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Study in Ghana Expands Opportunities for Cross Cultural Understanding in Social Work Policy and Prac
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Study in Ghana Expands Opportunities for Cross Cultural Understanding in Social Work Policy and Practice
Lessons for Working with West African Immigrant Families

Athena B. Moore, MS, Associate Executive Director, NASW-NYC

May 2008


Students and faculty participating in the New York Social Work Education Consortium Immigrant Child Welfare Fellowship Project recently returned from an intercession study abroad tutorial in Ghana, West Africa.

The Project, a major collaboration between the metropolitan schools of social work and the Administration for Children’s Services, enrolls high-performing MSW students who are committed to practicing in the field of child welfare with immigrant families after graduation.

Through a combination of specialized classes and field work, participants in the study abroad examined the history, institutions, people, cultures, immigration trends and contemporary social problems impacting families in Ghana in an effort to increase knowledge and understanding of West African families, one of the fastest growing groups immigrating to New York City.

Representatives from the Black Agency Executives, a professional membership association that advocates culturally competent policy and program development, also participated in the tutorial. Association representatives Diane Heggie, Associate Executive Director, Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies; Melba Butler, Interim President & CEO of the Black Equity Alliance; and Athena Moore, Associate Executive Director of the NYC Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers joined consortium faculty Professors Julie Altman from Adelphi, Jean Bacon, Stony Brook, and Kathleen Durst, NYU Field Instructor, in providing individualized teaching and mentoring to the Fellows as they examined the applicability of what they were learning to their practice with immigrant families in New York City.

During the ten-day trip, Project fellows spent a portion of their time in class, learning from faculty of the University of Ghana about the structure of social welfare and services for children and families in Ghana, and volunteering in child and family serving agencies. Additional experiences included guided tours of the Dutch and Portuguese Slave Castles, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, the W.E.B. Dubois Educational Center, and participation in an interdenominational church service. With funding from the New York Community Trust, Dr. Alma J. Carten, Associate Professor and Principal Investigator of the project at the NYU Silver School of Social Work and Tandayi Jones, Project Communications Coordinator, planned the program in consultation with faculty and staff of NYU in Ghana. Akosua Anyidoho, Director; Christa Sanders, Associate Director; and Anthoniette Taylor, Faculty Affairs and Special Programs Coordinator.

Currently, Project Fellows are completing internships in Community School 133, Harlem Hospital Medical Center, and the ACS Manhattan Field Office, helping new immigrant families from Mexico, Latin/Central America, and West African countries, cope with stressors associated with the immigration experience to keep children safe, healthy, and successful in school. The tutorial was an extension of the field practicum, and gave Fellows hands-on experiences to enhance their understanding of the immigrant families with whom they are working in their agencies.

The tutorial provided an exceptional opportunity for the integration of class and fieldwork, and for the teaching of diversity and social justice content. This was illustrated in the Fellow’s Capstone Project, a colloquium held at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in February 2008. Dr. Awam Amkpa, Academic Director of NYU in Ghana addressed the group, painting the broad picture of the political, economic and social context for social welfare in Ghana. Field instructors Kathleen Durst and Ian Ong led social work Fellows from New York University, Fordham, Yeshiva, and Stony Brook in a panel discussion, which revealed a number of positive outcomes that resulted from the experience. For example, Fellows reported they were able to more critically examine the limitations of practice theories based in a Western model for understanding behavior when working with immigrant families, and developed a new sensitivity to personal values and socialization experiences that can bias worker assessments and preferences in the choice of practice interventions.

An illustration of this can be quickly observed in three areas: the high value placed on including community elders in decision-making, the reliance on extended family networks and the use of cultural traditions (e.g., rituals, storytelling, proverbs or music), elements that can support and ease interventions with immigrant families, but that are often absent from US practices.

Many of the elder men and women in African societies, often referred to as Chiefs and Queen mothers, are held in the highest regard. They assume the role of traditional rulers and help to maintain a sense of order and authority in communities. Whether among more formal settings such as the Police Department or government institutions such as the administrative offices of the Department of Social Welfare, or within schools and family homes in local villages, this reverence for the elders was ever present as a guiding force.

The use of traditional or indigenous religious practices and spirituality, which are also major forces in socialization and role delineation among African families, often are discounted factors in worker assessments and interventions in the US. For example, the practice of using rituals to honor African ancestors and to seek guidance in family life is commonly used and regarded with higher authority than the counseling offered to immigrant families by some agencies.

Some of the simplest gestures commonly used in daily social and business interactions in the US are the polar opposite of those employed by African immigrants, from handshakes and gift giving, to how people are greeted at meetings or social gatherings. For example, a US social worker might cross his or her legs in the presence of someone of importance, point at a person with their left hand, decline a gift or an offering of food from a client, or refer to an elder by his or her first name, without any concern. Among African immigrants, however, these would all be considered disrespectful and might diminish opportunities for client engagement. In the US, best practice theories also often advocate setting boundaries and keeping distance between workers and clients, while, in African cultures, gift giving, food sharing and other gestures of hospitality are highly valued. There is also a strong communal focus and a highly regarded belief in collective responsibility among West African immigrant communities. This is an orientation that is very different than the individualism in western practices in the U.S. Social work practice which integrates communal philosophies and community-based approaches in service delivery will likely be more effective in helping practitioners serve clients from West Africa.

