One in five employees within the human services sector identifies as an immigrant to the United States. Many of these employees are deemed “essential” in providing direct support to historically underserved populations. Yet, far too many barriers prevent these employees from achieving the financial and professional success they sought when they came to the U.S. 

In her book Migrants Who Care: West Africans Working and Building Lives in U.S. Health Care, Dr. Fumilayo Showers, PhD, explores how West African immigrants often must renegotiate their identity, class status, and sense of belonging through working in some of the most crucial jobs within the healthcare sector. 

The Guild’s CEO Amy C. Sousa, PhD, sat down with The Guild’s Madyna Rancifer, M.A., LSWA, Director of Youth Residential Services; Mustapha Abdulai, PhD, Director of Adult Residential Services; and Fabiana Fickett, BCBA, Senior Clinical Advisor of Behavior Services to discuss Showers’ findings in relation to staff experiences at The Guild and chart paths forward for the field. 

Amy: As members of The Guild’s leadership team who have advocated for the sector to better understand the needs of new immigrant staff, I’m looking forward to having a conversation about topics that you already discuss quite often. I want to start by asking about your initial thoughts on the chapter.

Fabiana: I was struck by the many similarities between the experiences of interviewees and those of staff at The Guild. One theme that came up was the idea that caregiving responsibilities of the direct support role are often taken for granted as “simple” tasks when they require an expansive skillset. Staff may have never cooked the foods that individuals like to eat before, or they may not have played the games they want to play, which is why modeling and explaining tasks clearly is so important.

Mustapha: Right. New staff face a constant learning curve every day. At the same time, there’s a big fear of failure within the immigrant community, especially when others financially depend on you back home. For example, even though I didn’t grow up around water, I had to try to learn how to swim when we took students to the pool because it’s part of the job. 

Madyna: Often, if staff are reluctant to do something, it doesn’t mean they’re not willing – it might mean they don’t know how to do it and are afraid to ask. Another idea that came up from the chapter was the lack of respect that’s given to people who are in entry-level roles performing direct care work. For immigrant staff who come here with advanced degrees and a sense of pride, they’re suddenly thrust into potentially a different class status within an undervalued role.

Amy: The responsibilities of a direct support role require communication, behavioral, and safety skills. These skillsets are often underestimated until someone makes a mistake. How can we reconcile the idea that this is a low-class, low-pay job with the expectation that staff must have a tremendous amount of skills to succeed? 

Madyna: We are asking a lot from staff in this field, many of whom come from places where the structures we have around IDD support don’t exist. While training is provided, it should be noted the individuals served have complex needs including developmental, medical, and mental; the training provided does not always encompass what’s needed to do the work on that scale. While this is a “low skill”, entry level position, sometimes the skills needed to do the job require significant training and experience.  We’re always looking for new ways to expand training for our staff that support cultural and linguistic differences. 

Mustapha: Staff also need to have psychological safety to succeed. If staff on the leadership team hold biases, how can employees of color be successful and grow in their careers? We also have to do a better job of inviting people to understand the nature of the work. Even the title ‘Direct Support Professional’ narrows the job down when the responsibilities are extensive.

Amy: One area that can hinder psychological safety for staff is the perception of their language skills. As multilingual staff members of The Guild, can you talk about the importance of language in our work? 

Madyna: Much of the conversation around language is also about race, given that accents are received differently depending on who is speaking. I wonder if language and accent would matter as much if the people working with this population had a British accent, for example. Many skilled staff members can access the level of language they need to do the job, so any issues around ‘language’ might actually be about personal bias.  

Fabiana: It’s disappointing when there is a perceived lack of skillset for staff who have a higher language barrier when that isn’t the case. For many multilingual staff members, if we’re talking about an issue they care about, they might forget words in their third, fourth, or seventh language. We also need to appreciate that there are universals in language. If you have patience and the desire to understand, there are ways to communicate with anyone. 

Amy: In thinking about more ways to create inclusive workplaces for staff, I noted that all the DSPs interviewed for the chapter were part of organizations with African migrant leadership, which unfortunately is uncommon in the field. Can you talk about what barriers remain that prevent diverse leadership teams from being formed? 

Mustapha: As leaders, we need to be able to map out career paths so that staff know what they need to do and what skills they need to gain to grow into higher roles. We should ask ourselves how to build bridges to leadership roles so that the House Manager position isn’t the end of the ladder for direct support staff.

Fabiana: Right, and part of this is providing training and education. Many staff have second jobs that they depend on, so we need to find accessible learning opportunities to support their growth. For example, recently we offered a behavior technician certification course that residential staff could take in an online, asynchronous format on their own time. . 

Amy: The more education and training opportunities we can embed into staff members’ schedules at The Guild, the better. Even offering tuition assistance may not enable staff to pursue their education when doing so would prevent them from receiving income from additional jobs. Let’s continue these conversations around working towards an equitable, inclusive human services sector. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Fabiana: Thank you. Sometimes, topics like these are considered taboo that shouldn’t be discussed, but that’s where the real issues lie – when they’re not being discussed.   

Madyna: I agree. You must be willing to sit with something and muscle through it to learn and grow. 

Mustapha: Sharing different perspectives is so important. My people have a saying that the one who draws the line doesn’t know it’s crooked, but the person standing behind them does. 

Ask the Expert is a blog series featuring Guild staff and stakeholders discussing recent trends, topics, and research within the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Check out previous editions exploring nonprofit financial management strategies, the importance of trauma-informed care and navigating the transition to adulthood for individuals with autism on our blog