Student Blog Entry: What really is cultural competency?

Students who will be traveling to Cambodia for this year’s service learning trip are currently enrolled in a preparatory practicum class. Throughout the semester and while in Cambodia, each student is required to write blog posts based on the material we are studying in class, our readings, our fundraising events, preparations for the service-learning trip, and experiences during the trip. The “Student Blog Entry” is a result of this educational requirement. This first series of posts centers on the learning that took place when students had the privilege of engaging in a virtual “Skype” discussion with Zara Zimbardo, co-founder of The White Noise Collective, professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, and an all-together invaluable resource for facilitating important dialogue around cultural humility. We hope you enjoy reading it and will offer your own thoughts and feedback.

“What really is cultural competency?”

By Danielle Rifkin

“You must believe in your own creative power to put things together with vision and insight…you must love humanity and be willing to empathize with all who suffer—to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes” -Cloé Madanes

In preparing for our trip to Cambodia, we have been having a lot of conversations recently about how to be culturally aware both in how we communicate about our trip and once we are in Cambodia doing our work. What I have discovered in these conversations is that it is impossible to be truly cultural competent as a therapist and that it might be more important to be open and curious along our journey than to claim our expertise and knowledge.

During a fruitful discussion with Zara Zimbardo, co-founder for The White Noise Collective and professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, she mentioned how cultural competency, which is such a buzz word in therapy programs, implies distinct knowing and mastery of a skill rather than constantly being willing to both question what we do know and feel comfortable owning what we don’t know. She encouraged replacing cultural competency with cultural humility to further emphasize the struggle and questioning, which are key to the process.

To be honest, listening to Zara’s incredible wisdom about humility left me even more overwhelmed and somewhat discouraged. As someone who has used the word competency, I became fearful of how powerful language can be and how easy it is to use words that might offend or misrepresent. In another example, we were recently discussing the language to use to market our upcoming art auction gala, and it became even more clear how the use of a single word such as ‘support’ or ‘empower’, which you could think of as positive and encouraging, can also imply an unequal privilege and power to the work we will be doing with women and children in Cambodia. What I also came away with is that it is natural to feel this discomfort and confusion.

On the other hand, as much I think it is vital to live in this place of humility and struggle, I think it is also valuable to own our strengths and skills that we bring to our work. We are fortunate enough to have the time to learn about the history and culture of Cambodia, to explore our country’s relationship to Cambodia, to see how art therapy has been successfully used in Asia, and to develop our own methods and interventions based on our knowledge of Trauma-Informed Art Therapy® and the healing potential of art (Malchoidi, 2011).

In the article Remembering Our Heritage by Cloé Madanes, she outlines all the important traits of being a therapist including, “you must believe in your own creative power to put things together with vision and insight…you must love humanity and be willing to empathize with all who suffer—to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes” (2004, p. 70). I think this quote eloquently describes the strength and humility that we can bring to our work ahead.

Madanes, C. (2004, November/December). Remembering Our Heritage. Psychotherapy Networker, 52-70.

Malchiodi, C. (2011). Trauma-informed art therapy with sexually abused children. In P. Goodyear-Brown (Ed.), Handbook of sexual abuse treatment. New York, NY: Wiley.

One thought on “Student Blog Entry: What really is cultural competency?

  1. Pingback: On Sympathy vs. Empathy: the tendency to distance and how to stay in contact. | Naropa Community Art Studio-International

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