The Importance of Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses being aware of one’s own worldview, while gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews.

As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer, we meet families who may be very different from our own friends, families and colleagues. Their cultures, values, and parenting styles may be completely unfamiliar to us. Even though our brains naturally categorize information with negative judgments, as a CASA, we want to suspend those judgments so we may develop higher levels of cultural competence.  This will allow us to be more effective with the various and diverse parties involved in our cases.

Image via Taney County Partnership

Image via Taney County Partnership

Our cultural competence affects how we respond to those of a different race, gender, and socio-economic status, just to name a few. It is not always easy to release years of carefully, or carelessly, formed opinions and values when we encounter new people. When we considers the myriad of verbal and nonverbal communications we use, poor cultural competence skills open the door to misunderstandings and unintended insults. Our own biases can led to ineffective interactions, to hurt feelings or worse. As CASA’s, we must not only understand our biases, but learn to recognize and put aside these feelings in order to best serve the children on our cases.

Consider a woman executive as a new CASA entering the family home of a patriarchal culture meeting the family for the first time. Deeply ingrained stereotypes and judgments are likely on both sides. To be an effective CASA, she needs to be the one to create a bridge to cross this expansive cultural gap.

Stereotypes are even more complicated and can derail the best of intentions. Recent studies in neuroscience show our brains function in ways that predispose us to negative stereotypes. In fact, scientists believe that our brain’s predisposition to categorize information with a negative slant is a primitive survival mechanism.

Something as simple as the use of silence in different cultures can lead to dramatic misunderstandings. The Greeks use silence as a way to refuse things but Egyptians use silence to communicate consent. Alternatively, Americans can see silence as a void to fill, or an indication the person is indifferent, angry or disagreeing with them. It takes hard work and a willingness to be flexible to unlearn deeply ingrained stereotypes. The ability to set aside our stereotypes can be a powerful tool in developing cultural competence and reaching our desired outcomes.

Four components to cultural competence exist:

Awareness — The first step in building cultural competence is developing an awareness of our own, sometimes deeply ingrained, prejudices and stereotypes, which can create barriers to our learning and development. It is also important to be thoroughly acquainted with our culture – and the identity we have taken from that culture. Taking the time to openly, and without judgement, discover our blind spots when it comes to our beliefs, will take us to a deeper understanding of the families and all those involved individuals we meet as CASAs.

Attitude – How open are we to differing views and opinions? If we feel strongly about our beliefs and values, we are more likely to react emotionally when we encounter a cultural difference. If we react emotionally, we are more likely to convey our disapproval to those we encounter. With awareness and intention, we can develop new habits – we can decide to suspend our views and opinions before we walk through the door.

Knowledge – As a CASA, we regularly cross cultures that are not limited to the families we visit. We likely hold opinions and beliefs regarding social workers, lawyers, as well as educational and medical professionals. To stay connected in cross-cultural situations, we need be open to learning as much as we can about those we encounter. We want to really question what it like is to walk in someone else’s shoes. How much we learn and assimilate into our own worldview affects or ability to work effectively and respectfully with people from all different backgrounds, experiences and cultural norms.

Skills – To build skills, we can interact with diverse groups.  Attend cultural events or religious services; this can put you in situations where you are the only one of your cultural group.  Ask others questions about their beliefs, culture and values.  We can also read books about different cultures and expose ourselves to the discrimination they can experience – memoirs are a great opportunity to discover insights into another culture.  Being careful not to stereotype, we can then apply our new understandings as we interact others.

Sources:
The Guardian, [Neuroscience] Human Brain is Predisposed to Negative Stereotypes.
Diversity Officer Magazine, What is Cultural Competence and How is it Measured?  American Psychological Association, How do I become culturally competent?

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

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Change a Foster Youth’s World

My siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use at birth. For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother beat me every day – sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. At 12, I was desperate to find help and confessed the abuse to a coach. Shortly after, we entered foster care.

During our time in foster care, we relied on our CASA volunteer. She comforted and guided us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in court.

The support of my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave the suffering behind and graduate valedictorian of my high school class.

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My focus and worldview – believing that we must rise every time we fall – is due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer.

She transformed our lives.

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

 

The Beginning of the School Year is Challenging for all Students, but especially for Foster Youth

The start of a new school year is an exciting and scary time for all children. However, for children living in foster care, the start of a new school year can be overwhelming.

First, foster youth move frequently, which puts them at least six months academically behind their peers. The frequent moves also mean that many foster youth are beginning the year in a new school, without the safety network of returning friends, familiar teachers or an understanding of the school culture.

boy with head down on chalk board

In addition, these students face enormous personal emotional challenges. First, is the abuse or neglect that put them in care, but there is also the embarrassment of being in foster care, being separated from siblings and parents and living in a strange home. All of these factors weigh heavily on these young people. It is imperative that teachers, administrators, foster parents and all of those in the foster youth’s life to pay special attention to how these students assimilate into the classroom and watch for any bullying or shaming that may occur. Any additional emotional trauma would devastate an already fragile situation.

