Increased Diversity and Non-Western Cultural Practices

A third factor, also a consequence of globalization, is the increasing levels of diversity faced by social workers in both urban and rural communities (Lee et al., 2009). For many people from non-Western cultures, the medical model of social work, which emphasizes a “diagnose and treat” mentality and which still dominates the profession, fails to meet their needs. A medical model focusing on diagnosis of what is wrong, challenging, or problematic and eliminating it fails to invoke the complexity of human relationships, culture, context, social structure, and a number of other factors we social workers purport as crucial to understanding the human experience (Lee et al., 2009). Our practice models often settle for “find and eliminate” instead of “explore and engage.”

Recent efforts in social work education have advocated for a more globalized curriculum (Gatenio Gabel & Healy, 2012); however, there is little mention in this discourse of the importance of including non-Western practices that originate from indigenous traditions in places such as Western Africa, Australia/ New Zealand, Southeast Asia, or the southwestern United States. Thus, there is an urgent need for the infusion of culturally competent interventions and indigenous healing modalities from throughout the world (Gray, Coates, & Yellow Bird, 2010). Such approaches may embrace a more community- or family-oriented approach to treatment and intervention, as well as affirm the inextricable links between mind, body, culture, and planet. In addition, the unseen part of the self—that is, spirit—becomes a central point of entry and intervention.

In order to be able to competently intervene with clients' spiritual selves, students must be able to understand this aspect of their own self (Canda & Furman, 2010). Integrative medicine, which affirms both scientifically based allopathic or biomedicine and complementary or alternative treatments, offers an important model for social work practice in this regard (Koopsen & Young, 2009; Lee et al., 2009). Such “East-West” models can better meet the needs of everyone, but especially indigenous people, such as aboriginal people in Australia, or immigrants with strong spiritual and religious backgrounds, such as Haitian vodou practitioners in Brooklyn, New York. These models contrast with Eurocentric models of social work practice that maintain hegemonic domination in a postcolonialist context, alienating more collectively oriented cultures that center family, community, spirituality, and the environment in favor of individual, cognitively oriented outcomes (Gray et al., 2010).

Thus, social work pedagogy is called to develop prospects for building on strengths, cultivating awareness, and nurturing interpersonal relationships within the classroom context. This places students on the road to a transformative social work practice that embraces democratic community building, as “the encounter of a pluralistic society is not premised on achieving agreement, but achieving relationship” (Eck, 1993, cited in Barbezat & Bush, 2014, p. 80). For example, one of the exercises I (LP) do in an advanced MSW course called “Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Work Practice” is a conscious listening practice called “Confession of Greatness.” Students sit with a partner, and one person begins by saying positive things about him- or herself in terms of skills, abilities, attributes, likes, and so on. The listener is invited to close his or her eyes and just listen to the words, noticing when the mind wanders, and how the words are landing in her or him. Students then switch roles. The exercise is a powerful practice, advancing holistic engagement skills, such as deep, conscious listening; identifying strengths in self and others; building trust; and creating connection across differences.

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