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A group of PennWest California social work faculty have created the Cultural Humility and Equity Collaborative, an organization that is working to impart the skills of cultural humility to organizations, cities and schools.

CHEC was developed after Dr. Azadeh Block approached fellow PennWest California social work faculty Drs.Sheri Boyle, Marta McClintock-Comeaux and Janice McCall about using their expertise to foster cultural humility within the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion framework.

Cultural humility, as related to DEI, promotes self-reflection to determine what blinders and biases prevent a person’s interaction with other individuals or groups of individuals.

“Dr. Block is the glue. She brought us together,” Boyle said. “She asked if we’d be interested in joining a collaborative. We found that each of us was already doing this individually.”

They work with colleagues Jes Friederichs and Monica Cwynar.

When a group requests a workshop through CHEC, the workshop is tailored to that organization. If a subject matter expert isn’t on the core CHEC team, an outside expert is brought in. Some of the common activities, however, are Identity Pie and Reflective Listening.

Identity pie refers to reflections of people on their own experiences. McClintock-Comeaux gave an example.

“I have a unique experience of being a white person, and part of identity pie is talking about different identities we have that are important to who we are. If we are in a group that has similar identities, we might not realize how that identity impacts our experiences,” she said.

In a recent group setting where close to 100 percent of the participants were white, some people didn’t write down their race as part of their identity pie.

“When people are in a culture or environment that is not diverse, a lot of times their common traits go unnoticed. It can be about race, education level or religion … it can go unnoticed when differences aren’t present. People don’t think of it,” McClintock-Comeaux said.

Reflective listening is the practice of speaking back, in our own words, what a person said. It serves as validation rather than agreeing or disagreeing with what was said. “This is what I heard. Am I on track? If not, please clarify."

“A lot of times we listen to respond rather than to understand,” McClintock-Comeaux said.

Participants experience authentic ways to see and hear each other. These are group processes where participants are offered a safe and structured place to explore controversial topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination and power.

“All of us are social workers, and at the heart of social work is learning how to think through complex social issues,” McClintock-Comeaux said. “Our theoretical and applied training as social workers comes into play.”

“As educators, we are intentional about creating opportunities for difficult discussions,” Boyle said. “Building group trust and connections is achieved with open, honest dialogue.”

Participants can be hesitant to speak up, not wanting to say something wrong or to be offensive. The CHEC team openly owns that hesitation. From the beginning, they acknowledge that participants will make mistakes, but the intent is not to hurt someone’s feelings or say something out of ignorance.

“One of the first things we do in our workshops is to create a safe embrace space and come up with ground rules about how to work together,” Boyle said. “When we start with asking people to ‘tell us your story,’ that can break down the barrier. It begins a learning process.”

The CHEC team itself brings diversity.

“Our team represents different racial, ethnic, socio-economic, faith, geographic and cultural backgrounds,” Boyle said. “Some of us were born and raised in Pittsburgh, affording the group a ‘home grown’ perspective, while others landed in the region and made southwestern Pennsylvania their home.”

The team blends those perspectives, along with their skills and strengths to meet the needs of clients and communities.

“What is consistent across our team is our personal and professional commitment to social justice and social change, as evidenced in our educational pursuits and the work we have done in academia, public schools, policy, mental health, community building, and with individuals, families, and groups,” Boyle said.