Cultural Sensitivity Strategies For Dealing With Vulnerable Segments of the Population

by | Jan 31, 2018 | 1 comment

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 is 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.
  • This content can cause people to 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. We are all capable of human error when dealing with folks who may be hurting or traumatized.
  • This process isn’t going to be easy to implement and it’s likely you will make mistakes.
  • Develop openness to new ideas.
  • Be kind to yourself but avoid being defensive.
  • Seek the 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!

Strategizing and Data Collection

Certain groups of people are vulnerable and many may be oppressed and hurting. Communities or segments are not homogeneous. They 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 vulnerable groups of people. Vulnerability comes from oppression, pain, hardship or trauma.

Mind Your Role in Oppression

Hardship and difficult situations can happen to anyone. 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. If you are white, white presenting or passing,
    2. Having a college degree, steady income, have a white collar job or any full time job
    3. Benefiting from being able bodied
    4. Not having to struggle with mental illness
    5. Identifying as cisgender (identifying with gender assigned to you at birth)
    6. Being straight
    7. Belonging to the leading religion, party or community
    8. Having documentation or citizenship
    9. Proficiency in English without an accent or can mask ethnic markers in speech.
    10. Being male

Start With Introspection

Stay in your lane. Fitting comfortably into any of the above categories grant you 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. This excludes you from being able to speak for that group to avoid causing harm. 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.

Realize, You Don’t Speak Any Group of People

Even if you live, work and know the community/group in question, try to see them anew and find new solutions you didn’t expect.

  • Dedicate time to 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.
  • 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. Uplift and share their voices and stories and abstain from adding your take or your opinions.

Empathy Is the Key

  • Impact Over Intent: Most actions that can be hurtful can often come from really great intentions. While devising a strategy 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 the solution.
    • They feel that because they are a part of the target group they can speak for the whole group.
    • Conversely others think that 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.
  • 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. Some folks want to work with all people to create a strong force against oppression and others don’t. Although speaking of unity and “working together” may seem positive and utopian, it can lack compassion and empathy. We should always avoid telling people how to process their pain or feelings.

It’s best to simply say “that must be difficult” and simply listen.

Manage the Power Paradigm Cautiously

  • Avoid “isms” and technical speech: Keep it simple, speak and dress casually.
  • 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.
  • 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. It 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 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

It’s Not Going to Be Easy but It’s Worth It

Avoid streamlining and simplifying a process that isn’t simple. Unpacking and analyzing 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 have an easy answer or be an 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.


1 Comment

  1. Sue Gallagher

    Wow – this is amazing and deep! Thank you for creating this document – I feel like each topic, sentence, word can be its own meditation 🙂 A few questions/comments:

    1. Should cis gender be defined? Many folks may not know what that means
    2. Under “Avoiding isms” you mention dress accordingly – any specific suggestions on what accordingly means?
    3. I love the very last statement and think it is a critical personal discipline to approach the work with curiosity rather than certainty.
    Again this is wonderful, transforming compilation of strategies – much gratitude


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