Why Cultural Competence in Social Work Is a Vital Skill

Two smiling women stand side by side.

Over 40 million immigrants live in the United States today, according to Pew Research Center — more than in any other country. The ethnic and cultural backgrounds of these individuals are diverse, and many of them need support in order to thrive after migrating to the U.S. Social workers are instrumental in helping people in vulnerable immigrant communities access the tools they need to overcome economic and social challenges.

Today, in addition to assisting culturally diverse populations, social workers help people address issues involving child welfare, mental health, human rights, fair housing and substance use. The understanding and acceptance of all people that results from practicing cultural competence in social work is vital to serving communities equitably and compassionately.

A master’s in social work can provide students with a diverse learning experience and help them develop the necessary skills to practice cultural competence in social work.

Defining Social Work and Cultural Competence

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, social work’s principal mission is “to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.”

Social workers are also champions for social change that benefits not only individuals but also families and communities. As the International Federation of Social Workers explains, “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion and the empowerment and liberation of people.”

Why Is Cultural Competence in Social Work Important?

Cultural competence in social work entails understanding the cultural differences of people in need of social services. Social workers who demonstrate cultural competence strive to understand the cultures of the people they serve and to support them with cultural sensitivity and respect. In doing so, they can better assist their clients in overcoming potential cultural barriers and connect them with critical resources.

How Can Social Work Improve Cultural Competence?

When people receive the care and support they need, they are empowered to flourish. According to the NASW, social work professionals can improve their cultural competence by practicing the following:

  • Advocacy — Speaking out against injustice and empowering individuals and groups with the tools and resources they need to self-advocate
  • Awareness — Recognizing one’s own personal assumptions, biases, stereotypes and values
  • Humility — Owning up to mistakes and taking corrective actions to improve conditions for people from all backgrounds

Cultural Competence vs. Cultural Humility

Cultural humility is a disposition to trust and learn from clients from different cultures and backgrounds. While cultural competence entails seeking knowledge about other cultures and respecting the cultural background of others, cultural humility requires that social workers actively recognize what they do not know. In practice, social workers show cultural humility by identifying their own implicit biases, seeking to understand the cultural context of their clients’ actions and demonstrating acceptance of differences.

Cultural humility generally involves three key tenets:

  • A commitment to self-reflection and lifelong learning
  • A recognition of power imbalances (particularly in the provider-client dynamic) and a desire to overcome them
  • Working to develop effective partnerships between culturally diverse individuals and the institutions and communities they rely on

Embracing Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice

Social workers are likely to encounter ideas, beliefs or traditions they are unfamiliar with. Cultural competence allows them to navigate those differences to help clients overcome barriers to obtaining health care and other services. Research shows that cultural barriers, such as limited English skills and a lack of understanding of the U.S. health care system, can lead to poor health outcomes among immigrant groups. By understanding people’s cultural differences, social workers can help them overcome these obstacles and encourage them to pursue the services they need.

Through the application of cultural competence in social work, social workers can also help people acclimate to their communities, providing them with counsel and guidance on social and emotional challenges in the process. They can assist people on a wide range of issues, such as mental and behavioral health, family separation, employer exploitation and discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation or gender identification.

Striving for cultural competence does not mean social workers must face the impossible task of trying to understand every nuance of a person’s culture. Instead, they must remain open to new cultural ideas, ask questions and respond respectfully.

Cultural competence is embedded in the ideals of social work practice; the NASW Code of Ethics emphasizes the “commitment to understanding and embracing culture as central to effective practice.”

Building on the Ideals of Social Work

Cultural competence in social work is rooted in social action, justice for underrepresented communities and advocacy. Understanding the essence of cultural competence is integral to building upon the values of social work. Below are some considerations for incorporating cultural competence into social work practice.

Strive for Continual Cultural Awareness

According to the NASW Code of Ethics, “Social workers shall demonstrate an appreciation of their own cultural identities and those of others.” In other words, social workers should spend time learning about the cultures of the people they serve while being aware of the assumptions of their own cultural values and beliefs. An equally important part of this code is understanding with humility the privilege and power they hold in the service of others.

Use Language to Empower

In response to English language limitations, health care institutions offer translation services to help people navigate the complexities of the U.S. health system. While translation can bridge gaps in communication, social workers should recognize that communication must be inclusive and respectful of all people, regardless of culture, language, racial background, sexual and gender identity, and geographic location. When social workers ask or respond to questions by being respectful, mindful and sensitive to cultural issues, they are demonstrating cultural competence in social work.

Be Willing to Learn

Never assume that one client is like another. Each client knows more about his or her experience than anyone else. Social workers should listen carefully and embrace cultural humility in their interactions. If they acknowledge what they don’t know about a culture, rather than focusing on what they do know, they’ll find opportunities to learn more about their clients, which can lead to better outcomes.

Discover the VCU Difference

Cultural competence in social work, diversity, social justice, human rights and ethical practice are guiding principles of Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program. Through the application of research and evidence-based methods, students analyze and evaluate professional practice, programs and service delivery systems.

The online M.S.W. aims to equip students with the knowledge, skills and values crucial for effective advanced social work. It encourages them to engage with diversity and difference in practice, providing them with a greater understanding of the value of cultural competence in social work, whether they go on to work in a clinical capacity or in administration and planning. In turn, graduates are prepared to effect change in various areas, from immigration services and international social work to mental health, trauma and crisis intervention.

As the demand for social services increases, so will the employment of social workers, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will increase by 12% between 2020 and 2030 — faster than the average for all occupations (8%). Learn how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work can help you advance in your career and prepare you with cultural competence to make an immediate impact in the lives of people and communities.