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Cultural Competence: 8 Incredible Ways to Be a Better Social Worker

Written by Baylor School of Social Work Team on 01.21.23

Skillful and effective social workers respect and seek to understand the different cultures, backgrounds and experiences of their clients before they begin to seek or apply solutions. 

Various circumstances influence culture, and developing cultural competency necessitates purposeful professional growth. But it's not a scientific activity. Instead, social workers practice humility while learning about different cultures and assisting people in ways that promote dignity.

What is Cultural Competence in Social Work?

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines cultural competence in social work as “the process whereby people and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affairs, and values the worth of individuals, families and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”

In layman’s terms, to be culturally competent in social work, one must respond to individuals from all different backgrounds and experiences in a way that upholds justice and dignity and recognizes the value and worth of people, families and communities. 

Emerging Trends in Social work

A look at the shifting demographics of the United States demonstrates the importance of cultural competence in social work. In 1980, according to the National Association of Social Workers, 80 percent of the population was white. 

By 2014, the percentage had dropped to 63%, and it now stands at 61.3 percent. The figures are expected to decline, reaching 44% by 2050. White, non-Hispanic Americans will soon be in the minority for the first time in American history. This is a reality that those in helping professions, such as social work, must account for in their training and practice. 

Becoming Culturally Competent

Whether you’re already working in the social work profession or you’re considering going back to school to earn your Master of Social Work degree, learning to understand and support individuals of all backgrounds can make you a more effective social worker. Here are seven ways you can start to become more culturally competent. 

1. Embrace Cultural Humility 
This first step to becoming culturally competent is to accept that each client is the primary authority on their own cultural experiences. One way to do this is by practicing cultural humility.
Social workers who practice cultural humility stay humble and follow the client's lead on identity issues. Simultaneously, social workers sympathize with people to understand what they have gone through. These efforts assist practitioners in demonstrating an emotional connection with clients, which can help build trust and lasting relationships.
If, for instance, you make cultural errors, it's a good idea to accept client corrections. Remember that being corrected on cultural issues is not humiliating — it's an opportunity to broaden your cultural horizons and advance your career.

2. Effectively Communicate With Clients

According to the US Census Bureau, about 22% of Americans don’t speak English at home.You should make arrangements to frequently assist clients whose first language is not English based on this information. Language variety should not be seen as a barrier by social workers who speak only English but rather as an essential part of a community's identity. 

To best serve clients whose first language isn’t English, social workers should frequently confirm that clients understand them and that they in turn understand the information provided by the client. In addition, social workers should seek to provide trained professional translators who are fluent in both English and the client’s native language where possible. 

3. Avoid Making Broad Cultural Assumptions

Being culturally competent is a lifelong endeavor, and getting to know your clients is an integral part of that process. While it may be impossible to completely shed one’s preconceived notions of a culture or group, social workers should enter all client relationships with an open mind and goal to understand as much as possible from the client’s perspective.

Engaged social workers talk with clients about who they are, their issues, and their relationship aspirations. By learning about their clients' ideas on cultural traditions and customs, social workers can adapt their help to serve them better.

Learn more about how the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work is promoting equality, honoring the dignity and worth of all people, with a focus on underrepresented and marginalized groups. 

4. Be Flexible

Client expectations and requirements are highly diverse. As a result, if you work in diverse communities, you must aim for adaptability. Someone who grew up with technology, for example, could feel at ease meeting over Zoom. On the other hand, face-to-face encounters may be more effective for tech-averse clients.

It’s important to be flexible with your processes and expectations so that you can meet each client on their own level.

5. Try for Understanding Over Change

Instead of changing people's worldviews, envision helping them succeed in the world they live in. You can follow this tenet by recognizing and overcoming personal prejudices while developing cultural competency. This mindfulness technique helps you to avoid allowing your beliefs to influence the action plans you create.

6. Cultivate Cross-Cultural Skills and Knowledge

As a social worker, you work with people shaped by diverse cultural traditions, values, and practices. The NASW guidelines emphasize cultural links that you ought to be aware of, such as diversity in race & ethnicity, religion, social class, and immigration status

8. Provide Connections to Culturally Appropriate Services

You need to continuously collaborate with various care providers to link people with culturally appropriate services. As the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) points out, clients need to be helped by practitioners that respect their culture and viewpoint. Service providers, including social workers, should help people without changing their opinions. 

Societal biases are a significant factor in stifling progress and marginalized populations. Due to these biases, you are expected to assist clients in navigating systems that prohibit them from coping with trauma or accomplishing their goals through no fault of their own. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) identifies the several challenges clients confront, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, and classism.

Advocacy in social work entails more than just supportive words. Seek to empower clients to acquire access to resources that will allow them to fight injustice. After their engagement with you ends, these resources will enable your clients to advocate for themselves.

Benefits of Cultural Competence

  • Being culturally competent and cross-culturally aware is a lifelong endeavor. It helps you to comprehend the situation and social difficulties from the client's point of view.
  • Cultural competence allows you to evaluate your own cultural identity and how the clients may perceive you.
  • When you have a basic understanding and sensitivity to other people's cultures, you can assist others in learning and appreciating the diverse viewpoints of different people.
  • Cultural competency also helps eliminate any stereotypes or myths about a particular culture.
  • Lastly, cultural competency gives you more insight and information about a people's culture. This, in turn, helps you to serve your clients better by matching their needs and requirements to relevant resources and services.

Even though many people are naturally open-minded, culturally conscious social work entails much more. It necessitates a particular level of competence and knowledge, which may be attained through a Master of Social Work degree from The Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.


More About DEI

Posted by Baylor School of Social Work Team

We are the admissions team at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, at Baylor University. We believe social work is about service and justice; it is about the dignity of individuals and the power of relationships; it is about integrity and competence, and our mission here is preparing social workers to do these things well. We hope you find our resources helpful and informative as you explore and pursue a degree in social work!