How Cultural Humility Can Bridge Gaps Between Volunteers and Communities They Serve

More than 1 million Americans volunteered abroad annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering their time and skills with the hope of improving living conditions in communities across the globe. Although international service often stems from good intentions, it can sometimes result in oppressive actions toward the host community — such as volunteers making decisions without community input or taking over leadership roles that should be held by local residents — and ultimately cause harm.

Approaching new communities with cultural humility can help strengthen authentic relationships between volunteers and communities they serve — internationally and domestically — and lead to more successful volunteer-based projects. Cultural humility provides a lens that can help volunteers disrupt legacies of racism and white supremacy as they view their community partners as true experts in their own context.

“Humility is when you look at me, you see the face of God, and when I look at you, I see the face of God. Do we really see the level of equality and divinity there actually is in each of us when we look at each other?”

“There is something about beholding the brilliance in front of you,” said Jennifer Smyer Dickey, PhD, LMSW, director of Baylor’s Global Mission Leadership (GML) Initiative. “Each person has so much capacity, insight, problem solving strategies, resilience, capabilities. [Figure] out how to respect and honor that, and see what happens if we have that perspective.”

Dickey partnered with Kenyan researcher Rosemary Wasike to study Kenyans’ experiences with international volunteers. This article uses examples from Kenya to illustrate how volunteers can practice cultural humility and avoid reinforcing systems of oppression when serving communities that are not their own. Read on to learn more about cultural humility and how to put it into practice.

What Is Cultural Humility?

Cultural humility was originally defined in the late 1990s by physicians Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-García. Although the concept was coined in a medical context, cultural humility can be applied beyond medical settings, including in volunteer relationships and anywhere there is a clear power dynamic between individuals from different backgrounds. 

“Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations,” Tervalon and Murray-García’s research reads. 

Approaching an individual or community from a place of cultural humility goes beyond cultural competence or building the knowledge to interact with people from different backgrounds.

“It’s the commitment to rebalance power differentials,” Dickey said. “It’s the commitment to keep accountability and systems in check that can be oppressive in nature, or can be bent toward one way of doing things and against another way of doing things.” 

What cultural humility is:

acknowledging you don’t know everything and being open to the expertise of others. 

What cultural humility is not:

saying you know nothing about a community or its needs when you have some knowledge. 

“What does it look like to acknowledge I don’t know all, and lean into what you know?” Dickey said. “Humility is acknowledging there’s a lot of gaps in what I know, and there’s a lot of knowing you have.” 

A senior tribesman from a rural area in Kenya described how he perceived cultural humility during interviews for Dickey’s research exploring Kenyans’ perceptions of international volunteers:

“Humility is when you look at me, you see the face of God, and when I look at you, I see the face of God,” they said. “Do we really see the level of equality and divinity there actually is in each of us when we look at each other?”

Why Cultural Humility Is Important for Volunteers

Cultural humility helps build authentic relationships between volunteers and their host communities. The mindset allows the volunteer to grow while also offering their skills and expertise to a community, Dickey said. Without cultural humility, international volunteers might miss the “gifts” that a country or community has to offer. But volunteers who approach a community by looking for what they can learn will often find more enrichment in the experience.

“There’s potential in what can happen between two people [who] really function from mutual giving and receiving,” Dickey said. 

Practicing cultural humility also allows volunteers to help dismantle oppressive systems.

“What’s true is that the people in this context or culture are experts.”

“Whether it was your intention or not, someone in the history of the community has likely been oppressive, so you can be a part of reclaiming what is truth,” Dickey said. “What’s true is that the people in this context or culture are experts.”

Although volunteers may understand the concept of cultural humility and enter a space with good intentions, there is still room for error. In Dickey’s research on Kenya, for example, community members reported feeling that international volunteers saw themselves as superior to their Kenyan counterparts and held positions of power while Kenyans were relegated to cursory roles. In some cases, projects failed because Kenyan community leaders were not empowered to hold lasting and meaningful roles before volunteers left.

Volunteers can take the following steps to avoid causing harm in a new community:

  • Listen to and apply the expertise of community members, and engage in true collaboration to develop and execute projects to show that locals are the experts in that context.
  • Check how much authority and power you are given. Consider whether you would let someone from outside your community take on the same responsibility if roles were reversed, and redistribute power if the answer is “no.” Invite community members to take on leadership roles.
  • Use language that conveys respect when talking with and about community members, especially if you choose to adopt lifestyle changes to respect the host community.

