|Cultural Competence and Social Justice: A Partnership for Change|
Transitions: Serving Youth of Color
This Transitions is also available in [PDF] format.
By Jonathan Stacks, MSW, Project Coordinator, Youth Empowerment Initiatives; and Andrés Meléndez Salgado & Sara Holmes, Interns, Advocates for Youth
What Is Culture?
Here, we define culture as a "system of interrelated values [that] influence and condition perception, judgment, communication, and behavior."1 Everyone looks at the world through a lens, as though through a pair of glasses. While this lens is unique to each individual, the worldviews of people of similar background or social experience is often similar. This similar worldview creates a shared understanding of society. One's involvement in these social groups can be referred to as his/her cultural identity. To understand a culture is to understand a particular worldview.
What Is Cultural Competence?
Cultural competence moves beyond "cultural awareness" (knowledge of another cultural group) and "cultural sensitivity" (knowledge as well as experience with another culture).2 Cultural competence acknowledges and responds to the unique worldviews of different people and communities. The way an individual views the world comes from her/his life experiences, many of which are shared by others within the same culture. To understand the individual, one must understand these experiences. Besides recognizing cultural patterns of behavior, the culturally competent person must also acknowledge the social inequities faced by others.
What Is Social Inequality?
Champions of social justice assert that the foundation of a free society lies in 1) equally valuing all citizens by granting them equal political and civil liberties; 2) meeting their basic needs of income, shelter, and other necessities; and 3) offering each one opportunities and life chances.4 Unfortunately, societies usually offer citizens unequal access to education, career opportunities, money, and power. Some individuals—due to cultural identity, gender, skin color, national origin, or sexual orientation, among other attributes—have greater and easier access to a society's resources than do others. In discussing inequitable power and resource distribution, social scientists usually use privilege to indicate preferred access to power and resources. They use oppression to indicate barriers to power and resources.
Social Inequality Affects Health.
Social inequality has a profound affect on health and public health outcomes. Yet, it has too often been left out of public health discussions. Research demonstrates a direct correlation between inequality and negative health outcomes. For example, "in the United States between 1980 and 1990, states with the highest income inequality showed a slower rate of improvement in average life expectancy than did states with more equitable income distributions."5 Another example is the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Groups disproportionately affected by the epidemic are also historically oppressed groups—communities of color, women, men who have sex with men, the poor, and young people. All these groups experience serious limitations in their access to resources, especially education, adequate and responsive health care, power to set policy, and opportunities to create relevant media messages. Inequality creates and perpetuates feelings of powerlessness. The link between inequality and health outcomes is a starkly clear reason for linking cultural competence and social justice.
Cultural competence means gaining knowledge about both our own culture(s) and the culture(s) with which we work. This process must begin with each of us, before moving outward to the community. Self-awareness means thoroughly examining our own lifestyle, thoughts, and assumptions—particularly our cultural assumptions. For example, our inner feelings about affirmative action, immigration laws, gay marriage, inter-ethnic adoptions and/or intimate relationships, and hate crimes are often part and parcel of our cultural attitudes and biases. Self-awareness requires both thought and discussion with our friends, co-workers, family, and strangers about these beliefs and the situations those beliefs affect. Do we assume that, based on race/ethnicity, we are more likely to be smart, energetic, or responsible than others? Do we assume that someone else will be better at interior design or sports, based on his/her sexual orientation or race/ethnicity? Becoming aware of these automatic assumptions is the first step towards socially just cultural competence.
How do our attitudes, values, and beliefs shape our interactions with others? We need to assess the impact of our cultural upbringing upon our concepts of other cultural and ethnic groups and upon our actions in the world. What attitudes did we adopt unthinkingly at an early age? How do our actions reflect those attitudes and what real world experience shows these attitudes to be unfair and/or hurtful to others? True cultural competency requires understanding our own biases and how those biases affect our actions before we even attempt to understand the beliefs, traditions, and values of others.
The third step toward socially just cultural competence is to enter community partnerships. The process of becoming culturally competent now moves outward from the individual, into the community. And what better place to engage in an outward dialogue than with the communities we serve?
It's Time for Socially Just Culturally Competence.
Despite public discussions and civil rights struggles over the past decades, youth of color grow up with firsthand understanding and experience of inequality and injustice. Discrimination and little hope for the future sometimes leave youth of color with little incentive to protect themselves. In many communities of color, sexual health outcomes reflect the inequities faced by young people. Public health organizations and those working with youth of color need to establish socially just and culturally relevant programs and to hire and train culturally competent staff. Then, organizations and programs will be able to serve youth of color as they deserve and to encourage these youth to achieve positive sexual health outcomes.
Next Chapter: Creating Culturally Competent Programs
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Transitions (ISSN 1097-1254) © 2004, is a quarterly publication of Advocates for Youth—Helping young people make safe and responsible decisions about sex. For permission to reprint, contact Transitions' editor at 202.419.3420.
Editor: Sue Alford