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CSV’s Grad Students on “Cultural Humility”

Two young women seated at laptops looking at the camera, one is a Latinx woman in a black sweater and the other is an African-American woman in an orange shirt and patterned vest.

“Would you feel comfortable talking to your mentor about race?”

That’s one of the questions that Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students who receive tutoring or mentoring from a CSV volunteer answered recently in a survey conducted by Colette Lima and Daniela Reyes. Lima and Reyes work as program assistants at Cambridge School Volunteers. Both women are master’s level social work students at the Boston University School of Social Work, using CSV’s CRLS programs as a field placement.

At the CSV Tutoring Center as well as the College and Career Mentoring Program, which enables adult volunteers to help with postsecondary planning and applications, high school students take initiative to request services. CSV staff then match them one-to-one with adult volunteers who can meet their needs. A good relationship is essential to adding value to the students’ education in these programs. The two Boston University students have spent the year contributing their ever-expanding understanding of social work principles to strengthening the quality of the student experience.

One third of the 35 student respondents said they would not feel comfortable discussing race with their volunteers. About half of the respondents to the survey are African American students. Lima and Reyes began their two identical recent workshops for CSV volunteers  by laying out the survey data, then introduced the concepts of cultural competence and cultural humility. Cultural humility, as a principle of social work, education, and other fields, represents an extension and deepening of its predecessor, “cultural competency,” While “competence” in culture (in its broadest sense, covering race, income status, age, gender and sexual orientation) has long been a focus of training in many sectors, the very word implies an end state. Lima and Reyes incorporated the notion of lifelong learning into their lively discussion of cultural humility with volunteers.

Acknowledging that there is always more to learn, and more room to grow, is the essence of the growth mindset that tutors and mentors in the schools know is helpful for student academic growth. Cultural humility is a similar lens that teachers and volunteers can apply to their interactions with students when the goal is not only to support their success, but also “do no harm” inadvertently.

The three components of cultural humility, according to Reyes and Lima, are

  • Lifelong learning
  • Recognizing and challenging power imbalances, to build respectful partnerships; and
  • Institutional accountability.

The workshop includes this video by Vivian Chávez, featuring an interview with Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-García, who spearheaded the move away from “cultural competence” within the field of medical training.

Why should volunteers get down to the nitty-gritty details of how to factor in cultural differences into their work with students? “Students who feel that they can relate to their educator and enjoy spending time with their educator are more likely to actually learn,” explained the duo.

They also delved into possible harms that volunteers who aren’t reflective about their own cultural differences with students might inadvertently cause.  “Microaggressions and behaviors—such as appropriation and culturally exploitative actions—can damage the self-esteem of the student you are working with,” said Lima and Reyes.

The pair brought a number of hypothetical and real world examples into the workshop,  They invited attendees to explore the line between cultural exchange and cultural exploitation, and between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. As an illustration of this difference, they compared white singers Miley Cyrus and Bobby Caldwell.
Bullet points with text with examples of cultural appreciation contrasted with examples of cultural appropriation
Said Lima, “Context is everything when making the distinction.”

Wendy Stone, a volunteer who tutors CRLS students  in English, reports one of the most valuable moments of the workshop was “a personal exchange between two people about cultural appropriation.  Stone, whose three daughters went through the Cambridge Public Schools and worked in education, says of that exchange “it reminded me, again, of the power of conversation when people are able to convey their opinions in a non-threatening way and all parties can truly listen.”

In a follow-up interview, Daniela Reyes further reflected on the idea of cultural humility:

“Cultural humility is a part of social justice. In the pursuit of social justice, you have to constantly be learning, reflecting on not only what’s going on in the world—your community your relationships—but also be able to hold yourself accountable. It’s important to be aware of the community you’re serving, and the privileges you have.”

Reyes, who spent last year as a math coordinator and 6th-grade math teacher with City Year Orlando, says her own experience in a public school system contributed to her understanding of race and education. When a white principal was hired in the school where she worked, the majority-black faculty began to shift; those who retired or left were steadily replaced with white teachers. And a recent experience in graduate school also illustrates the need for cultural humility. The Latinx identity of a light-skinned fellow student was questioned by an administrator.

The volunteers attending the workshop, she reports, were very open to the concept. “At the end of the day, we’re here for the students,” she says.”



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