When Wombats Go Wild: Cultural Competency at the Mezzo and Macro Levels

wombatinaboxLast week I delivered my keynote speech in front of 300 or 400 people at the Northwest Development Officers Association (NDOA)’s spring conference. I think it went pretty well, except that my light jokes at the expense of hipsters may have offended some people. A young man came up to me after the speech and said, “Maybe next time, you might want to refrain from making fun of some people. I mean, I’m not a hipster, but if there were any in the audience, they may not have liked to be made fun of.”

Look, nonprofit work is plenty serious and very stressful, and if we can’t make gentle fun of hipsters and their asymmetrical hair, skinny jeans, and ridiculous glasses at a conference for fundraisers, then there is no hope for humanity.

Anyway, the speech was about cultural competency and community engagement. It was 35 minutes long and I swear only about 3 minutes total were spent ribbing on hipsters and their Pabst Blue Ribbon and weird, weather-inappropriate scarves. (29 seconds were spent making fun of “gluten-free” people who don’t have Celiac disease).

Since the speech was so long, I thought I would summarize the main point. Basically, “cultural competency” is a term we throw around a lot in the field, usually with metaphors like “Cultural Competency is not a destination, it’s a journey” and “Culture is like the engine of a car: You don’t see it, but it is integral to and greatly influences the car” and “In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director lemonade on demand, so get to it!”

What I’ve been seeing is that the discussion of cultural competency usually stays at the micro level, the differentiated interactions between individuals: Take off your shoes when you enter an Asian person’s house; hugging is not big in some cultures, so don’t hug everyone you meet; it’s not “Chinese New Year” it’s “Lunar New Year” since many Asian countries celebrate it besides China; label food, especially when you serve pork; just because a person doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t mean they’re trying to be disrespectful; etc.

With so many cultures in existence, it is impossible to understand and be fluent in all of them. When we mean well, but because of our gap in knowledge we screw up, I call that being a cultural competency wombat, because wombats are cute and cuddly and they probably don’t mean any harm. I have been the recipient of wombat interactions, and I have been a wombat on numerous occasions. All of us are wombats from time to time, and it is OK, as long as we learn and don’t make the same mistakes.

But cultural competency extends beyond the micro level. At these higher levels—organizational, systemic—where our inherent wombattiness can cause some serious damage. Or at least, be extremely annoying.

When Wombats Go Wild, Mezzo Level

wombats 3When you have some color in your background, you’re a person of color. This is easy to understand. In the same vein, when an organization is led by communities of color and serves communities of color, it’s basically an organization of color. And when a school is 95% kids of color (and we have several in Southeast Seattle), it’s basically a school of color. We have to understand that it’s no longer just an issue of people of color, but whole organizations and schools and neighborhoods of color, and the challenges faced by an individual of color is replicated at these higher levels too, and cultural competency must extend to these levels.

One challenge, for example, is that organizations of color become that one kid in the class that has to teach everyone about his culture. Or that Spanish speaking kid that has to help other kids with their Spanish homework.

Seattle has a strong emphasis on inclusion. We LOVE getting input from everyone on everything, and we know it is essential to get the communities of color’s input (even if we do absolutely nothing with it). Which is why my organization, the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), gets hit up for everything. Each week we get at least two or three requests to recruit our Vietnamese clients for some focus groups—on education, safety, transportation, sewage overflow, you name it—usually without a single thought that we may require funds to do the work.

Inclusion is commendable, but if it doesn’t come with resources, it becomes a burden on organizations of color. I was on a committee that was in charge of allocating a bunch of money. We were reviewing a list of requirements to put in the RFP. Among the requirements were “Applicants must get input from communities and families of color.” That sounds great. But what happens, at least in Seattle, is that mainstream organizations cannot reach the communities of color. So then they contact organizations like VFA and Horn of Africa and Filipino Community of Seattle and East African Community Services to get help. These sort of well-intentioned “inclusiveness” opens the floodgate. It’s like if you’re a teacher and you’re teaching a lesson on Latin American countries and you said, “Pick a Latin American country and write a report. But before you turn in your report, check in with your classmate Pedro to make sure it’s accurate.” So now all the kids descend on Pedro. It’s not that Pedro does not want to help, but he has his own challenges and his own report to write.

