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April 2022 Educator|Resource of the Month

The Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice Educator|Resource is a monthly feature that highlights curricular resources and social work educators who address diversity and justice.
What Does Teaching From an Antiracist Perspectctive Look Like? A new series by the CSWE Diversity Center

Practicing Cultural Responsiveness With Actions:

An Intercultural Approach to Equitable Service Delivery 

Cultural responsiveness helps us tailor our interventions taking the client’s culture into account. And yet this approach may not go far enough. Research shows that what matters to clients in cross-cultural encounters is how we relate to them on a much deeper level. Clients say they want to be understood culturally but also want to be treated “as fellow human beings” and want us to understand—and respond to—what they are going through at the moment, for instance what it’s like to be a refugee. Using a cultural lens is important, but only to the extent that we help clients attain justice as they wrestle with oppressive systems, for example healthcare that is not set up to integrate indigenous health practices. At the same time, we need to be cautious not to make the social problems of people from different cultural backgrounds, say poverty among immigrants, different from "our" social problems.

In this month’s Educator|Resource, we illustrate how an intercultural approach to cross-cultural practice shifts the focus to action: ranging from engaging in caring interpersonal behaviors to facilitating organizational and community cooperation in the co-construction of services. All of this is covered in a set of articles that we identified to introduce students to global perspectives on intercultural social work with direct applications to the American experience.

The curated selection of 15 briefly annotated research articles listed below is organized according to six themes and source country. For the list of the articles with in-depth annotations and references, see Practicing Cultural Responsiveness With Actions: Interculturality as Social Equity, Selected Scholarly Articles. And for a primer on how to support your students in building intercultural skills to engage in the types of activities covered in the studies, we suggest the handbook, Preparing Our Youth for an Inclusive and Sustainable World: The OECD PISA Global Competence Framework (see also the Diversity Center’s webpage, Curricular Resource on Global & Intercultural Competence).

Readings on Intercultural Social Work Practice

1. What really matters to clients of different cultural backgrounds 

“What can we learn from unaccompanied refugee adolescents' perspectives on mental health care in exile?” [Denmark] 
This mixed methods study of unaccompanied refugee adolescents in Denmark showed that of great importance to the adolescents were shared activities with the professionals, e.g., music, painting, laughing, walking, or eating, which they “associated with being met as fellow human beings and included feeling understood.” They wanted professionals to understand the way their particular background affected the way they perceived and reacted to the world. 

“Intercultural knowledge and skills in social service work with refugees” [United States] 
Note: Search Volume 3, Issue 3 under Abstracts from Previous Volumes. 
The findings of this comparative study juxtaposed refugee emphasis on the need for providers to “be human” with service providers’ reliance on program rules, personal values, and expectations for refugee assimilation into dominant American norms, values, and community networks. Refugees indicated their integration would be less traumatic if agency providers developed a deeper understanding of their cultures and backgrounds but also their experiences as refugees.  

“What is patient-centered care really? Voices of Hispanic prenatal patients” [United States]  
In healthcare provision, cross-cultural practice is a key element conceptualized as part of patient-centered care. In this qualitative study, while Hispanic patients noted effective care, the use of Spanish, clear information delivery, and the absence of racism as important, critical to their satisfaction with the health care experience were friendly interpersonal behaviors (e.g., smiling, making eye contact, and displaying patience). Not only did patients feel better understood, but accompanied by friendly behaviors, information was viewed as more believable and accurate.  

“Social workers’ contribution to success in lives of young Moroccan-Dutch” [Netherlands] 
This study examined the role Dutch professionals can play to improve the social participation (e.g., school completion, employment, and satisfaction with social position) of new immigrant generations of Moroccan-Dutch in the Netherlands. Social workers pointed to the following professional skills to help them achieve this goal: give positive feedback and accept who they are, listen and ask what they want, be present and prevent problems, motivate, and be authentic. 

2. Cultural understanding is about cow jai: cow, entering into, jai—the heart of another * 

* “Understanding and misunderstanding in cross-cultural practice: Further conversations with Suwanrang” [Thailand]   
Based on a clinical observation in North Thailand, the author walks us through the process of cultural understanding. She suggests that “in the absence of a common ground of shared cultural assumptions to fall back on,… we must accept these experiences, recognize them as important, potentially valuable moments in cross-cultural practice.” She reminds us that cross-cultural misunderstanding will happen, despite our best efforts, but ultimately, she says, “such moments can—and often do—lead to firmer connections and better understanding.”

“Diversity and equality in social work: A qualitative study in Italy” [Italy] 
This Italian study shows that models of practice affect the reasoning that orients social worker encounters with clients from different cultural backgrounds. Various orientations include: (a) the social worker is the expert on the problem and the possible solutions, (b) the worker is mainly the expert of procedure and eligibility for service, or (c) the client is assumed as the expert of their own problems and both the worker and the client are agents of change.

