The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Diversity and Oppression: Cultural Competence Among Social Work Students

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Written by Deneca Avant, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois State University

Note: This blog briefly reviews outcomes from a project supported by a 2016 SoTL Small Grant via the Office of the Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL at ISU.

In light of recent tragedies that involve acts of violence on unarmed Black and Brown bodies, the concept of “power and privilege” has been underscored as a critical aspect of a social work education. Whereas the traditional social work education curricula tend to focus more on teaching students to better understand “diverse populations,” educators now realize the need for a heavier emphasis on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity as factors that predict one’s access to power and privilege. As educators attempt to prepare students for practice, there remains a gap in the literature regarding how best to teach about privilege and oppression when serving marginalized populations.

By 2044 the U.S. Census Bureau (2015) has projected that more than half of all Americans will belong to a minority group. Educational institutions and human service professionals are critical entities within this paradigm shift, as when students and professionals lack skills and awareness to effectively serve diverse populations, clients generally suffer. Culturally incongruent treatment methods, lack of trust, bias in decision making, and inequities in access to treatment resources each contribute to a legacy of disparities in service-related outcomes that negatively impact communities of color (Fong, Dettlaff, James, & Rodriguez, 2014; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).

The social work profession has dedicated itself to working with the marginalized, oppressed, and excluded populations, and has included guidelines for culturally competent practitioners (Garran & Rozas, 2013; Schmitz, Stakeman, & Sisneros, 2001). The Council of Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers mandate that practitioners demonstrate cultural responsiveness by practicing with respect, knowledge, and skills related to clients’ backgrounds as well as an understanding of oppression (CSWE, 2015; NASW, 2015). Additionally, practitioners are expected to exhibit an awareness of their personal cultural backgrounds and biases that will enhance their ability to serve others (Colvin-Burque, & Zugazaga, & Davis-Maye, 2007).

I taught a course titled Cultural Competence, in which students were exposed to a variety of topics and ideas related to power and privilege. This convenience sample of Master of Social Work (MSW) foundation-level students (N=81) during a six-year period (2009 to 2015) could be described as follows:

  • Primarily white and female (85.2%) with the largest minority group being African-American
  • Ranging in age from 22 to 55 years old
  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents had some previous diversity training (63.8%) while over one-third had none (36.3%)

To assess student learning about privilege and oppression and to identify levels of cultural competence following this course, I had students complete assessments as normal course requirements. I chose to use the Diversity and Oppression Scale as my primary measure of attitudinal change, administering it at the beginning and end of the semester. This scale is a 25-item instrument rated with a 5-point Likert scale containing demographic questions and four subscales: 1) cultural diversity, self-confidence, and awareness, 2) diversity and oppression, 3) social worker/client congruence, and 4) social work responsibility in cultural diversity (Windsor, Shorkey, & Battle, 2015). Paired samples t-test were conducted on each of the survey’s 25 items with differences between pre- and post-timeframes specifically examined.

The mean score for the pre-assessment was 87.89 (SD=10.35) while the post-assessment score increased to 107.96 (SD=8.96). This change represented a statistically significant increase (p= .000). Seventeen of the 25 instrument items had a significant change in scores. The subscales cultural diversity, self-confidence, and awareness and diversity and oppression significantly increased from the pre-test to the post-test. However, scores for the subscales social work/client congruence and social workers’ responsibility for cultural diversity were not significant. One-way analysis of variance produced no significant differences amongst student racial groups. Whether a student had previous diversity training or not had no impact on change in the total scores (p=.276). Overall, completion of a cultural competency course did impact student awareness of diversity and oppression.

These results indicate that students’ attitudes can change over time with exposure to privilege and oppression course content. Study outcome substantiates the importance of educators equipping students with the necessary tools to fully understand and address injustices. This charge begins with encouraging students’ commitment to challenge their own prejudices as well as comprehend how social justice is relative to their personal development and academic preparation. More specifically, it is imperative for future social work practitioners to realize the roles that oppression plays in society for effective delivery of services to diverse clientele. Ultimately, when oppression is adequately acknowledged, advocacy and changes can be initiated resulting in culturally responsive practice.

Blog References

Avant, D. & Bracy, W. (2015). Using problem-based learning to illustrate the concepts of   privilege and oppression, Journal of Social Work Education. 51(3), 604-614. DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2015.1043207

Colvin-Burque, A., Zugazaga, C. B., & Davis-Maye, D. (2007). Can cultural competence be taught? Evaluating the impact of the SOAP model. Journal of Social Work Education43(2), 223-242.

Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Education Policy and Accreditation Standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Fong, R., Dettlaff, A., James, J., & Rodriguez, C. (2014). Addressing racial disproportionality and disparities in human services: Multi-systemic approaches. Columbia University Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Social Determinants of Health Initiative (2011). Retrieved at:

Garran, A. & Rozas, L. (2013) Cultural competence revisited, Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 22(2), 97-111. DOI: 10.1080/15313204.2013.785337

Sisneros, J., Stakeman, C., Joyner, M., & Schmitz, C. (2008). Critical multicultural social work.Chicago: Lyceum Books.

National Association of Social Workers. (2015). NASW standards for cultural competence in social work practice. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Populations:

2014-2060. Current Population Report. (Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman). Retrieved from

Windsor, L. C., Shorkey, C. & Battle, D. (2015). Measuring student learning in social justicecourses: The diversity and oppression scale. Journal of Social Work Education, 51, 58–71.


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