Developing, Understanding, and Strengthening Cultural Humility

Big Question: What does cultural humility mean in theory and practice, and how can you strengthen your capacities for cultural humility in diverse contexts?

Time Commitment: 75 – 90 minutes

Personal Reflection: 

5-minute, personal free write: What are your cultural identities and how have they shaped you to become the person who you are? Keep this in a nearby spot for an activity we’ll do later in this module.

Why this matters:

Developing, Understanding, and Strengthening Cultural Humility advances an important set of interrelated concepts and key practices utilized across a variety of fields (i.e., education, medicine, anthropology, social work, and other disciplines), through which individuals are encouraged to critically understand their own cultural assumptions, the cultural context in which they hope to operate successfully, and the ways in which institutional structures of power and privilege need to be reimagined to be more inclusive of all ways of being. Research in applied fields such as education, medicine, and social work demonstrates that the effort to operate with cultural humility is an ongoing, lifelong learning process for people of all identities.

Diving In, Part 1:

This 7-minute video by San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Health Education Vivian Chavez, physician and consultant Melanie Tervalon, and UC Davis nursing professor Jann Murray-García describes the three core commitments of cultural humility:

  • Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection
  • Recognizing and challenging power imbalances for successful partnerships
  • Institutional accountability

Drawing from this and other influences, the authors of Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad define cultural humility as, “a commitment to critical self-reflection and lifelong reevaluation of assumptions, increasing one’s capacities for appropriate behaviors and actions in varying cultural contexts. The capacity for appropriate culturally relevant action is coupled with awareness of one’s positionality within systems of power and aligned in service of collaboratively reconsidering and reconstructing assumptions and systems to enact a deeper and broader embrace of human dignity, redressing historical inequities.”

Self-Reflection and, if possible, Small Group Discussion: 

This all sounds great in theory, but how is it made real? Great question. When describing “lifelong learning and critical self-reflection” in the video, Melanie Tervalon said, “Every single one of us is a complicated multidimensional human being. Each one of us comes with our own histories and stories; our heritage, our point of view.” Now we explore our own histories by stepping into an activity to help with “critical self-reflection and lifelong reevaluation of assumptions.” The activity is called identity pie.

Reflection Exercise: Identity Pie

The primary purpose of this activity is to assist you in becoming more aware of your identities and worldview, the different aspects of the cultures you identify with, and, importantly, how culture and other social, political, economic, and spiritual elements of your worldview affect your beliefs, values, behaviors, and sense of self. The activity should help you better understand and articulate your identities, as well as dominant and marginalized norms and beliefs of your home culture(s).

Identity Pie:

  • Pondering the question, “Who am I?,” write down 5 to 10 aspects of your culture and identity(-ies) (You could begin by returning to what you wrote in response to the free-write prompt at the top of this page).
  • Reflect on the meanings of each dimension of your identity(-ies), life experiences that have shaped who you are, and the role and importance that each aspect plays in your life.
  • Provide examples of visible and invisible aspects of culture and identity.
  • Now, incorporating what you’ve written, create an identity pie that represents who you are. The pie can assist with describing elements of your identity that have greater or lesser significance by varying “slice” size, if that feels appropriate; larger slices of the pie represent more dominant aspects of your identity(-ies).
  • A caveat: It is not necessary that you use a pie as a metaphor in your drawing. You may represent yourself in whatever way you are comfortable. For example, some people prefer a tree that shows their roots and various branches of their culture and identity. However you approach this activity, you do need to draw the things that you feel compose your culture and identities. You may choose to express/draw your cultural identities as equally significant in creating who you are.

Share with a partner: (NOTE: There is always the option not to share or share only certain items that you are comfortable sharing)

Next, partner with another person who has completed the identity exercise and share with each other the meanings you attach to 3 of the elements you drew. Hold your drawings up to your cameras and share them as you describe them if you’re doing this online. Take turns listening to each other and be sure to ask questions to probe more deeply into the meanings of each identity element, i.e.,

  • What role does this element play in your life?
  • What similarities or differences exist in the ways you describe and experience your identities in different contexts?
  • What surprised you about what you wrote about your own identity(-ies)? What surprised you about your understanding of your partner’s identity(-ies)? 

When you join a group debrief, you may want to share from your conversation with your partner, so ask your partner if that is okay.

Group Debrief: Identity Pie

When you come back together for a group conversation with your cohort, it will begin by asking you to share something you learned through listening to your partner’s explanation. This could include things you realize you left off your identity pie or things you thought your partner articulated particularly well.

Page Completion – Outcomes:

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your capacity to:

  • articulate cultural humility as a three-pronged concept
  • identify and articulate your own deeply held cultural assumptions, an essential component of exercising cultural humility through lifelong learning and critical self-reflection

However, two other components of cultural humility must be further explored: how do we challenge power imbalances across cultures, and advance institutional accountability? While institutional accountability is advanced in part through the kinds of civil society activism considered elsewhere in these modules, our next page focuses on power imbalances across contexts, and the extraordinary inequities that frequently result.

Next: Navigating power imbalances and holding institutions accountable – cultural humility and power

Citation for this page: Kiely, R., Zukerman, S., & Hartman, S. (2020). How can you strengthen your knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors to enact cultural humility in diverse contexts? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from

Further Reading

This image is of a book cover, "Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad," by Eric Hartman, by Eric Hartman, Richard C. Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, Jessica Friedrichs, and Rafia Zakaria.


Hartman, E., Kiely, R., Boettcher, C., & Friedrichs, J. (2018). Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad. Sterling: VA: Stylus Publishing.

Video and pieces cited within the video: 

Health Nexus Santé. (2018, February 22). Cultural Humility People, Principles and Practices Part 1 1. Retrieved from