The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”
We all agree that Cultural Competency is a good thing, but do any of us really understand what it is? I mean, sure, there are tons of research papers and books and stuff on the subject, but who actually reads them when we all have so much work to do and Season 3 of Downton Abbey just started?
Cultural Competency is complex, and we can delve deep into it for hours. But for this post, I just want to spend a few minutes discussing cultural competency and how it manifests in the basic logistics of community engagement. Let’s begin by checking to see how culturally competent you currently are.
Question 1: You are leading a committee to talk about community safety and you want to ensure participation from residents of color. Where should you have the meeting? A. At my office downtown; it’ll make it easy for everyone, since downtown is a central location. B. At the local bar, since it’s an informal place where people can be free to express their opinions. C. Maybe a library, or a community center, some place with easy parking.
Question 2: You are thinking of having food at this meeting. What should you order? A. Prosciutto finger sandwiches, baked brie and dried pears, crudités and olives, accompanied by a nice pinot noir. B. Grilled pork banh mi’s (Vietnamese sandwiches), spring rolls C. Pita and hummus, chicken skewers, fruit.
Question 3: You want communities of color to be well-represented at this meeting. How should you go about outreaching? A. Send out flyers, emails, and Facebook messages. B. Call up the various ethnic organizations and ask them send out word to their community members. C. Have information translated and placed in ethnic media such as newspapers and radios, send staff to physically visit various places with translated materials.
Scoring: Give yourself 0 points for every A answer, 17 points for every B, and 900 points for every C. If you got 0 to 900 points, you are a cultural competency goblin*. If you have 901 to 1816 points, you are a cultural competency wombat*. If you have 1817 to 2700 points, you are a cultural competency platypus*.
Now that you have your score, let’s get on to the tips to make us all become more culturally competent!
Tip 1: Do not assume a person of color is culturally competent. How dare you automatically think I am qualified to talk about cultural competency! People of color can be just as culturally incompetent as everyone else. Why, just over the holiday break I managed to offend people from at least four separate cultures.
Tip 2: Ask questions, but check your assumptions. Assumptions lead to annoying questions like “Vu, what’s the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle?” How the heck would I know? A better question would be “Vu, do you know what the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle is?” (“No clue; I’m vegan.”)
Tip 3: Be where people are. I mean literally, geographically. Come down to the neighborhood. Ironically, I’ve attended a bunch of meetings about cultural competency that are held downtown, known to many of us as “The Maze of $8-Per-Hour Parking and the Endless Gnashing of Teeth.” Move your meetings around and check out all the cool locations where real people naturally congregate. Expecting people to come to you all the time is culturally insensitive. Plus, you can learn more about people and cultures by being where they are.
Tip 4: Have food at your community events, but try to avoid pork. Sounds kind of harsh, since bacon is so delicious and they’ve incorporated it into so many great things like chocolates and vodka. But several cultures and religions avoid pork, so you can make it easier on yourself and ease the mind of a ton of people by just not having it there. At VFA, whenever we have a public event, such as our Tet Celebration on 2/8, we just don’t have pork, since many of our friends who may attend are Muslim. When in doubt, go with chicken.
Tip 5: Be considerate of circumstances and challenges. Take into consideration childcare, transportation, and other factors as you engage communities. Not everyone has a car or knows how to take public transit. Have volunteers to watch over children and have appropriate games and activities for them.
Tip 6: Be careful giving out swag items. I was attending a meeting regarding improving the education system and how to get communities of color to be engaged in the process. At the end, as we left, we were each given a gift bag. I looked inside. It was a bottle of wine. Each person got a bottle of wine! Several cultures and religion do not encourage alcohol consumption, so this was in poor taste, especially in combination with a serious discussion on education. Swag items are fine, but make sure they are appropriate. Pens, note pads, travel-size hand sanitizer, flash drives, and food, especially vegan chocolates, are good. Avoid alcohol, weapons, and stuff made of leather or other animal products.
There are so many different cultures, and each culture is so complex, that it would be impossible to be completely competent. Competency, then, is an evolving process, a sense of self, and a willingness to ask questions and challenge one’s deeply-held beliefs. Or something profound like that. Look, I only scored 934 points, and Downton Abbey is on.
(*These titles are only to illustrate a point. In order to be an official Cultural Competency Platypus or even Unicorn, please follow directions here)