Apna Ghar (Our Home) – The Importance of Cultural Humility

While low income, minority, and immigrant survivors are among those most in need of governmental support and services, including domestic violence services, these groups are chronically underserved
United Nations Special Report on Domestic Violence in the US

This week, as part of my research for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust UK, I have had the honour of visiting Apna Ghar (Our Home), an organisation which provides holistic services and conducts advocacy across immigrant communities to end gender violence. Having been around for over 25 years, Apna Ghar’s success sees the organisation expanding, despite cutbacks to Illinois’ social services sector.

Apna Ghar will be featured in more detail in my upcoming report. For now, I am interested in exploring one of the defining features of their approach to working with immigrant communities, and one of the main things I have taken away from my time with them; the practice of cultural humility.

Cultural Humility vs. Cultural Sensitivity

If we look to Wikipedia, we can understand cultural humility as “the ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person]”. In other words, it means that when communicating with people, we are open to the differences and identities that are important them.

In its reference to openness and self-awareness, ‘cultural humility’ is different therefore (but not entirely unrelated) to ‘cultural sensitivity‘, which “is a set of skills that enables you to learn about and get to know people who are different from you, thereby coming to understand how to serve them better within their own communities”.

Whilst Apna Ghar describe their work using both terms, Fatimah Abioye (Supervised Visitation and Supervised Exchange Facilitator at Apna Ghar), raised an interesting point when discussing the importance of cultural humility in her work, in that it recognises that whilst we cannot fully know about all cultures, we can make efforts towards being aware of cultural differences and specificities.

For me, this is vital, as I would argue that by acknowledging the limits of what we know, we can remain mindful and truly open to other cultures, and learn as part of an ongoing process, rather than being guided by what we think we know. In doing so, we can build on cultural sensitivities, and continue to better ourselves, both personally and professionally.

Barriers to Service Access

“It is not enough to just offer services. They must be tailored towards different languages, religions, and cultures, and there must be an understanding of how language barriers might affect an immigrant woman experiencing domestic violence.” Abioye’s reference here to the challenges faced by immigrant communities in accessing services is key, and certainly, extends beyond language. As referenced by Apna Ghar in their most recent annual report, such barriers can include isolation, fear and restrictive immigration laws.

For Apna Ghar, it is their understanding of how these barriers manifest, and the importance of cultural humility in the face of such intersectional struggles, which defines their uniqueness as an organisation. As explained by Neha Gill (Executive Director), when Apna Ghar was founded in the late 1980s, social services in Chicago were not able to respond in a culturally, linguistically, or legally sensitive manner to immigrants. As a result, five local Asian American women came together to address this gap, and set up one of the first agencies in the United States dedicated to tackling the cultural and linguistic barriers that prevent immigrant victims of gender violence from reaching out for help. Fast forward to the present day, and Apna Ghar continues to be seen as a leader in their field.

Putting Cultural Humility into Practice

Having spoken to members of Apna Ghar’s Legal Advocacy, Supervised Visitation, and administrative teams, in addition to the Executive Director, Outreach and Education Manager, Shelter Manager, and Counselling staff, I was impressed with the way in which cultural humility seems to be an approach which is threaded throughout the organisation.

Below, are some of the tips for best practice that I was able to gather during my short stint with Apna Ghar:

Apna Ghar Counselling Room

Apna Ghar Counselling Room

  1. Always check your biases
    As explored with Radhika Sharma, Outreach and Education Manager.

    Example Issue: Do you have preconceptions about certain ethnic groups? Sometimes these can be subconscious, resulting from years of exposure to racial stereotypes.Solution: Take a step back. Reflect. Just being aware of your biases is enough to effect change in yourself.

  2. Engage with compassion and purpose
    By Tiffany San Jose, Manager of Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange

    Example Issue: A client is being unduly angry towards you.

    Solution: Ensure all interactions with clients are based on respect and dignity. Rather than meeting anger with defensiveness or aggression, bring warmth, compassion and purpose into the way you communicate.

  1. Be truly client-centred
    As discussed with Neha Gill, Executive Director.

    Example Issue: Claiming to be client-centred but, well, not being. I’m thinking here of the organisations which say their clients have direct input into the services they are part of, but where this consists of choosing an activity from a predetermined list (not naming any names). Or the statement too often made in front of immigrants trying to navigate their way through a new system; “oh, they don’t speak English”.

    Solution: Let your services be driven by design. Be issue focused, and community based.For Apna Ghar, this takes the form of ensuring services are available in more than one language, or at least, that there is access to a translator. It means that at their emergency shelter, there is a kitchen which encourages women to cook their own food; allowing for cultural significance to be respected, and halal, vegetarian and meat requirements to be observed. It also governs the very tools Apna Ghar uses with clients, from language to materials. Currently, they are conducting research to find out more about the terminologies used surrounding gender violence in the education sector. The aim? To ensure their outreach work remains relevant and addresses current trends and shifting attitudes. By incorporating artwork into their counselling, Apna Ghar reveal yet another way in which client-centredness and cultural humility can be practiced. Not only does art transcend language barriers, but as explained by Meg Boyle (Children’s Counsellor and Advocate), it is also an intimate process which challenges power structures, in that the service provider can join the client in the intimate process of creating something. For Meg, the very materials she uses in her work must be reflective of a client’s needs. For instance, what do certain fabrics mean in their culture? Which would be more suitable to their temperament – fluid paints or structured pens?

Apna Ghar Counselling Fabrics

Apna Ghar Counselling Fabrics

Whilst it may seem simple, and somewhat obvious, that the very services which seek to serve immigrant communities be determined by, and sensitive to, their target group, I do feel it bears emphasising.

Luckily, Apna Ghar are not alone in their successful client-centred approach, and it is something I have seen mirrored in the work of several organisations I have connected with during the course of my fellowship.

I am looking forward to showcasing their work further, but for now, I hope that the lessons we can take from Apna Ghar are valuable, and may give pause for thought for all who read this post.

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