3. The elements of intercultural competence articulated

“Intercultural competencies as a means to manage intercultural interactions in social work” [Sweden] 
In this Swedish article, the author proposes that in addition to content-competencies (knowing that), which focuses on understanding how people from other cultures think and act, process competencies (knowing how) are required. Process competencies are needed because “every social interaction is unique and must be seen in the light of the involved actors’ backgrounds and situational characteristics.” Social workers need to possess interactional competencies, cognitive competencies, emotive competencies, and discourse awareness (e.g., an awareness of how current political discussions are influencing our thinking about our clients).

“Intercultural understanding and pedagogy of empathy: A cultural experiential learning from an interdisciplinary dialogue project” [Canada]
This Canadian article approaches intercultural social work practice as “a pedagogy of empathy.” Based on Manassis (2017), empathy pedagogy involves four steps: (1) attending to the moment, (2) directing attention toward other, (3) focusing on other people to understand their thoughts and feelings, and (4) communicating our understanding of the other person’s experience to them with the hope that they will feel understood.

4. Developing intercultural awareness through intercultural collaboration

“Making music together: A transdisciplinary approach towards the development of intercultural awareness” [South Africa]
This paper reports on research in South Africa that investigated how social work and the arts together can explore ways to facilitate contact between diverse groups through joint music-making. Social work students noted the lack of superiority, a sense of equality in the experience, “We had a common goal…. We did not understand each other’s language, but when we made music, you could really understand what someone is trying to say.”

“Employing Mexican American Folklore as an Educational Tool to Teach Cultural Competence” [United States]
This U.S. article reports on a study of Mexican American students’ cultural explorations using an activity which involved asking elderly adults, mostly their relatives, to tell them unwritten folklore in Spanish and then providing their reflections and interpretations. Students indicated that this project helped them learn more about their culture and helped them realize that culture has an essential role in people’s lives and becomes a lens through which they shape and interpret the reality of their environment. 

5. Interculturality as co-construction 

“Cultural responsiveness in action: Co-constructing social work curriculum resources with Aboriginal communities” [Australia]
This article describes the co-construction of social work curriculum resources with Aboriginal communities in an Australian university. The purpose of the Curricular resources was to guide students in applying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing to practice. Two filmed case studies and companion learning and teaching guides were co-constructed by an Aboriginal filmmaker and production company as well as Aboriginal Elders and a team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social work academic staff, social workers, and students.

a. “Strangers in their own world: Exploring the relation between cultural practices and the health of older adults in Native communities in Chile” [Chile]
b. “Intercultural health: Chile’s path towards recognizing Indigenous health sovereignty” [Chile] 
These two articles address an existing collaboration in Chile between intercultural health systems involving Indigenous and state healthcare. The state has facilitated intercultural health learning for professionals: western health officials are trained in Indigenous health practices and do internships in Indigenous villages. People from Indigenous communities are able to access internships in hospitals or universities. Research described here points to the benefit of such collaborations.

6. The social construction of “us” and “them”—How a focus on culture can detract from real issues

a. “Social work beyond cultural otherisation” [Sweden]
b. “Constructing cultural Otherness within the Swedish welfare state: The cases of social workers in Sweden” [Sweden] 
These two articles written from a Swedish perspective caution that “social problems of people with immigrant backgrounds [are] ‘culturalised’ and made different from ‘our social problems.’” According to a study of social workers in immigrant communities, cultural differences are regarded as central when they frame, assess, and formulate their interventions. An over-reliance on culture to explain the behavior of immigrant clients is decontextualized to exclude other important factors such as poverty, unemployment, housing conditions, social isolation, and ethnic discrimination.


WEBINAR: Teaching when the News Is Terrible, A Conversation for Educators
Dr. Alexandra Sedlovskaya, Associate Director
Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard Business School
Access Webinar Recording 

In this recent webinar Dr. Alexandra Sedlovskaya, a social psychologist and expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, shares ways to address contemporary crises in our world with our students. Sedlovskaya suggests that educators focus on the process, on creating the space to discuss these events, to “engage in the active process of empathy… and to consider what we can do to make change in our multiple roles.” “We cannot let the feeling that our impact is insignificant prevent us from taking action. We cannot fully anticipate the depth of our impact or its rippling effects,” says Sedlovskaya in her article, When Educators Acknowledge a Crisis, They Empower Learning: Addressing the War in Ukraine. (This webinar originally aired on March 23, 2022)



The views expressed in the Educator|Resource are those of the educator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Social Work Education.

 Contact Dr. Yolanda Padilla, CSWE Diversity Center Director, at [email protected].