Diversity is a trending topic in almost every industry. But for the field of social work, it’s far more than just a buzzword.
As a social worker, you work with a wide range of people–many of whom are at vulnerable points in their lives. It’s your responsibility to meet your clients where they are and to provide the best possible care.
Everything from race to disability can play a defining role in someone’s life. To do their best work and get the best outcomes, social workers must understand how these identities intersect to affect the lives of their clients.
In this guide, we’ll explore how to incorporate diversity and inclusion in your social work practice.
Understanding Diversity and Inclusion
Over the last decade, more diverse populations Master of Social Work (MSW) graduates have been entering the field. Between 2017 and 2019, nearly 90% of MSW graduates were women. More than 22% were Black or African American and 14% were Hispanic or Latino.1
As the diversity of the social work profession continues to grow, so does its commitment to embracing ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Diversity and inclusion in the field of social work are about how a person’s life is shaped by their identity. More specifically, diversity and inclusion are about how someone’s life is shaped by the broader societal context that gives their identity meaning.
Each client approaches the world differently. Part of that unique experience is influenced by many different facets of their identity. Race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious beliefs, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, English proficiency and more can play a powerful role in someone’s life.
Diverse and inclusive social work isn’t just about recognizing that your clients are different. It’s also about understanding how identity can transform experience. An intersectionality framework, for example, can help you understand how different identities and forms of oppression combine to influence the lived experiences of your clients.
Putting diversity first enables social workers to provide the most personalized, empathetic, and effective care. Whatever the background or life experience of your clients, a social work education that includes a social justice component or focus ensures you’ll have the skills to meet them where they are.
Cultural Competence and Awareness for Social Workers
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), cultural competence is a critical part of providing quality services to all clients, including those who are marginalized or otherwise oppressed.2 In its report, the NASW outlines the two foundational elements of cultural competence:
- Examining your own cultural background or identity
- Seeking out the knowledge and skills you need to serve people with varying cultural experiences
Before they start assessing the experiences of others, social workers must first reflect on how their own worldview might be shaped by their identity. Both privileges and disadvantages can influence the way you interact with others, as well as how they interact with you. Awareness of these subtle power dynamics, as well as the role you play within them, is a critical part of good allyship.
The right education and training can help you better understand these concepts, but learning how to be a culturally competent social worker doesn’t start or end in the classroom. Cultural competence is something that even the most experienced social workers still have to strive for. As you face new challenges and work with new people, it's your responsibility as a social worker to keep learning and growing.
Building an Inclusive Practice
No matter what community you serve, it’s your role to meet the unique needs of your many different clients. That’s why inclusivity should be built into every level of your practice, from the tools you use to how you approach clients.
The best social work practices are flexible and innovative, embracing diversity as an opportunity for improvement. The more you incorporate cultural competence and diversity into your practice, the better you can serve your clients.
Think about ways to show your community that you put diversity first. Even something as simple as using accessible language can go a long way to promote diversity and inclusion. Diverse social work practices can also:
- Partner with diverse stakeholders
- Collaborate with community organizations serving a diverse audience
- Provide accessibility tools for disabled clients
- Create accessible materials in other languages
- Offer multicultural counseling
Collaborative Approach to Addressing Diversity and Inclusion
Remember that you’re not just working for clients, but you’re also working with them. As you focus on diversifying your practice, ensure your clients have a voice in the process. In fact, your clients should be playing the biggest role in their own care.
Inviting individual clients, families, and care teams to the table is just the first step. Working with diverse stakeholders and organizations can give the whole community a voice.
Advocacy for Social Justice and Equity
The National Association of Social Workers defines social work as a practice founded on advocacy, both in and out of the courtroom.3 As a social worker, you must also be an advocate.
This can mean advocating for larger-scale political issues, such as policy changes and adopted legislation. It can also mean pushing for equitable access to resources and services in your industry.
But it can also translate to the work you do with your own clients. As a social worker, you need to understand the barriers your clients face, both personal and systemic. More than that, however, you should be dedicated to helping clients overcome those barriers, uplifting their voices and empowering them to find success in their lives.
Assessing and Addressing Bias in Practice
Everyone carries prejudices and biases, and social workers are no exception. As a social worker, you may encounter situations that challenge your own beliefs and assumptions. These can even trigger unconscious biases, affecting your judgment and decision-making on the job.
Implicit bias is like a blind spot. It’s impossible for you to see it on your own, and yet it’s constantly shaping the way you view the world. If you’re not actively seeking out and challenging these biases within yourself, these subtle prejudices could hold you back in your practice.
It’s important for social workers to incorporate a sense of cultural humility in all of their professional interactions.4 That means letting go of your pride and keeping an open mind as you walk alongside your clients. Your clients are the experts in their own lives—don’t let your preconceived notions define who they are and what they’re capable of.
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- Retrieved on December 5, 2023, from cswe.org/CSWE/media/Workforce-Study/The-Social-Work-Profession-Findings-from-Three-Years-of-Surveys-of-New-Social-Workers-Dec-2020.pdf
- Retrieved on December 5, 2023, from socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx
- Retrieved on December 5, 2023, from socialworkers.org/Advocacy
- Retrieved on December 5, 2023, from socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/what-is-cultural-humility-3-principles-for-social-workers