Volunteering at the Osu Children’s Orphanage was especially meaningful for the Fellows. Some are translating concerns about resource gaps into activism by developing an ongoing mechanism for sending much needed supplies to the Orphanage. Others are considering ways for designing innovative programs that integrate customs of the native culture of immigrant families. For example, they have been exploring ways in which African values that foster strong kinship bonds, communal relationships, and respect for elders can be integrated into their work with immigrant youth. Many of these youth face additional challenges in resolving transitional tasks of adolescence. In addition they are examining ways that these values can be incorporated into counseling services that help families resolve conflicts before they escalate into more serious problems of domestic violence.

A recent forum, Sankofa - Culturally Competent Social Work Policy and Practice: Lessons Learned in Working with West African Immigrant Families in Child Welfare, cosponsored by NASW-NYC, Black Agency Executives, Black Equity Alliance and Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies was convened at the United Way of NYC on April 8, 2008 and provided another opportunity to share findings with social work and human service agency leaders.

Among those highlighted included the recognition that West African immigrants have endured very complex and changing economic, social and political conditions in their home countries. Upon coming to the US, they carry the history and traditions of communities mired by years of oppression, political struggle and economic deprivation alongside a great sense of pride and responsibility towards retaining their cultural identity and independence. Similarly, West African immigrants are constantly seeking ways to reinvent themselves and to relocate comfortably in their new environments, while simultaneously managing some of the trauma and sense of loss they inevitably experience as they leave behind their homes, supports and familial connections. For some, the effects of the migration experience may materialize in the form grief, depression, and isolation, and if unaddressed, may increase opportunities for mental illness, domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, joblessness and other social ills over time.

Another major area of learning centered around the vast diversity of languages and cultural ethnicities within West Africa which have implications for social work practice. Working with West African immigrants requires sensitivity to the differences of those coming from the northern or southern regions, urban areas vs. rural areas, those who live inland or by water, as well as someone who speaks Ewe, Ga or Twi, three native languages belonging to different ethnic groups. In the US, practitioners must continue to be sensitized to the risks of treating Africans as a homogenous group and ignoring the unique needs that accompany each group. Formulating questions that seek to deepen understanding of these nuances in early assessments is essential.

Accordingly, there are many assumptions made and values placed on the educational history, backgrounds and capabilities of African immigrant groups who are encountered by social work practitioners in the US, and these assumptions impact the level of treatment that they receive as well as the types of service referrals made. Many West African immigrants have been educated through informal learning structures (e.g., a rich oral tradition of storytelling passed down through the generations) and the formal education structures (e.g. traditional schools). As a result, they bring to the US ongoing struggles – one rooted in the need to excel in the traditional settings and the other with an eye towards resisting years of colonial subordination and oppression, historical traces of which can still be found in the modern day institutions affecting their lives.

These struggles are further exacerbated as families seek to navigate differences between first generation immigrant parents and their second generation, American educated children whose processes of assimilation and acculturation take on different forms, often with major implications for child rearing. For example, U.S. practitioners may characterize parental efforts to get their children to respect long held cultural traditions as being limiting or punitive, but for some parents it is akin to a matter of life and death in their minds. In addition, heavy reliance on extended kinship networks for child rearing and the use of children as domestic workers may be practiced in some West African households, but in the US, these practices might raise questions about risk of abuse or neglect.

Practitioners in the US are challenged to respond to the critical needs of families while at the same time avoiding a rush to judgment on complex issues, which if misunderstood, could lead to the unnecessary disintegration of families. Many of these families may solely require special counseling and supports to help them adjust to the norms and rules required for them to effectively operate in their new environments.

Learning about the economic conditions of the country also clarified and helped to dispel many of the myths that are held about West African families. For many, Africa is viewed as a largely economically deprived nation, and it is often assumed that its citizens are impoverished. While there is enormous poverty, there are also areas of great wealth. Unfortunately, few in the U.S. are seemingly aware of this and perceptions of Africans in the U.S. are sometimes shaped through limited contacts with those who are most visibly seen in occupations such as cab drivers and street vendors. It was clarified that while many African immigrants who make it to the U.S. are well educated and highly skilled, often holding comparable credentials to their counterparts here, they are at times treated insensitively when moving through social service systems despite their advanced status. Practitioners in the U.S. who recognize and are able to factor this in as they are working with West Immigrant African families, will likely yield a better result in planning appropriate interventions and treatment plans. In addition, those who take the time to learn more about the complex educational, economic, political and social factors shaping clients lives and the ties they maintain to the customs and norms of their home countries, will have greater success in fostering communications.

The resilience and strengths of West African families as well as of the social work workforce there were apparent throughout Ghana. Despite enormous shortages of staff, poor working conditions, and limited resources (e.g., child caring caseloads double U.S. rates, two staff overseeing an entire district, and antiquated record keeping systems found at the orphanage and department of social welfare), the dedication and enormous contributions of the social work staff could not be denied. The sense of determination to succeed and to provide critical services for those in need, despite the odds, was apparent throughout. Whether passing groups of mothers journeying miles to obtain needed water for their villages while carrying their children on their backs or the unrelenting local vendors exchanging goods from sun up to sun down only to make a parcel of the earnings they deserved, one could not help but to be touched by the spirit of resilience surrounding them. It is the hope that this study abroad in Ghana will promote best practices for culturally competent social work practice and help current and future practitioners work more effectively with diverse immigrant populations in child welfare and other human service settings.

This article incorporates excerpts of a description of the study abroad which has been reprinted with permission and can be found at NYU Silver School of Social Work website


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