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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 14, No. 3
June 2009

Recognizing and Honoring Differences

by Kay Kent, Buncombe County DSS

“When Dr. King said, ‘Not everyone will cross over’ he was not referring to religion, but civil rights.”

This powerful and educational statement was shared with me by one of my clients as a result of Buncombe County’s “Recognizing and Honoring Differences” PDSA developed for the Breakthrough Series Collaborative (BSC). I have been excited to be a part of our agency’s BSC since the onset, but I never anticipated the impact it would have on my social work practice in such a short time.

After hearing a speakers from Minnesota make a statement about how important it is to simply acknowledge differences, I thought, “How could I have missed such a simple concept during my 12 years in social work?”

I realized that because I had worked with so many families over the years, I made the assumption that I understood their differences. I had never really asked about their specific opinions or points of view that might be a result of their race or culture. Instead, I was just gathering information related to risk and safety and mandated demographics. I immediately knew that acknowledging and honoring cultural differences would be my first PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) as a CPS line worker.

Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles

The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle is a change planning and implementation process used by Casey Family Programs’ Breakthrough Series Collaborative (BSC). The PDSA cycle is a great tool for testing and implementing changes because it reflects System of Care values and our state’s family-centered principles of partnership.

The PDSA method allows ideas to be tested in small increments, where the consequences are minimized before a change is rolled out to an entire agency, jurisdiction, or system. In fact, teams are encouraged to try new ideas immediately, without any planning effort. One of the mantras in the BSC is “never plan more than you can do.”

Since small ideas are tested in rapid succession, less time is spent on planning and more time is spent learning from real practice in action (NRCFCPP, 2004). PDSA cycles have been used in Buncombe, Catawba, and other North Carolina counties.

To learn how to use the PDSA method to improve your work with families or to learn more about the BSC, go to <>.

You can also learn more about the PDSA cycles by reading The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance by Langley et al. (1996, Jossey-Bass).

I returned to my team and shared my enthusiasm about this concept. We worked out the logistics and put this idea in the PDSA format. I developed a script (see box below) to use with families of a different race or culture in which I acknowledged that we were different and made sure that families had the opportunity to express how they felt about having me as their social worker.

Social Worker/Client Narrative

In engaging with clientele of different cultural/ethnic/racial backgrounds, the social worker (line worker) will engage in the following conversations during initiation of CPS assessments:

  1. Inquire about and acknowledge any cultural/ethnic/racial differences and, if applicable, ask family members if they are comfortable with social worker managing their case if there is a difference.

  2. Ask the family if there is anything about their cultural/ethnic/racial background which family feels SW needs to know.

  3. Ask the family if there is anything in general they would like to know about SW’s culture to better understand SW’s viewpoint.

  4. Advise the family that SW does not want to assume he or she understands the family if they are of different background.

  5. Share with all families that SW/agency is trying to better acknowledge and understand cultural/ethnic/racial differences.

Wow! Within the first week, the first few responses I obtained were so relevant and powerful I knew this PDSA was a success. I also developed an anonymous survey (with a postage paid envelope) the family could use to provide additional feedback. The responses were not addressed to me, to assure the family their responses would not impact their case decision.

The opening statement of this article, in which my client referenced Dr. King, was given as a result of his explaining that he had overcome having problems or feeling barriers with white people. He stated that because of Dr. King and others fighting for civil rights, he can now go to a magistrate and explain his side of a charge without fearing he would be immediately judged or locked up. He has a right to equal representation. He went on to say that Dr. King was of the opinion that people of color would be given equal opportunities, but that not all people of color would take advantage of this. He stated he believes this is the case, but he has seen change and he had no problem that I was a white social worker. His mother and son were also present and gave their own perspectives. She talked about her youth and the struggles she had growing up in the South. Her grandson stated he didn’t think there is a difference at all in how people who are of a different color are treated.

I engaged with another African America woman that week on a different case who stated she was actually glad that I was white, as it had been her experience in the past that people of her own race that were in higher, authoritative positions often judged her and criticized her for living in public housing and getting assistance. But even more surprising, she stated that her father is white. How many times had I assumed I knew a client’s race or ethnicity, or simply relied on the information the last social worker had provided in the case file? Later, a woman from El Salvador described her background as a child living with a large extended family, her childhood experiences and the lack of opportunity for education, and specific to the case, the disciplinary practices used in her home.

I continue to learn daily about the families with whom I work. I have expanded the script to acknowledge any differences such as religion, tradition, or heritage that, had I not asked, I would have never known existed. I am seeing that even families of my same race have differences that affect their point of view. When I engage with families using the script, I can literally feel barriers melt and doors of communication open. Families are empowered by the fact that I care enough to ask and truly want to understand them better.

Let me repeat: how could I have missed this simple concept for so long? I have begun to share my experiences and successes with others. I hope everyone who reads this article will consider implementing this script as part of their toolkit for engaging families. In only two months, I have learned so much. I cannot fathom the positive effects this PDSA will have over the remainder of my career.

References for this and other articles in this issue