The nation we live in is comprised of many different kinds of people with different kinds of cultures. In a society that is dominated by a system designed to perpetuate white privilege this then leads to the subjugation of certain cultures that do not adhere to the dominant white culture. This subjugation can lead to conflicts that arise when an oppressed population goes unheard. Becoming aware of this and trying to actively disrupt and challenge this system is immensely difficult (Xiong, 2017). There are, however organizations that are trying to push back against this system that continues to create vast inequalities.
One such organization that is trying to do something about these inequalities is Operation Fresh Start (OFS). I will be analyzing this organization’s policies and practices about cultural competency based on interviews I conducted with staff who are currently working at OFS. I will then offer ideas on where improvement can be made by the organization to better provide a more culturally competent environment. Operation Fresh Start (OFS) is a non-profit organization that has been in the Madison area for the past 47 years.
Their goal is to provide disconnected youth a path towards greater self-sufficiency. Disconnected youth is defined as “teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working or in school” (Measure of America, 2017). Another goal is also to try to address issues the “Race to Equity Report” found in Dane County, namely the achievement disparities between African-American and White individuals. A main component of OFS is the Pathways program which is what I will be focusing on in this paper. Pathways is a program that combines job and education skills training.
The participants are able to receive their high school diploma while also gaining significant skills in either construction or conservation. This serves as the catalyst for the participants to change and grow in a positive direction. OFS tries to offer a comprehensive approach that offers a variety of services like free breakfast and lunch, health screenings, assistance with housing, financial literacy and case management. The case management team is made up of staff from the education department, the transitions department and the participant’s site supervisor.
Translation services appear to not exist, but this a reflection of the fact that the participants all speak English. During conversations with my supervisor, it was mentioned that certain accommodations for a hearing impaired individual was made to make sure safety rules were followed on the work site. Cultural competence is “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds…and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals…and protects and preserves the dignity of each” (NASW, 2015, p. 3).
I briefly want to clarify that my choice of using cultural competence does not mean I suggest there is any level of learned mastery about another’s culture or that is what OFS tries to do with their participants. The interviews that I conducted revealed distinct differences in opinion about the level of cultural competency present in the workplace. A recent issue that occurred between a participant and site supervisor further revealed the differences in opinion amongst staff. OFS provides a handbook to the participants when they start and to all employees outlining discrimination and harassment.
There was no specific definition or language about cultural competence. OFS is subject to federal laws and therefore subject to serious penalties if they are found to be acting in a discriminatory manner. It should be noted that while OFS is an equal opportunity employer, there is still the potential to unintentionally act in discriminatory ways. Staff can lack the awareness that their actions or words may impact the participants in a way that can be invalidating towards their experiences or feelings. If this occurs and it has it creates an environment where the participants do not feel comfortable expressing themselves or talking with staff.
This is troubling because OFS is supposed to be helping the participants achieve their goals through better understanding the participant. Instead it is leaving participants feeling they are not understood or heard. Part of trying to better understand each participant is having the space to sit down and converse about their lives. The participants are at an already difficult age that is further complicated by the many outside life stresses they face and the current building OFS occupies offers little privacy.
It becomes complicated trying to provide therapeutic services when other staff or participants can unintentionally intrude. The staff at OFS is predominantly white which is not representative of the participants currently at OFS. This is a fact my supervisor is aware of and has been trying to find ways to have an increasingly diverse and representative staff. One problem is finding the type of individual who is willing and able to do the work required to help the participants. Finding a supervisor that has the technical skills and ability to work with young people who have never had a job before coming to OFS is tricky.
Money is always an issue for non-profits so being able to offer competitive salaries hinders the ability to hire. The site supervisors come from two industries that are white and male dominated. Participants may have no issue with this, but it is also important to be able to teach the participants the skills to identify the source of their frustrations when conflict arises with their site supervisors. OFS does not specifically focus on the potential problems associated with race.
For example, African-American male participants working under a white male supervisor and the intersection of these identities are important to understand for everyone involved. Otherwise it can allow individuals to disregard the importance and effect race has on any interactions the participants may have (Intersectionality, 2017). OFS offers a unique program that has a significant work component that can exclude individuals physically unable to perform required duties. The participants at OFS benefit from increasing amounts of time with staff because it allows a genuine helping relationship to develop.
It also allows the participant to realize the welcoming and inclusive environment OFS hopes to offer each participant. Unfortunately this was not the case for one participant. A requirement of the work participants do is having personal protective equipment that is secure. This participant had hair that prevented their personal protective equipment from being secure. The site supervisor having many years in the trades looked at this issue from a safety perspective. The perspective the supervisor utilized overlooked the importance this participant placed in their hair.
The benefit of this situation was that it brought to the forefront issues that needed to be addressed going forward. Analyzing OFS where I currently intern at is slightly uncomfortable process because it can feel accusatory. I also do not want to ignore problems that have arisen because saying nothing makes me complacent in the process. If OFS desires to help the young adults that come through their doors serious awareness raising and reflection about current practices is needed. That is why I think that the level of cultural competency at OFS is low.
There are staff members that feel it is nonexistent and there are others that believe it is just fine. This split I think reveals an underlying philosophy that the participant will come around eventually. The mentality that “this is the way we have always done things” creates an environment where dissenting opinions are silenced. This affects both participants and staff in the kinds of work they are able to do while at OFS. I see the positivity and hope for something better when interning at OFS so I want to believe changes can be made to improve cultural competency levels.
One change I think that needs to happen quickly is getting all staff to focus on meeting the participant where they are currently at in their lives. Instead of expecting participants to figure things out and learn what is only one way of doing things in life. Focusing on nurturing and encouraging the participants to believe in their own self-worth regardless of information they are receiving outside of OFS. I also think that because OFS is undergoing considerable growth and change has created a situation where very unintentionally certain topics like race are ignored.
Considerable time and energy is being spent looking forward to the future and the present participants can and will suffer because of this. I would suggest that after the upcoming all staff training that will be used to discuss some of these recent issues, staff seriously need to question what OFS’s purpose is. If OFS is still about helping these young adults become well rounded individuals able to succeed in life or do they want to make good workers. Social justice is a large component of social work.
The participants at OFS live in a community where educational outcomes and job opportunities are much lower for minority individuals. Knowing this I think it is important to teach the participants the interpersonal skills to be able to articulate their experiences. OFS should be about providing a safe space that allows this learning to occur. I also think that active bias checking should become a practice that everyone at OFS does in order to increase awareness about their actions and the impact it can have on participants and staff.
I believe by increasing awareness and communication skills it can advance the social justice component OFS has built into their organization. I believe working with the more change resistant staff at OFS to understand better their point of view in a nonjudgmental way to hopefully bring to their awareness the impact their actions are having on the participants. Nothing happens without a willingness to change and it appears the desire to improve the climate at OFS has become a priority.