Meeting as Equals

Learning Cultural Humility in the Social Services

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre.

For those of you who follow this blog, it has been about half a year since I last CUltureal 4posted. I have been back at graduate school, pursuing a Master of Social Work degree. It has been a fascinating and engaging experience (and at times exhausting and frustrating), and I wanted to share a piece of it here. This is a little off-topic from my usual posts, but it was a significant experience for me.

When I stepped through the doors of the KW Multicultural Centre on the first day of my internship, I had no idea what to expect. Is there any experience as humbling as starting a new job? The idea of taking on the label of “intern” in my late thirties is humbling itself, but I quickly found out that I know next to nothing about anything. But, I soon came to realize that the people at the KWMC would approach me the same way they approach everyone who comes through the doors, with a warm smile, with loads of patience, and as an equal. Cultural 1

KWMC provides settlement services, employment services, English-learning opportunities, interpretation and translation services, networking opportunities and more. People sometimes come to Canada bewildered, afraid and not knowing what to do. Often, they come with language barriers and struggle to communicate with service providers who have no patience or tolerance for newcomers. KWMC is a place where people can come to find a friendly face, answers, connections to community services, and someone to guide them (free of charge) through some of the torturous bureaucratic processes the government puts newcomers through.

At the beginning, it was difficult to understand how to help people who came through the door. I remember one of the first days being asked about two different languages I had never even heard of: Tigrinya and Amharic. It turns out they are incredibly common in our community. Sometimes a lack of knowledge is embarrassing, but admitting it is important. By taking that stance, we put ourselves on a level playing field with clients. In social work, they call this “Cultural Humility.” This varies from previous approaches like “Cultural Competence” which carries a certain level of arrogance (as if one could ever become “competent” in someone else’s culture).

The Multicultural Centre was a place where I would learn my most valuable lessons in my social work journey so far:

  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Meet people as equals.
  • Listen.
  • Repeat.

Some stereotypes and assumptions are necessary shortcuts for living. Without them, we would never get anything done. They help us make decisions quickly and efficiently, and judgments about the right way to go about doing things. BUT, they can also be incredibly dangerous. When we make unfair assumptions about people, we reduce them to the little boxes they tick of on their application forms and eliminate their humanity.

The people who come to Canada are sometimes fleeing war, or human trafficking, or torture. Some come from better circumstances than others. Some are here looking for opportunities for their families. Some are trying desperately to be reunited with their families. Some have no families. The KWMC meets them all as equals. We are all humans, and when it comes down to it, we all want generally the same things.

Cultural 2Countries and borders are human constructs. While our society places immense meaning and power on these constructs, they strike me as inherently unfair. In a world where we watch ignorant populist despots rant about “building walls” and listen to them attribute a country’s problems to immigration, the future of an immigrant in North America becomes precarious. In Canada, we like to pretend we are above this kind of nonsense, yet our newly elected premier states that we must first “take care of our own” when asked about immigration. Who are “our own??” We’re all in this together. Just because I was born where I was, when I was, I have a vast array of privileges and opportunities that people from all over the world yearn for. I didn’t do anything to earn this.CUltural 3

And so, as I continued my term at the KWMC, I met wonderful people from all over the world. I worked in an English language learning program, connecting newcomers and English-speaking volunteers. I worked in settlement services, helping people navigate the maze of applications and forms that run our country. I also worked at the front desk, and that proved to be one of the most difficult challenges I faced there.

As I prepared to leave the centre for the last time, I realized that I was feeling like I had started reading the first few chapters of dozens of books. I met so many people on such difficult paths, and I feel privileged to be one small part of their journey. I wish there was a way to find out about all of them.

By the time I left, I felt like I had just started my learning journey. It was an incredibly rich learning experience, with a remarkably warm and caring team of people who taught me a great deal. I will always be grateful for my time there, and I sincerely hope that I will have the opportunity to work with many of them again.






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I See You

Last summer I attended a conference. One of the speakers had us all stand up and slowly walk around the room. At random intervals, she would stop us, and ask us to make contact with a random nearby stranger. 