Research shows that youth living in foster care are more likely to drop out of high school and are least likely to attend college. An organized effort to safeguard a smooth school transition for these youth is the key to a positive educational experience that can offset some of the damage done by the abuse, neglect and the barriers that these youth experience. Additionally, and most importantly, an improved educational experience will enhance the overall wellbeing of each student and provide a pathway to self-sufficiency and a successful adulthood.

Domestic Violence in Movies: Precious (2009)

precious

Directed by Lee Daniels and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Precious is a movie based on the novel, Push, that takes place in 1987 Harlem and portrays a heartbreaking story of domestic violence.

Claireece Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who goes by her middle name, Precious, is a 16-year-old black girl who has been sexually abused and raped by her father since she was three. She fathered two of his children, and the first born has Down syndrome. Precious’ mother Mary (Mo’Nique) physically and emotionally abuses her on a daily basis. Her own grandmother is scared to take Precious in because she fears Mary’s reaction. To make matters worse, Precious tests positive for HIV, which she contracted from her father. She also cannot read, but she does learn how after being sent to an alternative school.

Living with her mother is extremely toxic. Mary hits Precious frequently and throws things at her if she does not listen to her commands. Additionally, she verbally abuses her and puts her down, calling her stupid, fat, and saying that she will amount to nothing. Lastly, she collects welfare, does not look for a job, and consistently tells Precious that education is useless.

precious_mary

For a long time, Precious was too frightened to tell guidance counselors and teachers about what goes on in her home because her mother would react violently toward her. One time a guidance counselor showed up at Precious’ house unannounced, and the mother blamed it all on Precious.

By the time Precious’ second child, Abdul, is born, she runs away from home with her son because her mother abuses him, too. Mary sees that he looks just like his father—Precious’ father—and so she throws the infant on the floor. Then she attacks Precious.

Mary shouts, “You ruined my [expletive] life! You took my man, you had those [expletive] babies, and you got me put off the welfare for running your [expletive], stupid [expletive] mouth.” 

Precious replies, “I ain’t stupid! And I didn’t take your man! Your husband raped me!” 

Her mother snaps back, “Didn’t nobody [expletive] rape you!”

Precious manages to flee with her child, and she focuses on school and raising him.

At the end, Precious’ mother reveals why she hates her daughter so much. Precious is the one who made her father leave; he loved Precious more than her mother. While speaking to Precious’ social worker (played by Mariah Carey), Mary explains why she blames her daughter,

She didn’t scream or anything [when being raped], so it’s hear fault… who else was gonna love me?

Mary does not acknowledge that her daughter was raped until Precious’ social worker forces her to admit it. She questions how she could have let that happen to her own daughter.

This story is an  example of how being abused can perpetuate the abuse cycle, but fortunately Precious has risen above that cycle and has proven that she truly cares about her children.

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There were mixed reviews for this film. Some critics commended the performances and story line for its realism, while others insist that it was stereotypical and overdone.

To start, director Lee Daniels told Essence.com that the movie should be taken seriously. “Life is life. Life is what it is,” he said. [From the LA Times]

Here are some reviews that show the pros and cons.

ConMark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, told the New York Times, “People are suspicious of narratives that don’t put us in the best light.” He said there has always been a history of negative imagery in popular culture, which perpetuates the notion of black people being inferior.

ProLatoya Peterson, the editor of Racialicious.com, a blog about the intersection of race and popular culture, calls out those who believe black people should only be presented in an acceptable light. She said of one commenter against the movie, “He’s flattening the black experience, and in that way, he denies our humanity.” Peterson also thinks the movie touches upon many important topics that affect young girls, such as sexual abuse, poverty, violence, and doing poorly in school.

ConFilm critic Armond White said the movie is racist propaganda and a reminder that art and politics cannot be separated for black people.

ProA writer for blackchristiannews.com says, “I think everyone who grew up in South Chicago knew someone that was a Precious or a group of young women that had suffered abuse in different ways like Precious did. That’s what’s ‘hard to watch’ for me.”

Con:
Raina Kelley of The Daily Beast writes, “Her situation feels so extreme that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It becomes too hard to summon up any more outrage at the social worker who never figures out that something awful is happening in Precious’ home… I’m tired of movies presenting black people as grateful to find a helping hand to rise above their abusers. Not because we’ve seen this movie before…but because the story never changes. How about a ‘based on a true story’ tear-jerker that ends with some tangible improvements in the lives of impoverished children?”

Have you seen the movie? Where do you stand?

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