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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

How can I provide culturally competent services to women of color?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Advocates often wonder about how to reach and provide culturally relevant services to meet the needs of diverse communities of color. Questions range from requests for a “culturally specific curriculum for working with Black/African American women” to broader inquiries about “culturally effective approaches to family violence prevention.” This month, advocates from communities of color and allies will meet in St. Paul, MN for what promises to be a groundbreaking experience – the 2012 National Call to Action (NCTA) Institute and Conference. The event, whose theme is “Collective Empowerment, Collective Liberation” will provide a forum for uniting women of color and inspiring allies to challenge racism and other forms of oppression and bias. Topics to be featured at the event include tribal sovereignty, trafficking, gender identity, immigration, economic justice, building multicultural alliances, leadership and capacity building, among other critical issues impacting communities of color – both advocates and the families and communities that they serve.


Culturally Specific Organizations

There are various culturally specific organizations across the country doing outstanding work at developing effective advocacy for communities of color. Examples include Casa de Esperanza, the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and the Women of Color Network, just to name a few. Collectively, these organizations offer a wealth of resources, including promising practices, curricula, videos, fact sheets and reports, which educate about the nature and dynamics of domestic and sexual violence within communities of color and provide guidance for working with particular populations.

Culturally specific organizations have played a major role in drawing attention to the fact that long-established or “mainstream” approaches for responding to domestic or sexual violence (for example, calling the police, leaving the relationship, going to shelter, etc.) are “color-blind” and standardized, disregarding race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, and multi-abuse trauma. Mainstream organizations have often failed to reach certain racial/ethnic minority groups due to language barriers and isolation, among other factors. Standardized interventions – which have been adopted even by some culturally specific programs – often fall short at addressing the complexities of survivors’ lives, who may be experiencing other forms of oppression, such as poverty and discrimination, in addition to domestic and/or sexual violence.

“Women working in the field of domestic violence have sometimes reproduced the subordination and marginalization of women of color by adopting policies, priorities, or strategies of empowerment that either elide or wholly disregard the particular intersectional needs of women of color.” ~ Kimberlé Crenshaw

Culturally specific interventions, on the other hand, are designed specifically for a particular population and utilize language and settings familiar to that population. In addition, interventions are developed in collaboration with members of the community, taking into account their values, norms, attitudes, expectations, and customs. For example, Casa de Esperanza identifies itself as a “Latina” organization, in both staffing and approach. Some 80% of its Board of Directors and 72% of its staff are Latina, and the organization’s work is grounded in Latina realities. Guided by community-driven solutions, the organization asserts that “effective responses to domestic violence are shaped by the lived realities of Latinas and facilitate support systems ‘where they live.’ It is the community that will end domestic violence, not Casa de Esperanza or any other system or organization.” (Casa de Esperanza).

I am not fluent in English, so I appreciate that I can receive the service in Korean.  The social workers understood my native language and culture, so I can overcome adversities with them.” ~ Survivor

As an African American it made me realize I can talk to other African Americans and realize we all are going through the same situation, that we not alone.” ~ Survivor

As a means of sparking critical thinking and providing initial guidance to advocates, several resources have been made available by culturally specific organizations, including the report Innovative Strategies to Address Domestic Violence in Asian and Pacific Islander Communities: Examining Themes, Models and Interventions by the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence and The Principles of Advocacy: A Guide for Sexual Assault Advocates by Mending the Sacred Hoop. These excellent resources can serve as reference for advocates in their ongoing exploration into developing effective intervention and expanding access and options for survivors of color.

Developing Cultural Competence

Advocates who are seeking information for working with communities of color invariably have questions about “cultural competence” and how to become “culturally competent.” The term cultural competence suggests that “there is a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that can be devel­oped over time in order to work with those who appear and may be different from us” (Sujata Warrier). There is a wealth of information, strategies and resources designed to assist advocates and professionals develop the skills and knowledge needed to work with diverse cultural groups. The Culture Handbook by Futures Without Violence highlights some principles for developing cultural competence in the area of domestic and sexual violence. That being said, it is critically important to be mindful of the limitations of the term “cultural competence” (see “cultural humility”). This term implies that at a fixed point in time we can all become competent by developing certain skills through attending X number of trainings or by being exposed to certain groups and individuals over time. “The basic notion that developing ‘competence’ is a lifelong process and is about continuous self-assessments and critical thinking is missing from this term. Also missing is an understanding of how power shapes difference, our knowledge of difference, intersectionality, the ways in which information is gathered, presented and processed and the ways in which we use the skills we develop” (Sujata Warrier).

As Native women, in which direction do we travel to end the violence against us? First, we must stand in the center—trusting our instincts and knowledge and developing strategies built on our own successes and failures.” ~ Mending the Sacred Hoop

Who knows what the Black women thinks of rape? Who has asked her? Who cares?” ~ Alice Walker (cited in West, 2006)

In exploring how to best serve the needs of women of color, advocates are inevitably faced with the challenge of revisiting long-held assumptions and intervention approaches. First of all, “women of color” is not a homogenous group; ethnicity, race, age, class, citizenship, sexual orientation, and disability are some of the many factors compounding the identities and experiences of women of color. Culturally specific intervention, therefore, needs to take into account the diversity within diversity. It is critical that advocates understand the cultural context of the particular community they are working with and how that cultural context affects survivor’s realities and decisions. It is the context that will inform their advocacy (Casa de Esperanza). Also important to remember is that cultural competence is a very com­plex process, which is developed over time by engaging in a variety of activities and sources of information, as well as by examining one’s own biased cultural lens.

We need to remember that cultural competence is a very com­plex process. It is developed over time by engaging in a variety of activities and sources of information. We should always take into account the long history of oppression and people’s experiences of it in their lives. Finally, we should also be aware of and under­stand our own biased cultural lens.” ~ Sujata Warrier

Has your organization been successful at reaching out to and serving communities of color? Please share your experience with us!