Cultural humility, and remembering history

Welcome Dr. Sabrina Sullenberger, Chair of the Social Work Department at Belmont University, as she begins blogging here from time to time.

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of co-leading a student immersion trip to several destinations in the US West, including the Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, SD and the Crow reservation near Hardin, MT.   While on the reservations, especially at Pine Ridge, I was confronted with the reality that I had not a clue about the lived experience of people there.  What I knew of native history and culture prior to the trip was limited almost exclusively to books and the occasional documentary.  As such, I was keenly aware of my lack of cultural knowledge and cultural competence (both of which are important concepts in social work) and so I was initially hesitant about how to connect with community members.

And then I remembered something: more important than cultural competence (which some would say can never be achieved) is the practice of cultural humility.   For me, cultural humility means reminding myself that in their community, I am a learner and they are the experts in their own lives. While I have a lot of textbook and research knowledge about systemic barriers and structural causes of poverty, they know, and daily experience, what that looks like in Pine Ridge. I do not.   Having cultural humility also means that I have to examine my own presumptions and prejudices about what could make things “better”, and—harder still– examine the ways that I am complicit in systems that are oppressive to others. Needless to say: I engaged in a lot of introspection on this trip, and it still continues, especially in light of the shootings and other violence in Charleston.  I want to be a part of reconciling relationships in my own community, in the beautiful diversity that is Nashville, and cultural humility is as important here as it is in Pine Ridge.

I will sign off my inaugural blog post with a quote shared by author Sue Monk Kidd in the end notes of The Invention of Wings.  When I read it I thought it was a good encapsulation of the idea of what a commitment to cultural humility can result in.  A professor once told her “History is not just facts and events.  History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” I believe that, by practicing cultural humility, we can more astutely see and feelpine ridge at red cloud the pain, as well as the beauty and strength, of others.