This guide was built in collaboration with mental health professionals who live and work with vulnerable communities every day.

This guide will help organizations and individuals approach certain segments of the community from a place of empowerment while avoiding the re-traumatizing of vulnerable communities. This guide will be just a starting point of how to approach hurting communities with empathy.

A few tips when reading:

  • This passage seeks to advocate for communities who may at one point or another be vulnerable to oppression, bias and/or hardship. They are the priority, the feelings of the rest of us take second place, ALWAYS.
  • Reading some of this content can be difficult and may create discomfort in the reader.
  • Reading this, many people will feel they aren’t guilty of falling into these traps because they have good intentions. Read with the understanding that our best intentions don’t always lead to positive responses and know that we are all capable of human error when dealing with folks who may be hurting or traumatized.
  • This isn’t going to be easy to implement and it’s likely you will make mistakes.
  • Be open to new ideas, and recognize that even if you are a member of one group that is traditionally oppressed, you can still be guilty of any of these points towards another traditionally oppressed group or even others within your group/community.
  • Be kind to yourself but avoid being defensive. If you have the openness and ability to be introspective and uncover new knowledge with an exhilarating challenge to be better, this discussion may bring about guilt and desire to take swift action. Take the time to process and take it all one step at a time.
  • Lastly, keep the conversation going. This document is only intended to be a starting point. Good luck on your journey!

Certain communities are vulnerable and many may be oppressed and hurting. However, these communities are not homogeneous and can’t be represented or highlighted by any one (or a set of) observable or measurable characteristic. Often when we look to work with certain groups of people and communities we approach them through the lens of our data, limited knowledge and our bias. We look at numbers and market research to make sense of what we perceive to be their “problems” and we want nothing more than to offer solutions. While strategizing the ways we can help uplift and energize communities to solve their own problems with our help instead of further oppressing or traumatizing them, we need to ensure our actions, words, and approach do not contribute to the challenges we’re looking to help overcome. This guide seeks to provide some cultural sensitivity basics your organization can implement when dealing with groups of people who for one reason or another may seem vulnerable to oppression, pain, hardship or trauma.

  • Impact Over Intent: Most actions that can be hurtful can often come from really great intentions. While reading this guide understand that anyone can fall into these traps. Try to be objective and realize these tips will only help you become better at serving the people and causes you care most about. ALWAYS let the other parties feelings take precedence over your opinion or intent.
  • Check Your Saviorism: Although you may represent an entity, organization or group that seeks to provide solutions, funding or services to a community, avoid acting as what many call “a savior”. Saviors approach people with the idea that they already know what the solution is, that because they are a part of the target group they can speak for the whole group, or because they are from a group with more privilege they may know how to improve the conditions of the group they are serving. This approach may leave folks feeling disempowered instead of empowered to be part of the change, it can stop communication before it even starts. This behavior can also be oppressive. If you find yourself saying “I know” double check to ensure you’ve asked in many ways, from a vast sample, to learn more before arriving at any definite position. Never share what you think you know about any community in public forums when you aren’t a member of that community unless there is a consensus from that community and they have been vocal about that stance publicly.
  • Mind your role in oppression: Hardship and difficult situations can happen to anyone but oppression compounds the difficulties of the human condition. Most of us have privilege or the capacity to perpetuate systemic oppression. Here are some of the categories of people who carry privilege that can shift the way they see others:
    1. Being white, white presenting or passing,
    2. Having a college degree, steady income, have a white collar job or any full time job
    3. Don’t have a disability (physical or mental)
    4. Being cisgender (identifying with gender assigned to you at birth) and/or straight
    5. Being a  member of the leading religion, party or community
    6. Having citizenship/residence
    7. Are fluent in English without an accent or can mask ethnic markers in speech.
    8. Are male
  • If you fit into any of these categories you have the ability to use speech and take actions that can be oppressive to people who don’t have said privileges. Even if at any point in your life you didn’t have those privileges having them now means you don’t have the current perspective of that experience and excludes you from being able to speak for that group. Furthermore, if you are not a member of a given group, refrain from suggesting what the group needs to improve their situation and instead ask how you can be a better ally to them.
  • Avoid tone policing and using “unity” speech: Each person decides how to define their situation. Many people deny or choose to ignore their issues in order to cope, to survive and do not like to be labeled as oppressed. Those who are more aware may take one of two stances, they want to work with all people to create a strong force against oppression and others believe that kind of thinking is oppressive and problematic in itself. Although speaking of unity and “working together” may seem positive and utopian, it can lack compassion and empathy. It’s best to simply say “that must be difficult” and simply listen. We should always avoid telling people how to process their pain or feelings. Avoid trying to tell people how to, speak, feel and how to process or approach the situation, just listen.
  • Speak about oppression cautiously: Let the community lead the conversation, let them spark the conversation, do not bring up the issues you observe unless they request to. When they do form any suggestion or thought, refrain from making corrections. Instead try to gain clarification in the form of a question and not a statement. Ask if they need help or want a suggestion.
  • Avoid “isms” and technical speech: Keep it simple, speak and dress accordingly.
  • Focus on solutions: When inquiring, although you should not offer solutions, it’s important to focus on what you can do and the solutions they are offering you. Instead of looking at the issue/problem you’re trying to solve, focus on the strengths you recognize in your inquiry.
  • Realize you don’t speak for all people or any group of people: Although you may live, work and know the community/ group in question, try to see them anew and find new solutions you didn’t expect. Focus on finding new information instead of making assumptions or offering ideas from your point of view. If you are now in the position to speak for a community and have the power to relay those messages, know that this comes with great responsibility. Focus on being a messenger, the channel and bridge  and try to avoid offering your personal opinion to better serve those who don’t have your voice and privilege. Speak for those you don’t agree with when sharing your findings, share the thoughts whilst putting your personal opinion aside. Ask more than you offer.
  • Let them drive: Once you think you’ve got some solid research and a path to follow, check back in and appoint people from those groups to lead the effort. This will ensure they can check each step of the process to offer ideas and insight you may be missing. This applies ESPECIALLY if you don’t live or work with the people you’re trying to speak for, and even more so if you’re not even a part of the group.
  • Be a power gatekeeper: Understand that being given the power to provide insight, ideas, data or information about a group of people grants you new power and privilege. Make sure the power doesn’t affect your ability to stay present. Have people in your circle checking you constantly to ensure you are a responsible gatekeeper. Seek for the grassroots and youth  to be your guide.
  • Avoid streamlining and simplifying a process that isn’t simple:  Understanding the Complexities of a group of people with the routes to build communities or build a marketing strategy for your business, is never going to be an easy answer or easy process but it’s always going to be fluid. Communities are ever-evolving and their needs, wants, and characteristics are ever-changing. Create small, incremental campaigns with individual goals but know you will have to revisit the inquiry often within each campaign and especially when developing strategies for new campaigns.

To truly serve and cater to any community one must be in a constant state of inquiry.