Cultural humility as a tool for change

Components that can support the development and sustainability of cultural humility.

In a Journal for Health Care for the Poor and Underserved article, authors Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia advocate that the work of individuals, and the support they receive from their institutions around issues of inclusion, equity and social justice, should support the development of cultural humility rather than cultural competence when working across differences. The authors define cultural humility as “a lifelong process and commitment to self-evaluation and critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the caretaker-patient dynamic, and to developing mutullay beneficial and non-paternalistic relationships and partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and underrepresented populations.”

Components that support the development and sustainability of cultural humility include:

Prioritizing self-reflection and a lifelong learner model in one’s personal and professional lives
It is imperative that there be a simultaneous process of self-reflection and ongoing self-appraisal as it relates to addressing one’s own culture and how that impacts a person’s ability to work authentically across differences.

Recognizing and challenging power imbalances for respectful partnerships
While working to establish and maintain respect is essential in all healthy and productive relationships, the root of effective practices is in acknowledging and challenging the power imbalances inherent in our practitioner/client dynamics.

A movement from the “expert” model to the “student” model
Individuals with power need to be flexible enough and humble enough to “say that they do not know when they truly do not know,” and become students with their clients to better understand when one’s culture is at play and when other issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism or other larger issues are impacting one’s health.

Community-based direction and advocacy
Practitioners of cultural humility work toward optimal health in their communities addressing the physical, mental and social well-being of their communities.  They work toward being nonpaternalistic, mutually engaged and mutually respectfull and build on the assests and adaptive strengths of communities - including those who are too often disenfranchised. 

Institutional accountability
Organizations need to model these principles as well (from micro, to mezzo and macro practice).

Although this model and way of being was developed within a medical community and framework, it can be applied in many of our personal and professional settings. Questions that may help us to reflect on the concept of cultural humility in our personal and professional lives, include:

  • How does the notion of cultural humility connect with your work in building authentic and sustained relationships across differences?
  • What is my professional responsibilty to build the skills and approaches connected to operating with cultural humility and what is the cost to me personally or to those that I work with if I don’t operate from a place of cultural humility? 
  • How can I as an individual within an institution work to model principles of cultural humility as a way to help inform and transform the practices, policies and rules that shape our organizational culture(s)?
  • How does/could operating with cultural humility strengthen or support my work with diverse communities? 

A video providing further information on cultural humility:

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