Beyond the Breakthrough: Why Cultural Humility Matters in Anti-Violence Work

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!

Working in the sexual assault sector is not for the faint-of-heart.

Service providers are regularly exposed to horrific stories of violence and their impact. We frequently work long, irregular hours. To be effective, we are required to have hard skills—such as therapy, advocacy and representation—and to establish an extensive set of soft skills, such as being trauma-informed and empathetic and practicing regular introspective reflection.

Given the increasing diversity of our society, I’m here to propose that we add one more soft skill to our toolbox: Cultural Humility.

Cultural Humility is not “Cultural Competency”—which is rooted in the premise that if we simply learn generalizations about cultural traits attributed to races, ethnicities, religions and so on, then we will attain a universal understanding of everyone who identifies as a member of that group. “Empowered” with that universal understanding, many of us mistakenly believe that we will be able to effectively serve all survivors from groups other than our own. Services relying exclusively on “Competency” may be based on inaccurate assumptions instead of survivors’ actual needs.

Attendees at “EQUALITY TALKS,” a 2018 event in Bangkok, Thailand, held to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and to open the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Under the global theme “Orange the World: #HearMeToo,” the commemoration invited activists as story-tellers about ending violence against women. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

Take, for example, an advocate assuming that a Mexican-American survivor would like to speak to a priest after learning that most Mexican Americans are Catholic. Or the experience of an Asian/Pacific Islander, foreign-exchange survivor’s experience when she sought therapeutic services on her university campus in the wake of an assault. Her primary concern was, as she repeatedly put it: “How can I go home?” University staff reassured her that they could purchase return tickets to her home country, but despite their continual reassurances, the survivor continued to slip further into despair.

An advocate trained in Cultural Humility later discerned that the survivor wasn’t asking a logistical question. What she wanted to know was how she could face her family after the “shame” of being sexually assaulted. Would she be able to continue receiving therapy in her home country? Would she ever feel as comforted by her faith as she had before the assault? The survivor felt significantly more supported and “heard” after working with that advocate.

The notion of “Cultural Competence” absolves us of accountability and the responsibility to do challenging, ongoing, introspective work that transforms what we’ve learned into action. It is a passive checklist activity that simply asks us to show up for a training—and do nothing more. Cultural Humility, by contrast, is a life-long process of self-reflection and awareness that takes into consideration that none of us could possibly learn every aspect of all other existing cultures.

Cultural Humility asks each of us to examine our biases and prejudices in order to determine how they might impact our services. It requires that we are honest with ourselves about our attitudes, perceptions and values. It acknowledges inherent power imbalances and asks us to mitigate them during our service provision. It demands that we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for our continued engagement in the process despite the personal challenges that it may pose.

Yeah, I already know about that. I’ve learned that in a training. I can serve everybody. These statements aren’t enough. We must dive deeper. We must ask ourselves: What kind of assumptions do I make when supporting Muslim/ Asian/ Latinx/ Black/ Native/ LGBTQ2S survivors? What are the biases that I have and how do they impact my work?

Truly accessible and equitable sexual assault services must be deeply rooted in Cultural Humility—and it should be seen as just as critical a soft skill as the others in our field.


Fiona Oliphant’s personal mission is to create a world which centers those living in the margins of our society by valuing their lived experiences, amplifying their voices and realigning current systems of power. To actualize that mission she recently co-founded Healing Equity United after working in the domestic/sexual violence sector for almost two decades. Fiona has been an intern, legal advocate, program manager, staff attorney, trainer, public speaker and director. Prior to working independently, she served as the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement for the DC Coalition to End Sexual Violence, the Director for the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project and Director of CONNECT’s Legal Advocacy Program.