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Cultural Responsiveness: Discover How You Can Use Inquiry to Enhance Engagement in Human Services



Health and Human Services professionals are individuals who are driven by the mission to support people and communities in achieving better outcomes and healthier lives.


They are a diverse group from varied cultural backgrounds who engage with people from different ethnicities, traditions, and religious beliefs. Their level of understanding of culture significantly impacts those interactions. Therefore, it is vitally important that they are prepared with the tools and strategies needed to have conversations about culture and race that will affect outcomes for the people they serve.


Cultural responsiveness can support staff in the development of these skills by providing a platform for them to understand their own culture as that is the lens they use to understand others. It also encourages them to explore their level of curiosity about other cultures, a skill that is essential for culturally responsive practice.


When we cultivate curiosity, we shift away from stereotyping the people we serve based on generalizations made about their cultural norms. This indicates an interest in learning about their unique qualities and also brings awareness of our own cultural experiences. Cultural responsiveness combined with curiosity creates a balanced relationship and understanding of how we interact with each other.


What is Cultural Responsiveness and why does it matter?


Cultural Responsiveness is the ability we have to know our culture and how it impacts our understanding of other cultures and ways of life. It deepens our awareness of the reasons behind the choices we make.


When we practice cultural responsiveness, we are able to recognize the people we serve as individuals and we can effectively communicate with them based on their unique needs. This allows us to identify and utilize community resources on behalf of the person receiving services (Adapted from Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia).


We all have a role to play in being culturally responsive. We may either be tasked with taking on an active role of understanding others and changing our practice, or have a passive role of being on the receiving end of the interaction. Within organizations, cultural responsiveness is a joint effort where all staff share the responsibility to achieve system changes that will improve outcomes for the people we serve.


As an example, according to a case study by the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI), agency leaders in child welfare who develop a culturally responsive workforce see a decrease in disproportionality and elevated outcomes for all, not just families of color. Similarly, Behavioral Health Service agencies in Southern California have recognized the importance of creating and maintaining a culturally responsive system of care to confront the measurable disparities in health care outcomes within their communities.


Ultimately, cultural responsiveness allows workers to understand and improve upon services that address the disparities in service delivery to different groups of people, as Marlene Hagen, Children and Family Services Director in San Bernardino County, pointed out to the 2020 graduating class of CWDS Cultural Responsiveness Academy.


“Out of every 1,000 African American children in San Bernardino County, 111 will have a Child Abuse allegation called into our hotline. This is compared to 52 for every 1,000 white children. This number is even more profound when you consider that African American children only make up 8% (46K) of our total child population, while white children account for 24% (122,370) of our total child population.


Bias does not stop at the hotline. We as practitioners, support staff, supervisors and leaders within Child Welfare must also recognize our biases and learn to manage them in our work with families and interactions with each other in the workplace, if we are to reduce the number of African American children coming into care.”


Using inquiry to enhance engagement with the people we serve


Curiosity, along with empathy and respect, is one of the guiding principles of cultural responsiveness. Curiosity is related to our ability to learn from and relate to others. When we ask questions and inquire with humility, we create a deeper understanding of the people we serve – including their values, traditions, cultural norms, and anything that makes them unique and that will influence the services they receive.


The following are ways staff can use inquiry with humility to cultivate curiosity and enhance engagement among the people they serve.


1. Stay curious. Ask questions with the intent of learning about and embracing yours and others’ cultures.

Begin by asking yourself how much you know about your own family values, traditions or story and how important it is for you to know where you come from. Identify how your cultural lens influences the way you interact with others and what lens you are using to come up with a story about the people you serve.


Be receptive as you learn about others’ stories and how they define themselves. Remember that being aware of others’ culture will open up opportunities for you to be sensitive to the cultural norms you need to be mindful of when interacting with them.


2. Come from a place of openness when engaging with people of different cultural backgrounds.

When you’re working with people from different cultures, norms and behaviors that are normal to them and even celebrated may be seen as off-putting or strange to you. And the opposite can also be true. Remember that you are building a collaborative relationship and coming up with solutions together. Stay open and inquire with humility, even though you are operating from a place of expertise.


3. Be mindful of the effects of implicit bias in your organization and how they may impact the communities you serve.

Measurable changes are created within organizations that inquire about their existing practices and procedures. A recent practicum project developed by the North County Crisis Intervention and Response Team at the 2019-2020 RIHS Cultural Competency Academy showcases how organizations can review and upgrade their current policies to avoid further promulgating trauma and oppression.


In this particular case, the organization set out to develop an Indigenous Mental Health Policy that integrated Indigenous and Western approaches. Among its objectives, the group sought to hire a diverse workforce composed of mental health professionals, traditional indigenous healers and elders that was adequately resourced, skilled and supported to address mental health and substance use issues for indigenous youth, adults, families and communities.


4. Remember the purpose of humility in leadership positions and have an authentic desire to learn.

As a leader, it is important to recognize your own readiness to be curious and willing to practice cultural responsiveness, as your staff will be looking to you to model these behaviors and practices. Staff want to see the commitment from their leaders to changing organizational practice as it indicates they are also willing to be vulnerable and be a part of the process.


Consider the several departments in your agency and their uniqueness in terms of organizational culture and services they provide to the community. Be aware of the culture within each department and tailor services to both internal and external customers based on their needs, versus using a “blanket” approach to serving customers.


5. Seek out opportunities to gain the tools and skills needed to provide culturally responsive services.

As mentioned in the previous section, cultural responsiveness is an organizational effort. Ensure staff at every level of service at your agency have access to professional development opportunities to improve the cultural awareness, knowledge and skills of staff providing services. These training opportunities can offer a safe space for self-assessment, facilitated discussions, and the development of important skills.


Closing thoughts


Understanding other cultures, as well as understanding our own assumptions, helps us to be sensitive to others’ worldviews, which in turn helps us to work in cross-cultural situations and communicate more effectively. 


Recognize that culture impacts your everyday interactions, and that cultural responsiveness is fluid and is an opportunity for growth and development which requires skills, tools, education, advocacy, inner reflections and understanding of your biases. Begin this process with an open mind and give yourself permission to make mistakes while staying curious.


Written by Wanjiru Golly, Ph.D., Cultural Responsiveness Academy (CRA) Program Manager (CWDS), Shiva Jaimes, RIHS Training and Curriculum Coordinator, Cultural Competency Academy (CCA), and Rosana Marques, Marketing Specialist


Related articles:

Marching Forward: Coming Together to Integrate a Critical Theory of Workforce Development Using CRT


Why You Need to Invest in Your Relationships with the Workforce

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