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.