The things that give me privilege and power in social work are, in some ways, also the things that work against me. I am young, white, and college-educated. Like Professor Mike wrote about in his piece, the things I identify with I rarely ever need to reflect upon much, even if I had the time to do it. In the small amount of time I have worked in the social work-related field, I’ve been able to have lots of upward mobility in my job. It is admittedly ridiculous that I got paid more after less than a year at my job than my co-worker who has been there for over a decade, all because I had a degree and she didn’t. In the field, this translated differently. My co-worker had lots of “street cred”, people in the community call her “aunty”, and she commands a certain amount of respect because she’s “been through it all” And who am I? A scrubbed clean, fresh-out-of-college person who could still pass as a teenager. When I would go on home visits, I’d have an inflated sense of inadequacy and feel like I was being perceived as a fake. I always thought that the families I was helping would never want to listen to me because I haven’t been to the school of hard knocks and didn’t have a family at the time. For the most part, this was in my head and people truly did respect me, even the ones who were twice as old as I was.
The privilege I experience in my everyday life is what drove me into this profession. I grew up in an upper-class family where my mother did not need to work. I saw how she immersed herself into volunteer work, helping out with non-profits like Child and Family Services and Aloha Medical Mission. I was always taught that if you have something to give, it’s your duty to give it. I feel lucky and privileged enough to pour from a full cup. My first taste of direct service work was going to the Philippines as a teen to volunteer at a shelter for sexually abused girls. Until recently, I had always though the work I did, and the work my mom did, were pretty noble deeds. When I look at it through the context of internationalizing social work, it makes me take a step back and re-think my position in the context of this work.
Cultural competency is of the utmost importance in social work. In order to make long-lasting, sustainable change, it must be considered in all aspects of the profession. When I think of social work as a Western ideal, I kind of cringe at international work now. Although in my heart my mom and I had the purest intentions to help, it seems a little imperialistic to me now. I would never want anyone to think “Oh great, here come these American idiots swooping in trying to save the world again.” When social work comes from the outside, from the West to the rest, we further perpetuate the cycle of colonization. I like the idea of indigenizing the work and trying to make it authentic. I just feel like if social work is such a western context, it shouldn’t necessarily have a place in non-western worlds.
When I think of culture in social work, I think of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. We saw a lot of cultural struggles in social work and in the medical field. There was a psychologist, Sukey Waller, who described herself as “fixer of hearts” in Hmong on her business card. This is a great example of trying to squeeze a Western ideal in another culture where it doesn’t have a place, let alone a name for it. Social work is not a universal thing and although I feel like every should be helped, I don’t know if social work fits everywhere.
The little I know about respecting culture and indigenous voices comes from working in a Western context with immigrants and refugees. It’s imperative to go in with a working understanding of how different cultures and ethnicities operate. In many ways, it can be difficult. I’ve worked with families from the Marshall Islands where respect for elders is huge. If I have a language barrier and have to translate through a younger person in order to communicate, it is as if I am bypassing that elder and conferring without them. I have come to find out that many families do not mind as long as I am coming with the proper intention and respect. And like Fadiman in the book, they expect a lot less from an outsider. It also doesn’t hurt to learn a handful of phrases!