Challenge of Cross Cultural Competency in Social Work. Experiences of Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States

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This study evaluates the cultural competency needs in social work education from the perspective of eight social service workers from the Iu-Mien community. The National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) Code of Ethics views the acquisition of cultural competency as an ethical standard. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) mandates the teaching of cultural competency in their guidelines. Lack of cultural competency may hinder social workers’ ability to advocate, help broker resources, and support the strengths of individuals and communities.

The perspective of social workers’ cultural competency from recipients of service or workers from non-dominant groups in the United States has not been researched. Participatory research, which involves collaborative dialogues between the researcher and participant(s), is the methodology for this study. Most Iu-Mien adults, primarily refugees from Laos, have experienced contact with social workers in the United States. Social service workers from the Iu-Mien community have the unique position of having received services and, now, providing them.

This study provides a comprehensive assessment of the social-historical aspects of the Iu-Mien people, cultural competency needs and recommendations for social work education and practice, and the presentation of the development of a qualitative research study.


“Over 10,000 Iu-Mien refugees from Laos made their way from remote mountains of Southeast Asia to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. They were new to the modern United States, and as with all immigrants they were confronted with the dilemma of how to adapt to a new society, while preserving a sense of their own identity. As this book describes, the social work profession is at the forefront in negotiating the dilemma of acculturation in the context of cultural preservation. Well aware of the dilemma of integrating people from lands and cultures very different from the middle-class American culture, the social work profession has long required potential social workers to take classes in “cultural competency.” The purposes of these requirements are to insure that future social workers are aware of cultures they might work with. … as is implied by Schuldberg’s book, immigrants of the future will not be the same as the groups about which facts and histories are being taught to future social workers, teachers, police officers, probation officers, and others who will confront immigrants yet to arrive. The groups, which arrive in the future, will, like the Iu-Mien, be from unexpected places, speak unusual languages, and have unusual customs. Social services of the future will do best by following the advice of Schuldberg’s interviewees, and ask, watch, listen, and observe, before jumping to conclusions. They should be trained to recognize and interpret cues from a culture and society very different than their own. The key conclusion of Schuldberg’s work is not about the Iu-Mien per se, but that cultural competency itself is ultimately about how to ask, watch, listen and observe.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Tony Waters, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico

“In this book Dr. Schuldberg has fashioned a study which vividly takes us into the lived experiences of the Iu-Mien people, who have resettled from Laos and Thailand. We learn of a people whose culture is founded on respect for others, yet they are often subject to the ethnocentric biases of Euro-American social workers. The Iu-Mien social workers in this study served as cultural brokers, allowing the reader to benefit from their experiences as one-time recipients of social services as well as later providers of these services … Through this study, Schuldberg addresses the importance of, and mechanisms through which social workers can gain cultural competency in working with individuals, families, and communities from cultures other than their own. Her insights have implications for social work organizational policies and procedures as well. Through the critical analysis of her participants’ narratives, Schuldberg goes beyond the usual discussions of cultural awareness and assists social workers to make the vital leap to cultural competence … In an increasingly globalized environment of social work practice, this book, emphasizing the extremely important skills of communicating within and across cultural frameworks, is extremely timely and illuminating.” – Joe Dooley,Associate Professor, Social Work Program, Mount Mary College

“This book is a must for any helping professional and critical for any social service worker. Dr. Schuldberg’s study provides a wonderful combination of cultural competence analysis of social services, professional ethics, and participatory research through the lens of each Iu-Mein participant. This study utilizes descriptive experiences to enhance and reinforce the need for more culturally sensitive dialogues among professionals and within the educational setting. …Woven throughout the book are impressive explanations and illustrations of the participatory research process. Easy to read, full of practical advice for any helping professional, this book demonstrates a need for continued review and evaluation of our cultural competence. …Social work educators and students will find this book a wonderful tool to learn more about social work practice, cultural competence, professional ethics, and qualitative research. Anyone working in the helping profession and social service should read this book.” – Celeste A. Jones, Associate Professor and Baccalaureate Program Director, California State University, Chico

"Dr. Schuldberg’s book brings to life the experiences of the Iu-Mien population through the lenses of Iu-Mien social service workers who were both clients and practitioners ... Dr. Schuldberg’s book provides us with a new way of thinking about and reconstructing the way social workers are taught and how to transform curriculum so that cultural competence is gained. There is so much to be learned from philosopher, Paulo Freire, in that both social workers and clients can function as “co-learners” in the process. Her work suggests social workers gaining “technique” in addition to “content” when working with cultural groups and achieving cultural competence. She illustrates that though content is important, it is recommended to also have knowledge of the types of oppression, whether covert or overt, that the Iu-Mien have experienced. Furthermore, through this book, we are encouraged to look at teaching cultural pluralism and challenged to look at the extent “passion” is required of a social worker. Many readers especially those in the education, health and social services professions will find this book a very important guide to review current structures and methods in hopes to inspire a transformation in not only service-delivery but in gaining cultural competence. This research is very valuable because it can also be generalized to working with other populations who have experienced oppression and marginalization. Dr. Schuldberg explored an emerging population that has been under-researched and rarely studied; her work is exemplary." - Dr. Evette J. Castillo, Assistant Dean of Students, San Diego State University

Table of Contents

List of Tables
Preface by Tony Waters
1. Cultural Competency: Social Work in a Culturally Diverse Society
2. A Historical Background of Southeast Asian Refugees
3. Cultural Aspects of the Iu-Mien People
4. Social Work Education: The Training of Extension Agents?
5. Participatory Research: Social Work Values Exemplified
6. The Participants
7. Critical Reflections of the Participants
8. Summary: “Our Pain is Because of Grief”

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