Social Work for Librarians: Cultural Humility

One of the foundational concepts of social work is “cultural humility.” Cultural humility builds on the belief that each person is an expert on his/her/their life and recognizes that our cultural experiences shape how we view the world. We each exist at the intersection of various cultural spheres, and we make assumptions about how the world works based on that perspective. Our responsibility as human servants committed to social justice, whether we are social workers or librarians, is to foster awareness in ourselves that our perspective isn’t the only one and trust others when they speak about their own lives.

I’ve had this concept in mind since before the election, when I encountered it in the second module of the introductory social work course on edX, but post-election it has become even more relevant to library work. Some aspects of cultural humility were familiar to me and may be to you as well, whether you’ve heard this particular term before or not. The call for allies to support individuals and groups rather than try to speak for them is an example of cultural humility. Shailene Woodley does a good job of explaining allyship in a video that was trending this weekend:

Changing the Narrative with Shailine Woodley from Longhouse Media on Vimeo.

Cultural humility goes a step beyond allyship, though, and asks us to actively and consistently remind ourselves that other perspectives are just as valid as our own. One useful comparison to make is cultural competence vs. cultural humility. Cultural competence calls for knowing about working with different categories of people. Cultural humility says that while knowledge can be helpful, the best way to know and understand another person is to maintain a state of openness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. This is much more difficult than it sounds. We all bring cultural blindspots with us as we move through the world, and for most of us the only way to reveal those blindspots is through conflict. For example, a lot of folks who move from the east coast U.S. (where I grew up) to Minnesota (where I now live) will at some point find out they’re perceived as brash, loud, and/or demanding by people who grew up here. There’s nothing wrong with being outgoing and opinionated, and there’s also nothing wrong with waiting until you know someone better to trust them with your thoughts, but bringing those behaviors together without thinking can lead to frustration and embarrassment. And this is just a small example–nothing compared to the larger misunderstandings that can easily happen when we assume that what’s comfortable to us will be comfortable to others as well. When we take on cultural humility, we are taking responsibility for treating those embarrassing moments of misunderstanding as learning experiences. We pledge to ourselves that we will swallow our pride and have empathy for the other person.

Sometimes, the stories we need to hear and the things we have to accept aren’t comfortable and will conflict with our own beliefs. One local example involves our large population of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis. Somali women born in Somalia have some of the highest rates of female circumcision (or female genital mutilation) in the world, upwards of 90%, and often with the most extensive cutting. Healthcare workers in Minneapolis, most of whom aren’t from the Somali culture, began to find that they had to cut women open and sew them back up again when they gave birth (so that they have a vaginal opening large enough for the baby to pass through; cutting is safer than letting scarred skin stretch and tear). While that’s customary to many Somali women, it was a surprise to the health care providers. Many of those health care providers object to FGM as a cultural practice, but they are tasked with supporting mothers for whom that decision had passed long ago. Eventually, many providers recognized that their role had to be preparing the mothers who were already cut for the reality of birth with their existing bodies, and also preparing their fellow providers to treat the Somali women’s bodies with respect. There are now some prenatal classes for Somali women that normalize the circumcised birth experience.

Most of our interactions in the library aren’t that challenging, but we all know that public service brings us into contact with the full spectrum of human experience and opinions. Cultural humility supports the understanding that libraries can’t ever be neutral and challenges us to think about whose perspective we represent in our collections and programs. Who aren’t we hearing? Who are we silencing?  Following the recent election in the U.S., librarians have stepped up to show how knowledge can help bridge the ever-widening bipartisan gap, as exemplified by Libraries Respond. In the spaces we create, we can let cultural humility be our guide. We can’t dictate a perspective, and we can’t be passive in the assumption that we’re neutral (a great cultural blindspot for librarians). What we can do is hold space for the voices of our patrons. Create conversations. Facilitate dialogue. Model with our own behavior what it means to be a flexible and empathetic human being. This is always challenging work, but it’s also our most important work.

Libraries and the Election: A Whole Person Response

I just finished reading this post from R. David Lankes, best known as the author of The Atlas of New Librarianship, and this related post from Anthony Molaro. Both men are professors of library and information science, and both call for action from knowledge professionals in response to this week’s election. Lankes focuses on the work knowledge schools must do, and Molaro make suggestions for public library programs and services that anticipate the knowledge needs of our communities.

Both also, whether they realize it or not, are echoing Whole Person Librarianship’s call for person-centered social justice in librarianship.

Lankes reinforces that we need to act equitably if we truly want to support diversity. He mentions the extra work we put into reaching incarcerated patrons, for example, and the importance of promoting universal design. Molaro suggests we all begin to prepare to educate our patrons on health care following the seemingly inevitable demise of the Affordable Care Act (a great idea and one I intend to adopt). He also mentions hosting more civic conversations in libraries, which reminds me of the work ALA has done to support libraries as centers of community conversation (Libraries Foster Community Engagement). Significantly, the ALA Public Programs Office just received a grant to offer training on civic engagement to all librarians. The timing on that obviously couldn’t be better.

Whole Person Librarianship is a concept as much as a practice. It unites social work methods, rooted in social justice, with how we conceive of our roles as librarians and how we approach knowing our patrons. I sometimes find it challenging to justify the importance of WPL as a concept in a world where people are looking for direction on what to do. What good is an idea? What does it do for us? I think this moment provides something of an answer. Each of the responses suggested above, and more that are out there, are based in knowing the person in context. We serve incarcerated patrons best when we understand they’re where they are not because they’re “bad” but at least in part because of larger social systems they had no choice to be born into. We understand the importance of educating the public about things like health care options, not because we’re taking a political stance but because we see our role in a larger continuum of care. Even as we individual librarians approach the hurt and frustration of our community members – regardless of which side we’re on – a person-in-context approach can give us the strength to respond with empathy.

All of this, especially the notion of hosting community-engaged conversations on challenging topics, begins to raise the question of library “neutrality.” There’s plenty to read and discuss about that if you want to stray down that path. But one of the beautiful things about WPL is it provides a framework for action that doesn’t require worrying about being neutral. Sociology, human behavior, psychology, and other social sciences that inform social work methodologies are based in research and evidence. I’m thinking here of how children’s librarianship has been elevated by educators’ research into early literacy skills. Because of the work of researchers, we know that early language skills have a lifelong impact, that parents are their children’s best teachers, and that we can help them be aware of their teaching skills and boost their children’s achievement. This is no small part of why youth services librarians are now superstars, where they used to be seen as frivolous. Evidence-based practice inherently supports equity.

Adult services librarianship never fully emerged from our post-Google identity crisis. The more we respond to social struggles, the more we define our new and powerful role as conveners and educators. We need to name and claim this movement so that we have a common vocabulary, both for moving forward and for justifying our role to our leaders and communities. Whole Person Librarianship provides a unifying approach to piecemeal social justice-based responses and defines our purpose and identity.