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Dr. Ronald Pitner believes that cultural awareness is necessary for social workers, but prefers the term “culturally responsive” to the more common “culturally competent.” “Competent,” he explains, implies that there’s an end in sight, or a level to reach, and then cultural learning ends. In fact, when engaging with culture, “you’re always on, responding to something.”

Pitner teaches SOWK 714, a new course he has co-designed for MSW students. The course builds from the content of SOWK 333: Social Work with Diverse and Oppressed Populations, a required undergraduate course which Pitner created with Dr. Susan Parlier. Pitner undertook research to determine whether learning about diversity was more effective via a dedicated course or spread across the curriculum. “We found that one single course on diversity and social justice increased MSW-level social work students’ level of cultural responsiveness significantly more than curricular infusion of such content.”

“Diversity is something that we see and that we perceive,” he explains. Too often, we stop at “seeing” and miss the crucial work of analyzing how our identities influence our perceptions of others and ourselves. “Seeing” diversity entails acknowledging the seemingly obvious, visible markers of identity, like race or gender. Approaching diversity in this way is what Pitner calls the “cookbook model,” in which there’s a section on each “type.” “You look up the recipe for ‘Native American,’ and then you’re supposed to be knowledgeable—and by extension, culturally competent,” he says. But “the power of diversity is really in how you perceive,” he insists. “Your perception of what it means to be African-American or female influences what you see,” so to attend only to “seeing” diversity means to do so poorly.

As an instructor, Pitner remains vigilant about not settling into a comfort zone of merely “seeing.” While it would be easier for both himself and his students, it doesn’t challenge any perceptions or biases. SOWK 714 “is focused on what you see, but also these perceptions and biases you may have about difference and about your own identities.”

diversity inclusionDiversity and inclusion can be tricky topics, so Pitner begins each semester by establishing ground rules for class discussion. He has a short list prepared and invites students to add as many additional ground rules for discussion as they feel are necessary. He revisits these ground rules throughout the semester, just to check-in to see if students are abiding by the rules they have agreed upon or if additional ones need to be added.

Early on in the semester, Pitner facilitates a reflective exercise that prepares students for the material that follows. Students jot down a list of their own multiple identity categories (gender, sex, race, etc.) and are then faced with the difficult task of thinking about the status connotations of those categories. Pitner provides the following example: “If you label yourself as being female, then what are your perceptions of how society privileges or oppresses you on the basis of that identity?” This can be particularly challenging for students who have never considered their own privileged or oppressed statuses before. A female student may feel very empowered generally, Pitner explains, but when challenged to contend with a female peer who feels oppressed, she must step back and think critically about how dominant ways of thinking may still color the lens she’s looking through.

This class exercise later expands into a paper analyzing students’ own multiple identities, how those identities intersect, and how they perceive that society privileges or oppresses those different identities. This kind of deeply personal work is a key component of studying diversity and inclusion because, as Pitner explains that in order for social workers to “truly meet the client where they are,” they must first examine critically how their own perceptions, biases, and cultural worldviews shape where they think the client “should be.” Pausing to think and reflect this way is true cultural responsivity, and it’s something that all social workers should strive for.

Students can learn about diversity and social justice in Pitner’s classroom, but the class only sets the stage for an ongoing learning process. Pitner hopes that his students become more aware of how their multiple identities intersect and shape their views of diversity, because “being culturally responsive as a social worker is learning how your own worldview might influence how you see and perceive the client.” The course is “about critical awareness, but when students leave, I tell them, it’s a process that’s never-ending,” says Pitner. Valuing diversity is more than a course learning outcome—for social workers, it’s a lifelong journey toward critical consciousness.

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