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 posted. 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.
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.
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.
Countries 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.
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.