The funding for “inclusiveness” is usually never equitable. In fact, most of the time, it’s never even a consideration. Two weeks ago someone called me to ask us to help recruit Vietnamese clients for a focus group. They hired an outreach staff, but she had no luck getting people to sign up for the focus group, so they called me. I said, “So…basically, you got some money to hire a staff, but that didn’t work, so now you’re asking my organization to do this for you for free?”

Some requests are as ridiculous as some hipsters’ hair. One time a mainstream organization contacted me asking for help. “Can you spread the word about this community event?” the rep asked, “Also can you look these documents over to make sure they’re translated correctly into Vietnamese? It’s due in two days, so if you can get back to me by tomorrow, that would be great.” (I sent her a link to a translation company). We nonprofits of color do not have magical unicorn outreach power. Engagement of communities of color takes five times as much effort, since we’re dealing with language, transportation, socioeconomic, and other barriers. Even for VFA’s own workshops and community meetings, it takes calling our clients multiple times before they show up. Most don’t have emails and Google calendar. They have to be reminded a week ahead, three days ahead, one day ahead, the day of, and then relationship building follow-up the week after. This sort of work, if it is valued, must be funded. Just like people of color face challenges, nonprofits of color face challenges. Schools of color, neighborhoods of color face challenges. Often, it’s in the form of “Well, we can’t fund them because they don’t have much capacity. But we still want them to be involved. That will make them feel good to be asked to be involved.”

At this level, funders should try to distribute funds equitably, and try to contract directly with organizations of color if that is what the work entails. Mainstream organizations, if you need help with outreach, build sufficient funds into your project budget to compensate nonprofits of color for their time and expertise.

When Wombats Go Wild, Macro Level

Awombats go wildt the systems level, that’s when we see how critical cultural competency is. For the past couple of years, I have been chairing the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a collaboration of nonprofits of color, schools, families, and community members working together to improve schools in SE Seattle, the most diverse quadrant of the City. 8% of SE Seattle is White, compared to 43% district-wide. 72% of the students are free and reduced lunch, compared to 43% also. 22% are English Language Learners, compared to 10%. We have awesome restaurants down here, and also the most struggling schools. Seattle Public Schools grade their schools from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest in performance. In SE Seattle, with some of the most amazing educators, only a single school is graded above a level 3. That would be Mercer Middle School, Level 5. Over 50% of kids of color will fail to graduate from high school.

It’s been like this for decades. And the lack of cultural competency at this level is pretty glaring. For example, I was attending a meeting on SE Seattle a while ago, and we talked about these issues, and a school board member was there. Everyone was upset by the disparities in SE Seattle. The school board member stood up, the sun dappled on her hair, and a hush fell over the room (I’m trying make this story more interesting, since this blog post is pretty long). “These numbers are unacceptable,” she said, “I need all you guys to send in letters and emails and bring your community members to show up at board meetings, because without an army behind me, there’s nothing I can do. Parents at other schools organize and send 50 emails, and they get what they want, so we have to do the same.” People murmured their agreement, vowing to rally the troops.

That was totally wombat, because the intention was good, and at first it makes sense. A man stood up, his face gaunt with time and planning too many annual dinners, his back hunched from too many meetings. “We can try to do that,” he said, “because our parents must make their voices known. At the same time, many of our parents don’t speak much English. Some have never touched a computer, much less know how to send an email. They work several jobs, so they might not be able to join meetings. How fair is this system then? While we build the capacity of our families, we MUST also change this system.” This system that exists, where the loudest voices win, is culturally incompetent and has been perpetuating inequity in education and other areas for decades.

We see this lack of cultural competency play out again and again at the macro level. The Families and Education Levy, for example, is supposed to help schools like the ones in SE Seattle. But the grant application is ridiculously complicated and burdensome, which is fine if every school had the same resources to write it. But the schools that have the least capacity to write these grants are the ones that most need the grants, as usually they’re the ones with the most kids of color and low-income kids. I was helping a school with this grant. This school has 97% kids of color. The principal and I locked ourselves in her office for several days to write this thing, and by the time we were done, the narrative was 28 pages long. It was the most ridiculous grant I had ever written, and it was like giving birth. (I know all about the pains of giving birth now that I have witnessed it first-hand). Another school, with even more needs, did not apply.

