Thursday, August 06, 2009

Judge Sonia Sotomayor: A Culturally Competent Jurist

Here is an interesting commentary by Lorna Hines-Cunningham about Judge Sotoamayor's cultural competency coming out of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) that speaks unapologetically about the central role that culture plays in all of our lives.


Judge Sonia Sotomayor: A Culturally Competent Jurist
Notes From An African American Mental Health Professional

by Lorna Hines-Cunningham, LCSW, PR/LCSW, ACSW

While I would not call myself a "news junkie" the recent events of the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to sit on the Supreme Court has significantly courted my interest and curiosity. She has presented herself as a leader and revolutionary in the field of cultural competence. Her perspective is both timely and will have pivotal implications for professions other than law, impacting many who possess an ethno cultural context which differs from the "mainstream". While she has a stellar record as a jurist she has made an outstanding contribution to our nation with a unique and important perspective.

While I have spent most of my professional career researching, analyzing, teaching the understanding, implications and application of cultural competence in mental health, I have never had the opportunity to hear the concepts so aptly and humanely stated as demonstrated my Judge Sotomayor. I have a profound, urgent and passionate need to respond to the stellar comments she has delivered and to provide further insights in the context of both cultural competence and worldview-a phenomenon not fully understood by many who impact the lives of others.

Both Judge Sotmayor and I share a particular kinship of not only being wetted to the concept of understanding and implementing cultural competence and worldview, but also growing up in the former northeast Bronx where diversity and multiculturalism was a community norm. As an African-American high school student, one was equally skilled in salsa, meringue, and of course the monkey, the slop as well as the other soup d' jour, dancing in the hue of a red light basement of a schoolmate or at one of the local clubs. This was if you could obtain permission from the strict mothers ("wise Latina, Caribbean, and others) whose admonitions were something like, "man and education don't mix".

"Wise Latina Woman"

Much has been made of the comments elucidated by Judge Sotomayor regarding the attributes of a "wise Latina", as well as her quote, "Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside" publicized in the New York Times, June 15, 2009 and titled "Republicans Press Judge About Bias" by Peter Baker and Neil A. Lewis. During the televised hearings, she offered an enhanced and refreshing view of her perspective on the practice of law that has wider and perhaps more important implications than she realized.

It's most refreshing in that Judge Sotomayor aptly described the urgency and broad applicability of the concept of cultural competence, as well as the need for all of us- especially those in professions that impact the lives of others -to understand and embrace the concept of worldview.

What is cultural competence and worldview and why is it important?

I first was introduced to cultural competence in the early 1980's at the heels of the community mental health movement in New York City. I, along with other mental health practitioners, began to examine ways to engage disenfranchised groups. This movement was essential to engagement and sustaining people of color in mental health treatment and challenged leaders in the field to get off the couch! Like many in the field of mental health, I believed my quest to imbue our mental health system with principles of cultural competence is because of the sense of invisibility that I have felt as a citizen in this country. This sense has slowly eroded over the years and certainly Judge Sotomayor's words indicate the enormous possibility both for me and others of color to be seen and understood.

We all view one another, whatever the context, with invisible spectacles that color and define what and who we see. This perspective is so deeply ingrained on our cognitive, psychological, neuro sensory, and physical selves that we are often completely unaware of it's existence. Academics, educators and others have coined the term "worldview " initially articulated by Portland State University and Cross -Cultural Skills in Indian Child Welfare, NW Indian Child Welfare Institute Perry Center for Children, 1988, describing that this is how we view the world and it consists of three major components : human universality, individual uniqueness, and cultural specificity. (Ibid). Our "worldview" is of course inextricable related to culture which includes everything we learned, our values, information, and our thinking as aptly stated by Dr Delia Saldana, Hogg Foundation in "Cultural Competency a Practical Guide for Mental Health Service Providers. Culture impacts everything imaginable including our taste in food, music, expressions, etc. Cultural Competence is the ability to effectively practice our professions and interactions with others in the context of "difference"-whatever the multidimensionality.

Judge Sotomayor was aptly describing these concepts and the process and relationship between worldview and culture when she explained what able jurists bring to the table when they assess, analyze and adjudicate the legal process. She articulated the importance of worldview a way to gain self knowledge and self understanding-even if this process reveals the existence of personal bias, discrimination and prejudices. Our "wise Latina" conceptualized and delineated concepts which have confounded a host of professionals in a multitude of professions in and out of the healthcare setting.

There are many who disagree that this is not an easy process, both to understand and put into practice. Many professionals have been taught they have no cultural bias and are a "Tabular Rasa"- a blank slate. My "wise" African American femaleness suggests there is something amiss in that statement. And yet, today many professional from across the spectrum say they never thought about the needs of African Americans and Latinas-and let's not forget the needs of Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and the cornucopia of Asian groups-here in the United States.

An analysis and understanding of cultural competence and worldview points to the fact that in every interaction between people there is a context of multidimensional differences including in many cases a differential in power dynamics between people which also may affect the relationship and its outcome. The analysis of the power differential in the context of worldview is essential for every jurist given the enormous impact and influence that exists in their role and responsibility. Many in that role did not examine their cultural context and worldview and manipulated for a personalized outcome. We have been inundated with multiple examples where perhaps well meaning jurists have precluded their examination of their worldview falling victim to their individualized biases, prejudices, and other forms of "isms". Can you recall judges who have rendered decisions which were not based on the law and reflected a lack of cultural competence ?

The full impact of Judge Sotomayor words and perspective will have a major impact on our nation if fully understood and implemented. She is an outstanding jurist and as a Latina she has intimate and practical knowledge of what is means to have a world view and further understanding of what it means to function in a multicultural world where there are many faces of her identity. She has demonstrated courage and skill by articulating these important concepts in spite of the potential consequences for this major juncture in her professional career.

If given the opportunity I would say to her without hesitation, Vaya Wise Latina, you have paved the way for the possibility for the invisible to become visible.

Lorna Hines-Cunningham, LCSW, PR/LCSW, ACSW, is a Psychotherapist and Consultant in Private Practice. She was a former Adjunct Assistant Professor NYU Silver School of Social Work

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