Cultural Humility: A Lesson Plan for Social Work

By Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW


The UB School of Social Work has developed a new resource to assist students, faculty, and practitioners in their understanding of cultural humility. Conversations about Culture: Video and Lesson Plan  introduces students, practitioners, and the public to the concept of cultural humility. This module includes a 12-minute video, containing interviews and content designed to raise questions and introduce the concept of cultural humility in social work. There are additional resources, a lesson plan, and some possible activities to try on your own or in a classroom setting.

Video for the UBSSW Cultural Humility module

Video for the UBSSW Cultural Humility module


Why cultural humility? 
With its unique focus on client as expert, cultural humility encourages the practitioner or researcher to adopt a learning stance while engaging in self-reflection about the cultural elements all parties bring to the table. In addition to this emphasis on learning from the client and personal reflection, there is a critical element in cultural humility that evaluates and seems to amend power disparities in the helping relationship.


Travis Atwater, MSW '15, sent this photo from his internship in Tanzania.

Travis Atwater, MSW ’15, sent this photo from his internship in Tanzania.


While cultural competence has been emphasized as a method of learning about “other cultures” and becoming competent and knowledgeable about experiences outside of our own point of reference, cultural humility posits that we cannot fully comprehend another person’s background and it is important to note our own cultural assumptions. Cultural humility posits a broad interpretation of culture and a focus on internal reflection rather than “figuring out” someone who is “other”. Cultural humility encourages a challenge to structural inequalities and oppressive systems while at the same time focusing on the client’s experience and identity.





Why cultural humility in social work?

Our focus on trauma informed and human –rights-based practice lends itself to the remediation of power imbalances, increased self-awareness, and positioning of the client as expert that is emphasized in cultural humility. In other helping professions, this notion of client as expert opens up a dialogue about where practitioners and researchers get their information and how the client participates in decision making. This may remind us of the trauma-informed principles of choice and safety.


“There is an element of intentionality; of thinking of ourselves as learners – which takes away the pressure to have everything figured out.”  Sarah Richards-Desai, from the video, “Conversations about Culture: The Importance of Cultural Humiility”


Sarah Zammiello, MSW '15, sent this photo of a sculpture in the Dominican Republic.

Sarah Zammiello, MSW ’15, sent this photo of a sculpture in the Dominican Republic.



Why now? 

In addition to specifically cross-cultural global field placements and study abroad opportunities, students in the school of social work consistently work alongside of people whose lived experiences differ from their own. Cultural humility is a vital tool in our social work toolkit, because it frames our interactions in terms of learning from the client, being mindful and self-aware, and recognizing and remediating structural and power differentials in our organizations. In all levels of practice and research, cultural humility is key to fully understanding social situations and how we can be involved, or not, in the process of change.


This march celebrated the granting of the right to water for residents of Mumbai., India. Photo: Catherine Wells, MSW '15

This march celebrated the granting of the right to water for residents of Mumbai., India. Photo: Catherine Wells, MSW ’15










We hope to disseminate this information to a broad audience, including field educators, social work students, and anyone who regularly interacts with difference and seeks to redress social inequality. Please share widely!


This lesson plan and module was created by Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW, with guidance from Dr. Laura Lewis, Co-director of the Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement. Please contact Sarah or Laura with your questions about this module.


SARAH RichardsDesai



“From making artwork with Somali children resettled in Toronto to advocating for language access in Erie County through my internship with the Partnership for the Public Good,  I have focused on issues impacting refugees and immigrants through community engagement and research. Working on committees to promote hiring equity, culturally safe organizational atmosphere, and anti-racism has helped me to begin the work of addressing privilege and systemic oppression on a personal and structural level. Whether in my experience as a community advisory member for incarcerated youth, as part of a planning committee for refugee-centered events in Buffalo, or as part of a multicultural family, I have found the tenets and practice of cultural humility to be a consistent framework for guiding my attitudes and actions.”

Sarah received her MSW from the University at Buffalo in May, 2016 and is now at the school as PhD student in Social Welfare. She was a MSW intern for the Institute for Sustainable Global Engagement; currently she is a Graduate Assistant for the school’s Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute. Sarah developed this cultural humility module during her two years in the MSW program.


LAURA LEWIS, PhD, LCSW, is Assistant Dean for Global Partnerships, Director of Field Education, and Co-director of the lewis laura smallInstitute for Sustainable Global Engagement at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. She has facilitated academic partnerships in Moldova and developed and supervised international field placements for MSW students in several countries including India, Macedonia, Thailand and Republic of Korea. Contact her at 



Do you use this concept in your teaching? Do you have any thoughts on adding cultural humility to your school’s curriculum? We’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment!


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