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Developing professional cultural competence: A journey, not a destination


Criminal Justice

The crusade for cultural competence is an ongoing pursuit requiring a culturally aware framework that can reshape how human service practitioners understand and approach trauma-informed interventions. Trauma-informed care (TIC) is gaining ever-broadening acceptance and growth worldwide. Those committed to its continued advancement explicitly must engage in the movement to define and aspire to cultural competence; there are three distinct ways in which TIC intervention demonstrates cultural competence:

  1. An organizational approach to policy and procedures that demonstrate effectiveness and adaptability across a wide range of cultural contexts
  2. A TIC model that supports cultural attunement and an augmented knowledge specific to diverse client cultural populations
  3. The capacity to successfully respond and triage the influences of culturally based trauma

As human service practitioners ultimately strive for cultural effectiveness in our day-to-day, boots-to-the-groundwork, it behooves us to commit to an ongoing process of intentionally understanding and maintaining a culturally conscious approach aligned with our overall goals to serve our community clients, and client’s colleagues best.

Cultural experiences, positive and negative, are fundamental dimensions of every human being’s life, further deepening the need for a culturally aware approach. Trauma, resilience, and well-being are intertwined within social relationships and in one’s cultural group, deep-rooted in cultural values and affiliations, which are robust and supported elements of their lives.

In several cases, those who have grown up in oppressive conditions have experienced significant, often hostile, social stigmatization and discrimination, feeling disregard and exclusion.

While it may seem like common sense, to maximize our effectiveness, we need to embrace their full life experiences, including cultural issues, in order to develop a continuum of competence that is depicted from one extreme to another, including cultural variations of destructiveness, incapacity, competence, cultural proficiency, and cultural blindness.

There are risks of taking a culture-blind approach that includes preconceived and prejudiced stereotypes, which may ultimately influence intervention, recognize their issues, develop empathy, express support, identify culturally sensitive services reporting abuse or neglect, duty to warn, involuntary commitment, and influence discretionary decision making.

Human service practitioners may hold inherent bias within the mental health practice; this culture-blind lens view often sidesteps explicit attention toward cultural issues, further defeating efforts in using the TIC modality, hindering favorable conditions for intervention, support transition, recovery, and growth.

Cultural Competence Core

A cultural competence approach in the field encompasses a broader acceptance among diverse individuals identifying varying customs, beliefs, values, and conventions of racial, ethnic, and religious faiths.

By collaborating with organizations seeking to provide culturally sensitive services to a wide range of people, we can manage the dynamics of difference and adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve. A core competence component involves a consistent combination of internal reflection, cultural humility, and external awareness.

As an advocate for change, cultural humility is a fundamental mindset to approach cultural issues with a natural curiosity to explore one’s own perspectives. It involves life-long self-reflection, responding with flexibility, giving voice to those struggling, desire to fix unjust power imbalances, and fostering multicultural partnerships with those who advocate for others that encompass supporting the diversity of membership and offering culturally attuned and effective services by:

  1. Embracing and practicing cultural competence, diversity, and inclusivity
  2. Develop and sustain cultural diversity of fellowship and all levels of leadership.

Core competency movement

Defining core competencies and other efforts within the field of human services affords a more significant response to define and implement cultural competence and identify how these concepts can be effectively integrated into applying best practice TIC approaches and treatment outcome accountability regardless of cultural dynamics.

The movement challenge is intentionally attracting and engaging diverse members, sharing the power, and accepting that the future will hold a very different climate of cultural demographics in delivering mental health services related to cultural factors and reducing stigma for those seeking care.

By raising awareness of the consequences of trauma through culturally specific strengths and resilience factors, practitioners can mediate and determine traumatic exposure and post-traumatic response for those exposed to hate crimes, community violence, civil unrest, enslavement, societal attitudes, hostility, and actions to particular groups.

A significant momentum toward cultural competence involves self-reflection in attitude, understanding the client’s experience, consistently developing skills, and expanding one’s knowledge by demonstrating a commitment to responsiveness toward these cultural needs, thereby fostering a culturally curious attitude of knowledge and humility that is a foundational component toward a more natural attunement to the client’s cultural world.

Future Forward Cultural Competence

By assessing the norms, values, beliefs, and needs of the culture, the degree to which a client attains these cultural ways varies for them or conflicts with them.

Showing appreciation of the individual’s unique cultural knowledge skills can build rapport and trust. Additional examples of cultural knowledge include fundamental aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication, such as greeting and saying goodbye, using universal or cultural-specific gestures, understanding the meaning of eye contact, handshakes, and norms for self-disclosure.

Human Service practitioners serving diverse and underserved populations have a valuable opportunity to approach TIC with openness and adaptability as a robust framework to understand the beneficial and adverse impact of cultural forces and other social dynamics toward different cultures that can influence, support, and treat the overall effects of social discrimination, culturally-based adverse trauma life experiences.


Within the field of human services, cultural competence in mental health care is a much-needed conversation. As a change agent in the field, cultural adaptability for the response, intervention, triaging, and alleviating of the effects of trauma, including culturally-based trauma, is an ongoing challenge. All human service practitioners must take a transparent look at how they can apply TIC to improve their culturally aware approach, non-biased attitude, and skills and deepen their knowledge of efficacy.

About the Author:

Janina (Wresh) Cich, MA, is a retired Law Enforcement Officer with two decades of Criminal Justice experience and holds the Criminal Justice Department Chair role at Concordia University, St. Paul. Janina is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS). Since 2003, Janina has been a Professor in Criminal Justice, Forensic Mental Health & Trauma, Resilience, and Self-Care topics at local colleges and universities. She has authored many articles and is a frequent lecturer. She also serves as a Board Member on many non-profit organization boards.