We were instructed to silently gaze into the other person’s eyes, while the speaker led us through a variety of meditations. This was simultaneously one of the most awkward and most profound moments of my life. With each new stranger, it became more comfortable. By the end, many of us were crying and hugging (at least those of us who hadn’t slipped out the back door).

Human beings crave to be seen. Even the most introverted introverts need other people (even if just a few friends or family members) to acknowledge their value as iseeyou5humans. This is why some people desire fame, why some people are loud and obnoxious, why so many people live for Facebook “likes” (*guilty*), and why some people write blogs (*clearly also guilty*). We all have our own ways of fighting invisibility.

In the movie, Avatar, the phrase “I see you” is a greeting that roughly means “I understand who you are.” In his book, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein uses the phrase “I grok you” to mean that I “understand intuitively or by empathy, establish rapport with you.” I find a simple beauty in these ideas. 

Sometimes, we get wrapped up so much in our own heads, our own goals and our own responsibilities, iseeyou1that we forget to truly see the other people in our lives. We forget to stop and give our full attention. Too often we jump in with our own stories before fully listening and understanding the other person. Our silent construction of responses or our rush to find parallels in our own lives often takes the place of actual listening. This is a habit I am desperately trying to break. 

Maybe you have people in your life who can truly see you. I am fortunate to be married to someone who can. I have also had other people at various points in my life who have done this for me, and a short list of close friends and family who do. I believe that one of the most valuable gifts we can give someone is the attention that lets them know that they are actually being seen. I offer my warmest and deepest thanks to the people in my life, now and in the past, who have given me this gift.

iseeyou2My 2018 New Year’s wish for you, is that you will see and be seen. May your year be filled with family and friends who will share in your own unique and weird journey, and let you know how special you are. 

Happy New Year Everyone!



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Sledding: A Haiku

We bring four sleds now

Who says kids get all the fun?

See you on the hill!


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#SelfCare or not #SelfCare? That is the question.

It took me about thirty seconds to hunt down the following random tweets:

  • I’m about to get sloppy drunk off straight tequila and take a really nice long bubble bath #selfcare
  • Weekends are for binge watching….. #outlander #bestshow #favoritebook #weekends #selfcare
  • #gradschool friends, can you tell i’m ignoring my school work hard core? #procrastination #selfcare

“Self-Care” is a hot topic right now. In my circles (mostly parents, teachers and grad students), the concept of self-care is important. By now, most have heard the metaphor of putting our own oxygen mask on before attending to our children on an airplane. But, selfcare1like many things, “self-care” has gone too far. It has become an excuse for selfish, and ultimately self-destructive behaviour and it is disturbingly reminiscent of the “America First” sentiment circulating south of the Canadian border.

I’m reading “The Sunday Philosophy Club” by Alexander McCall Smith and found this passage: “…the word “conscience” was not one which one heard very much anymore, which was strange, and ultimately worrying” (p. 94).

On social media, “Self-Care” has taken precedence over “conscience.” There are people patting themselves on the back for sabotaging healthy lifestyles, neglecting commitments, and ultimately letting other people and themselves down. #SelfCare is the sticker that people are slapping on top of bad behaviour in order to justify it and get approval from their friends. Will the next generation even understand what IS bad behaviour?

“Retail therapy,” coined in the 1980s was intended as a “tongue-in-cheek” term for how people try to use shopping to make themselves happy. The runaway culture of mass consumerism indicates that people are actually trying to self-medicate this way. I like Aziz Ansari as much as the next person, but I find the #TreatYoSelf movement inspired by his character on Parks and Recreation disturbing.

More actual tweets:

  • A little shopping on my break won’t hurt today #treatyoself
  • Munching down on this gigantic Oreo crunch bar with no shame #treatyoself
  • Planning my graduation slash bday present. Oh, this is gonna be good. #treatyoself

Even the stores are getting in on the trend:

  • On our twelfth day of Happiness, we are going all out and giving you gelato for a YEAR!! To win this sweet prize, follow us, then retweet this post! #TreatYoSelf

I’m not anti-indulgence. Let’s just call it what it is. Indulgences are part of the fun of life. But, if we are honest, we know most of them come at a cost. Let’s not slap a #selfcare sticker on something so we can feel good about it.

