Cultural Competence in Social Work

As the definition of cultural diversity is broadened to include more aspects of individuals, including: sexual orientation, medical conditions, gender, and religion; it continues to move further away from earlier thoughts of looking at culture only in the context of one’s heritage or race.

In light of the ever expanding definition of diversity cultural competence also continues to evolve and has become an important factor in the education of social workers.

Cultural competency allows social workers to become more attuned with and sensitive to individual, family, and group specific needs, values, beliefs, and attitudes in order to provide more culturally competent interventions, services and supports.

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Developing Cultural Competency as a Social Worker

Being culturally competent and having cross cultural awareness is an ongoing process. It is helpful in understanding the circumstances and social issues from a client’s perspective. Compentency is also important as social workers must attend to their own perspectives about their own cultural identity and how the client may view us. The need to assess all aspects of a client’s belief system, values, and how they view themselves within their own culture is as important as assessing their whole bio-psychosocial history. By having some understanding and sensitivity of other’s culture means that we can also help others learn about different view and perspectives. Most importantly we can dispel any generalizations or myths about a certain culture. With better insight we can appropriately match clients’ needs in respect to resources and services.

A social worker’s aim is to advance social justice, equality and to end discrimination. In many ways it has been observed that a person’s or group’s culture has played a large part of many incidents of inequality and disenfranchisement in the past, in our country’s history, and across the globe. One of our most important goals is to be the voice of our client(s) whether it is for an individual, a group, a neighborhood, and/or organization, in order to make sure that their rights are not violated and they are treated with dignity and respect. Learning to deal with how and what types of social issues regarding injustices exist, will help when we are dealing with real life discrimination and inequality that occurs and may be affecting our clients. By understanding and identifying social injustice and inequality, we can offset mechanisms of oppression and how they work.

Self-Awareness and Cultural Competency

Self- awareness is a very important skill that a social worker must be able to possess. Social workers need to be cognizant of their sense of self and also how personal thoughts and feelings may affect service delivery and interaction with clients. Further it is essential that one must be aware of our own value systems and identify any biases that might have an impact on those who we are serving. For example, imagine a personal experience regarding divorce. You are now working with a family who is going through a divorce and you are in charge of completing family therapy. Your personal bias and views regarding that family and divorce can and may affect how you deliver services. Of course by examining your own personal views you can start to be more neutral as you continue your work in therapy. Being neutral is a learned skill and like cultural awareness it is necessary to fully understand how a different set of beliefs, values, and religion or lack thereof affect one’s own perspectives on family dynamics, individual beliefs, and their personal views on the services and interventions themselves.

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Respecting Ethics and Values

Ethics and values are tenants of social work that are at the core of our work. Social workers must be aware and understand the mechanisms of how personal values and beliefs affect those of different cultures and backgrounds. It is also imperative that we accept and respect our client’s ethics and values. Having empathy for those we serve and having a better understanding of the mechanisms of oppression, discrimination, and inequality continue to be a challenge for social workers as diversity continues to broaden. Being sensitive to how a person thinks about education, family, and mental health, to name a few, will help a culturally sensitive social worker have a better approach to practice interventions and services. This will lead to making referrals and treatment attuned to those views and perspectives in order to match the clients overall needs.

Having cross cultural sensitivity and cultural competence remains challenging as the term of culture and how it relates to individuals continues to evolve. Social workers must possess the skills to be able to understand a broad spectrum of varying cultures and have an understanding of important and influential beliefs related to that specific culture. An informed social worker will better understand how culture and diversity may impact how we present services and treatment and what interventions could produce better outcomes for those we serve.

About the Author: Tony Vasquez holds an MSW from the University of South Florida. He currently works as a professor of social work and a mental health counselor. In his spare time Tony partners with the Healthy Start Program and Success 4 Kids and Families, Inc, in the Tampa Florida area.

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