listening to people can have (at least) two benefits to our work:
First, listening to a person express themselves, rather than just giving them a service or advice, restores a person’s humanity. At the most basic level it facilitates relief, hope, and happiness. You feel good, they feel good, the world is immediately a happier place. Listening, validating, exploring, empathizing, asking insightful questions, these are all the first steps in engaging people.
Secondly, listening treats people as experts on their own lives. When we are not in a rush to move on to the next thing, we are able to get a clearer understanding of people and their many aspects: strengths, fears, hopes, wants, goals. Listening, and asking questions in response, helps gain that vital trust and community buy-in.
I like to think of it as mining. It takes awhile but eventually one strikes a vein of metal ore and pulls those valuable insights to the surface. The ore is the resource social workers need to change their own understanding of the world and of the people in it, and can be utilized to improve interventions and make agencies more responsive, efficient, and valuable to the community.
Schinia, G. (2017). Objectification and abjectification of migrants: reflections to help guide psychosocial workers. Intervention. 15(2), 100-105.