Self-care is not:selfcare2

  • Spending the day scrolling through Instagram
  • Getting black-out drunk with your buddies
  • Eating an entire cheesecake while binge-watching Netflix and neglecting a group project

A friend posted a link to this brilliant article: This Is What ‘Self-Care’ REALLY Means, Because It’s Not All Salt Baths And Chocolate Cake

Ultimately, as noted in the above article, “Self-Care” is about making mature decisions that help you to be a better, healthier, kinder, more capable human being. It is about making room in your life to care for yourself, so your needs are not lost in the process of caring for others. It is absolutely not about putting yourself first in all things or engaging in harmful activities.

Let’s put the word “conscience” back in our social media vocabulary, before the kids start to notice, because I think we all want them to believe the following:

Kindness matters.selfcare3

Generosity matters.

Being responsible matters.

Taking care of other people matters.


You matter.

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Mindful Marbles

marbles2I have often said that the best mindfulness teachers are small children. No one can live in the moment better. We struggle with them, in our constant concern for the future, and they just keep dragging us back into the present. “We’re going to be late for school” “Why aren’t your boots on yet?” “What in the world are you doing? Do you really think now is the time for Lego? We have to go!!”

I’ve been away from this blog for a few months now. If you know me, you already know that I have started a new graduate program.

(Yes, another one.)

(Yes, I’m serious!)

(No, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.)

It is taking up a lot of my time. Maybe I’ll talk about it another day. This is more important. 

So, the other day, my son asked me to play marbles with him. I realized how focused on school I had been. 

I resisted the urge to Google “Rules for Playing Marbles” and decided to let my son show me “how” to play. We smashed the marbles against each other and watched them spin in all directions. We listened to the sounds they made clinking against each other. We felt them running through our fingers, and we made patterns with them. Once, I tried to turn it into a lesson on the solar system, and quickly realized my mistake. We lined them up in order of our favourites instead and tried to knock them into each other.


“Playing” marbles took on a whole new meaning. We were present. I wasn’t worrying about my next assignment. I wasn’t thinking about nuclear threats or fascist world leaders. We weren’t worrying about rules or winners or losers. We were simply playing marbles.

If you ever need a simple lesson in mindfulness, I do recommend that you find yourself someone five or younger, and ask them to teach you how to play marbles.


Serenity Now! Children and Mindfulness 

A Skeptic’s Journey into the World of Meditation 

The Song of the Boot 



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A Place to Stand. A Place to Grow.

This is home:


This is my landscape. (No, I don’t live in the woods unfortunately. This is actually a five minute drive away). It’s right on the edge of the Carolinian forest zone of Southern Ontario. I’ve gotten to know many of the trees, and the flowers, insects, amphibians and birds that live here. I know it in all its seasons and moods, and we have spent plenty of time alone together.

But I have other landscapes too.

I also love dense ancient forests, with thick soft moss growing on rocks, surrounded by ferns and peppered with dancing spots of sunlight. I love the musty smell of the rotting logs and rich earth. There is one forest in particular that we visit every year, as I did for many years as a child. I talked about it in this post.


I also love rocky shorelines. I love the sound of gentle waves lapping on rocks, and the

DSC09995piercing call of seagulls. I love the feeling of the breeze that comes off the water. On a recent trip to the city where I was born and raised for 13 years, it was so much fun to look at all the places I spent time growing up. We visited my old houses, and those of my grandparents. We found landmarks that were so familiar, and yet felt so foreign, like they were from a dream. We walked along the rocky shoreline I knew as a child and searched for flat round rocks for skipping.



I’ve long been interested in sense of place, and how people grow to love different


landscapes. While I prefer the shady protection deep inside a deciduous forest, my husband loves the blueberries and coarse junipers of rocky landscapes.

Unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures of said blueberries or junipers. Please picture them on top of this cliff.


The landscapes of our childhoods are so incredibly formative.

