How a #FAIL taught me a lot about the world

By Jessica Smith, Safe Families for Children Manager

I grew up in a small farming community in the midwest. There was zero diversity. Our village (yes, it was so small they called it a village) was made up of white, middle class Christians. I was so excited to leave and attend college in a city. On my first day, eager to make friends, I met Mike, an African American man from Detroit. Me, trying to find any connection I could, spotted a round, flat, bristle-filled brush sitting on his desk. “You have horses, too!” I exclaimed with joy (the brush looked exactly like the one I used on my horses back home). He gave me a funny look and hesitantly told me that’s what he used on his hair. I was so embarrassed. #FAIL

IMG_2591Maybe you have a story like this (most of us do- it’s nothing to be ashamed of). In a world with so many cultures, there are bound to be times where our differences collide. If you’re involved with DC127, you’re likely building a relationship with someone or caring for a child who has a different background than you. And that can be scary. But if we truly want to build relationships that cross bridges, and care for children and families well, we must be willing to learn about their culture and become more aware of how different people live life.

There’s a phrase for this: Cultural humility. Cultural humility is about being aware and appreciating where you come from and how that has shaped your perception of the world.
I can’t change where I grew up or what brushes I used for my horse, but I can recognize how my experiences shaped the way I view the world and created the bias I carry around.  Cultural humility means I am aware of how I view the world, but I also take steps to learn about other people’s views and value these differences.

Cultural humility demands openness. We have to admit that we cannot, and will not, ever know everything about the world. We have to be willing to take ourselves out of positions of power and privilege and admit that we don’t know how a parent feels, and we don’t know what they are going through.  Openness allows us to learn from the people we’re walking with, which in turn creates stronger and longer lasting relationships.

Openness allows us to learn from the people we’re walking with, which in turn creates stronger, longer lasting relationships.

So how can we practice the art of cultural humility in our relationships with children and families?

  1. Listen. Really listen to someone’s story. Make sure you’re not just listening to think of solutions. Ask questions, summarize, and reflect on what the person said.
  2.  If you don’t know something about a person, don’t make assumptions. We may never know someone’s whole story. But when we make assumptions, we’re robbing someone of sharing their story with us from their perspective. IMG_2494 (1)There’s an especially high risk of us assuming things about a family because they are involved with Safe Families or foster care.
  3. Get outside of your comfort zone. Try thinking of a situation through someone else’s view. Ask a person where they feel comfortable meeting or eating. For example, your favorite indie coffee shop might make someone else incredibly uncomfortable. What are their favorite places? Maybe they can teach you something new about the city?

When we sign up to walk with a parent or care for a child, we’re not signing up to change or save someone. We’re entering into a relationship amongst equals where we can join together and get through a tough time. We’re modeling love, acceptance, and reliability. We can’t become more focused on fixing the situation, than loving the person and their family. Our relationship with parents and families in crisis must first be an equal relationship between two humans, and not a transaction of help. But in order to achieve this we must respect their culture and humbly admit that we don’t know everything about it.

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