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What does being culturally competent mean to you?

By Deresha Gibson, Staff Social Worker

To be eligible for CGLA services clients must have an income less than 150%of the poverty level.  For a family of 4 that’s $33,500.  For most of us this salary was on the very low end at the start of our careers, but not something we had to live on, must less share with three other people.  Being at 150% of the poverty level comes with a lot of “baggage” and some of those issues have to do with being a marginalized individual, the individual’s cultural context or their inability to move forward due to other barriers.  As “servants” in a poverty law firm do we have a responsibility to get to know our clients from their cultural context or is our responsibility just from an attorney/client perspective and the legal issue at hand?

The phrase “cultural competency” now seems to be somewhat of a “fashionable” term and in my opinion is overused.  Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.  While this definition is nice, for me it only gets at the surface of what being culturally competent means. 

Personally, when I think of being culturally competent I think of viewing each individual I meet as a unique person & wanting to learn more about that person from their perspective.  It has less to do with their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, style of dress, etc., but everything to do with getting to know the individual from what their worldview looks like.  Of course all of the aforementioned characteristics are very important, but we should not base our perceptions of a person on those characteristics alone.  When we fail to get to know the individual we make assumptions and judgments based on bias.  Often we think because we want to “help” and do “good work” other barriers aren’t as important.  We don’t say this out loud, but unconsciously it’s what we’re thinking.  Part of being a “servant” is having the responsibility to get to know the people we’re serving.  That means we should take the time to get to know more about their worldview from them. 

Five things we should always be mindful of especially when working with marginalized populations are…

1.      Communication - everyone does not communicate the same.  Failure to pay attention to how someone communicates could create a barrier.

2.      Individual cognition - everyone does not learn or process information the same. Keep it simple.

3.      Individual & family resources - is your client capable of doing what you’re asking him to do.

4.      Cultural references - if you don’t understand ASK.  Don’t assume or use Google as your cultural dictionary.

5.      Relationships - don’t assume relationships are/are not intact.  Don’t give people last names they don’t have. 

I’ve learned to always be mindful of the uniqueness of others and not assume anything. Learning about others or becoming culturally competent is a life long process that we should all engage in.

Cultural competency—definition taken from the National Association of Social Workers.
National Association of Social Workers. (2000b).  Cultural competence in the social work profession.  In Social work speaks: NASW policy statements 2000-2003 (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Miller, Nelson.  (2008). Beyond Bias—Cultural Competence As a Lawyer Skill.Michigan Bar Journal