When I did my research with grade five students, I came to the (not unexpected) conclusion that they preferred highly groomed parkland areas (McAllister, C., 2011). parklandThis conclusion made sense in a couple of ways. First, parkland like this provides the potential for both protection and the ability to see long distances (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). Some theories say we are evolved to prefer this landscape. In addition, children have been trained to understand and trust these areas. They know what to do with grass. Students liked groomed parkland significantly more than dense forest or even woodland trails, which were often feared and mistrusted. In a society that often defines outdoor time as synonymous with programmed sports, this didn’t surprise me. After all, people do prefer familiar landscapes (Balling & Falk, 1982). So, likely this preference is a combination of nature and nurture.

But, this makes me wonder how many people in future generations will value natural greenspaces, if they don’t play an important role in the early formative years, and the predominant feeling towards them is fear.

We might enjoy visiting foreign landscapes, and grow to love them, but there is still something special about home, isn’t there?

Tell me about your landscapes.



Balling, J. D., & Falk, J. H. (1982). Development of visual preference for natural environments. Environment and Behavior, 14(1), 5–28.

McAllister, C. (2011). Where Have All the Children Gone? Community, Nature and the Child Friendly City. University of Waterloo. Retrieved from

Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. (pp. 555–579). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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The Next Top Superhero

It’s easy to look at the headlines today and get scared.

We do, after all, have the following issues dominating the news cycle on a regular basis:

  • Global Warming
  • Nuclear Proliferation
  • Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs
  • Presidential Tweeting

If Hollywood tells us anything, it’s about time a superhero showed up.superman-1529274_640

Realistically though, what we now need are visionaries: people who can see a better future and make the changes necessary to achieve it.

And ideally, we need these people to equate doing the smart thing with the cool thing to do. When I was a kid, coolness didn’t exactly walk hand-in-hand with nerdiness. But, somewhere along the way, after the days of Steve Urkel but before the time that humans started worshipping smartphones, those who were technologically savvy leapt up the social ladder. They became our new superheroes.

If you’ve spent any time in my house at all, you might (no, you most definitely) have heard the name “Elon Musk” come up. It’s no secret that my husband follows Musk the way my son follows Harry Potter – with something between rapt attention and obsession.

Why does he do this?

Because Musk’s companies are doing good things. And cool things. Really good and really Tesla Chargercool things.

Most recently, Tesla has released – for mass production – the first relatively affordable, long-range electric car: the Model 3. The company has over 500,000 reservations already. The car is cool. Undeniably, unreservedly cool.

But that’s not all.

In order to power these cars, Tesla is also building the largest battery factory in the world. It is also designing batteries to be used in PowerWalls that will ultimately power homes and further reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. The batteries are designed to work with the newly released, and surprisingly attractive, solar roofs by SolarCity (which was recently acquired by Tesla). A small Samoan island (Ta’u – pop. 790) that was used as a pilot project is now run almost entirely on solar energy. Larger-scale projects are under way.

Also, let’s not forget about the first reusable rockets developed at Musk’s SpaceX, or his Hyperloop and Boring projects which could one day provide underground electric mass transit.

Perhaps more important than any of this, Elon Musk is inspiring a movement. His out-of-the-box thinking, and willingness to take extreme financial risks have led to remarkable innovations. Car companies are racing to compete with Tesla. A new generation of engineers is clamouring to work for his companies, or are inspired to start their own and coming up with new and unique solutions.

While Musk himself is reportedly difficult to work with, he is undeniably brilliant, and changing the game in all of these fields, and particularly in sustainable energy. His philosophy can be summarized in this one particular image:


If you ever have the desire to discuss Tesla stock trends or solar power feasibility, please come over and hang out with my husband. (Please? Anyone? Seriously, this guy has the ability to spot a Tesla in his rearview mirror two lanes over and six cars back on a busy highway.)

When we read the scary headlines, we have to remember all the good things that are happening. There are reasons for hope. So, let’s keep an eye on those next top superheroes: the people coming up with solutions that can change the world for the better.

(I dedicate this post to Paul – Happy Birthday!)

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