How To Practice Cultural Humility

Practicing cultural humility is a process that requires volunteers to cultivate self-awareness, learn about the history of the place where they are volunteering and the context of volunteers in that space, and develop respect for the community they serve. 

Click to download a PDF version of “How to Practice Cultural Humility” (PDF, 512 KB)

thumbnail image of How to Practice Cultural Humility PDF

These steps, backed by evidence from Dickey’s research, can help volunteers put cultural humility into practice and treat the communities they serve with dignity and respect.

Engage in self-reflection.

Engage in self-reflection.

  • Examine your unconscious biases.
  • Consider how media affects your image of a host community.
  • Acknowledge the sense of glory that accompanies volunteerism.
  • Understand power imbalances between volunteers and the host community.
 Learn about the host community.

 Learn about the host community.

  • Have honest conversations with community members about how oppressive systems — including colonization, white supremacy, and racism — have shaped their communities.
  • Find commonalities between struggles in your community and the one you are serving.
  • Seek training and education on the history of the host community from the organization through which you are volunteering.

Grow and convey respect. 

  • Collaborate with community members to assess and design projects, rather than designing projects and solutions without community input.
  • Allow community members to lead the development and implementation of projects and hold meaningful positions of power.
  • Acknowledge that you have also benefited from serving the community.

Source: Smyer Dickey, J., Waisike, R., Singletary, J., & Levers Sayer, M. (2020). Listening to our global partners: Kenyans’ perceptions of international volunteers. Community Development Journal, 55(4), 680–698. 

Questions to Ask Yourself to Develop Cultural Humility Before Volunteering

The following questions, paired with excerpts from Dickey’s research in Kenya, may help volunteers build self-awareness and learn more about the history of a community before engaging in volunteer work. Although these examples are from Kenya, they apply to all volunteer contexts.

What biases might I have against this culture that I have learned from the media or other individuals? Is there a socially constructed idea that I want to check?

Example: It is common for various forms of media to portray communities in the Global South as impoverished, destitute, and in need of intervention by the Global North. Global Northerners’ perceptions of Global Southerners as poor are reified through impoverished narratives told through TV commercials, news stories, and social media depicting Global South as poor and needy. This implicit process shapes Global Northerners’ perceptions of Global Southerners.

What biases do I have about myself that I need to intentionally explore and check?

Example: “Examining the ways that degrading words and media have impacted the image of the host communities while acknowledging glory related to volunteerism can lead international volunteers to practice that is dignifying and respectful.”

How does white supremacy affect my assumptions about a community as well as work priorities, the speed of certain processes, and outcomes?

Example: “International volunteers’ perceptions of Kenyans are subjectively and individually derived …, uniquely shaped by their Global North context. Perceptions are shaped by language used, cultural norms, and personal experiences, which reify one another.”

What has been the context of volunteers in the space?

Example: In light of the painful historical narrative of dominance and suffering experienced by many host communities, international volunteers need to heed the impact colonization has had on the host community and the impact it might have on the volunteer–host community member relationship.”

How does the history of white supremacy affect the relationship between volunteers and the community?

Example: “International volunteers originating from America live among racial tensions that frame its national context. Some would argue that racial tensions are woven into the founding of America as a nation … and, therefore, deeply impact all of its citizens. In light of this racially charged context … it is ignorant not to take an intentional inventory of unconscious biases that may exist related to the race of the host community.”

Signs That a Volunteer Organization Values Cultural Humility

Prospective volunteers can examine the following aspects of volunteer-based organizations’ practices and ask questions to verify whether the group embodies cultural humility.

  • Training. Has the organization invited me to do self-reflection and provided me with the historical context of volunteer-community relationships? 
  • Language. How does the organization talk about its partner community?
  • Participatory models. Do volunteers go into communities and learn their needs and desires before embarking on a project rather than coming in with a predetermined plan?
  • Leadership. Is there leadership and representation from the community at each level in the process? Do community members hold meaningful roles? How are community partners able to apply their expertise?
  • Accountability. Who evaluates the program, asks questions, and explores the mindsets of stakeholders around a project’s process and outcomes?

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s master’s in social work online program