Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Engaging Difference - Reflections From USP's Social Work Coordinator

There is a social work academic core competence that sets the goal to “Engage diversity and difference in practice.” It’s further unpacked in these practice behaviors:
        recognize the extent to which a culture’s structures and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power;
        gain sufficient self-awareness to eliminate the influence of personal biases and values in working with diverse groups;
        recognize and communicate their understanding of the importance of difference in shaping life experiences; and
        view themselves as learners and engage those with whom they work as informants.

The Uganda Studies Program is marked by a pedagogy of praxis. We talk frequently about translating theory to practice, especially when it comes to student’s field education. Students often come to USP being able to recite these academic principles, but putting them in to practice is where the critical, exciting, and deeper learning takes place at USP. 

“I lived for a month in Honduras so I assumed that I had this figured out” is a comment I recently heard from a student. Part of cultural humility, another guiding concept that we use, is the understanding that we never really “have it figured out.” Engaging diversity and difference is HARD. It takes work. It requires a humility that often is not in our nature; so much so that when we aren’t practicing these principles, it can go largely unnoticed by the sympathetic crowd around us. But it seems that the stakes have never been higher in our society to grasp these core concepts of engaging in difference well, and being able to practice them in the communities where we live and work. 

How do we start building these formative experiences for students and ourselves? These are some features that have emerged from USP’s Social Work Emphasis:

The “we” and the “I”A place to start in this process is to recognize the importance of difference and the richness of diversity within our communities. There is a risk in speaking of unity as if distinctions are unimportant. African-American theologian, Ruby Sales explains well the need for unity and difference: “…we live in a very diverse world, to talk about what it means to be humans is to talk with a simultaneous tongue of universality and particularities. I need to talk about my experience as an African American but also about my experience that transcends the universality of humanity. We have to stop talking about humanity as if it’s monolithic, we’ve got to wrap our consciousness around a world where people bring to the world vastly different histories and experiences but at the same time a world that experiences grief, and love, in some of the same ways.  We need to develop theologies that join together the “I” with the “we”, and “we” with the “I”.”

The tension is real.  Our student’s thoughts, assumptions and ways of interacting in the world have been formed by an individualized culture. They live and work for 4 months with others who have been formed from a communal culture. This is perhaps one of the most significant differences that can cause confusion and conflict. “My roommate used my comb again!” and similar sentiments are often heard from students within the first few weeks of living in the dorms. “People kept stopping by the office and talking, I hardly got any work done!” is almost always a frustration among students who come from a culture that places productivity above just about anything else. To start to engage in these differences we have to acknowledge that they can be hard, uncomfortable, and require supportive environments to process through the differences with people further down the road.

Living in to the answers through relationships.  Understanding these, and many other differences, requires time and relationships with people to help us along the way. At USP we call these people our “monks” along this pilgrimage. What are the differences and how do I interact within those differences? These are questions that cannot be answered fully within the parameters of a semester, but can be explored in depth during intentional relationships with “the other”.

Providing opportunities to practice…and make mistakes. I will often say to students that their USP social work education began before they ever touched Ugandan soil. The lessons, particularly within the competency of engaging in diversity, extend well beyond their placements. Students live with Ugandan roommates and host families throughout the semester, in both rural and urban settings. They join choirs, sports teams and clubs where they are pushed to engage with students who have vastly different worldviews, and then process their experiences through classes and discussions. These are all opportunities to practice using their “cross-cultural muscles” in a context of learning and grace for a process made up of lots of small decisions. I love when students share their experiences of stepping outside their comfort zones and trying to speak a few words in Luganda, the local language, and having clients or coworkers shout with excitement at their small attempts at engagement and connection. Or when a student shows their effort to value what Ugandans value by keeping their muddy shoes clean and dressing “smart” – walls of difference break down as students embrace a different way.

Modeling the process.  USP staff live and work at Uganda Christian University within a very diverse staff. We are on our own learning curve with engaging difference and diversity. The experiences may not look exactly the same as students, but the need is even greater to strive to engage in diversity respectfully and with increasing self-awareness. One significant development in the Social Work Emphasis is our relationship with the UCU’s Social Work and Social Administration Department (SWSA). We are working towards joint placements where a USP student will be placed at a site along with a UCU SWSA student. We are also holding cross-cultural social work meetings where Ugandan and North American students have the opportunity to ask questions of one another, learning about “difference and diversity in practice.” 

Mr. Kasule, the head of the SWSA department here at UCU, and I are learning from each other in the process – trading ideas and getting feedback from one another from our different backgrounds and experiences. Together we are navigating how cultural difference shape practice and our teaching. As it is with students, my journey with Ugandan supervisors, faculty, and coworkers can be hard and different than what I may have expected. It requires the inner work of growing in humility and patience.  Even in the missteps and miscommunications, there is growth. And it is always worth it.

There is much that the next generation of social workers can contribute to our societies. But perhaps nothing more valuable than a respect for difference and a uniting of diverse communities marked by mistrust and miscommunication. We are in need of social workers who use their voices to advocate for peace in communities, understanding that it requires the building of relationships marked by time, hard work, and grace. Henry Nouwen says, “Confrontation always includes self-confrontation” -- We need humble leaders who have asked, and continue asking, the hard questions of themselves about their own prejudices, privilege and power and how that impacts the work of peace. We need future professionals who remember the benefits of their hard relationships during a semester studying in Uganda, and as a result, have built the tenacity to see the peace process through, even when it’s frustrating and we don’t understand one another. It’s why we ask students, “why was that so frustrating that she used your comb?” Because it’s not about the comb at all…it’s about building leaders that we are so desperate for.


UCU student Joshua, and USP student Kendra, discuss social work differences between Uganda and North America
Audrey with her Mukono host family
Lisa Tokpa, USP Social Work Coordinator, and Kasule Kibirige, head of the
UCU Social Work and Social Administration Department. 

USP SWE students with their field supervisors

This semester, we have four students in USP’s Social Work Emphasis. Each of these students is interning at a local organization where they are getting hands-on experience and are being supervised by Ugandan social workers. These students also participate in a weekly seminar class that is facilitated by USP’s Social Work Coordinator, Lisa Tokpa, MSW.

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