Cultural competency is extremely critical, especially when the injustices that we are trying to address usually disproportionately affect communities of color. The concept has been tossed around a lot and beaten into all of us, but usually only at the micro level. What we have at all levels are often well-meaning people who are trying to help, but all of us naturally impose our own perspectives on to things and people. If VFA has time to recruit people for their workshops, why can’t they recruit the same people for my focus group? If I can access social media, other people should be able to. If I can write a 28-page grant, why can’t these school principals? If some parents can write emails and testify at school board meetings and write op-eds, why can’t other parents? These wombat assumptions are annoying, but at the higher levels, they can be deadly, silently perpetuating the cycle of inequity while all of us are talking about whether it is culturally appropriate to shake hands with some clients or not, or whether we should take off our shoes.

The most crotch-kickingly craptastic grant application notice ever

crotch kickToday, I paid 10 bucks to get kicked in the crotch by a funder. Well, not literally, but that’s what it felt like. We had applied for a significant grant (over 100K), in partnership with another organization. Yesterday, we were excited to get an email from this funder asking for the ED to come downtown for a meeting, and to bring copies of the grant application. Sweet! One step closer!

Normally, this is how a grantmaking process works: First, an RFP is released. We review the RFP, figure out if it’s a good match for our mission, rally potential partners, write the application, and submit it. Then we wait. Usually, one of three things happens. The best scenario, of course, is getting a phone call saying we got the grant, in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for ice cream.

The most common scenario is we get a letter saying, “Blah blah, we had 300 applications and there is only so much funding to go around; your application, while strong, did not qualify; we’re available for feedback,” in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for alcohol, and in an inebriated state we beg the bar owner to be a sponsor or at least for some sympathy fries on the house.

A third result is an email or phone call asking us to come in for an interview or a meeting, in which case, a whirlwind of activities happens, including reviewing the grant application (because by then, we’ve forgotten what we proposed, something about helping kids), doing a pre-meeting to determine who says what so that we don’t trip over each other, and determining logistics such as carpooling and whether we should color coordinate our interview outfits and get haircuts.

The interview stage does not automatically mean that we get the grant, but it is exciting to think that we are a little closer to being able to do some cool programming and help some great kids and families. I am on paternity leave, but this was a large grant, so I dragged my fellow ED from the collaborating organization, Sharonne, and one of my staff, James, and we drove downtown, getting there 30 minutes early to review our game plan. James had spent the previous night creating a chart to better illustrate our program model.

We walked into the room, ready to answer questions and dazzle the two grant reviewers, who seemed like nice women.

“So you know how this process works,” said one of the women, “we got 10 applications, and could only select 2. Unfortunately, VFA is not one of the two organizations. However, you came real close and just missed it by a couple of points.”

WTF? We looked at each other, confused. “We have some feedback here for you, and can answer any questions you have. Would you like to hear the feedback?”

Silently, we nodded, thinking this was the most bizarre meeting ever. She went through a long list of feedback about our applications, both good and bad, and we sat there, stunned, like we were in some weird sort of nonprofit twilight zone.

“So,” she said, “do you have any questions?”

We paused.

“Yes,” I said, “when did the notice about the grant go out? Did you send a letter saying that we didn’t get this grant? Because we didn’t get any notice…”

The women looked at each other.

“Well, uh, no, sorry, I know it’s a little cryptic when we called you in, but we didn’t want the word spreading about who got and didn’t get the grant, so we, um, wanted to call you in and talk to you, and THEN we send out the notices.”

I was trying hard to control my temper, and I could feel the anger rising in Sharonne and James.

“We feel blindsided,” I said, “Normally we get a rejection letter or phone call, and then we ask for feedback. We are used to rejections, so that is not the issue. You don’t call people in, leading them to think that they are advancing in the process, only to tell them they didn’t get the grant.”

“Well, uh, that’s the process that [our supervisor] set up.” She looked at her colleague. “That’s funny, this is the first time we’ve gotten this feedback.”

“I don’t appreciate this,” I said. I had had all of two or three hours of sleep each night for the past 18 days and was in no mood to be extra nice.

“Your assistant asked us to bring in copies of our grant application,” said Sharonne, “why would we bring copies if it’s just a feedback session?” She had driven over an hour to get to this meeting.

“Well, uh, we see what you mean,” one of the women responded, “we certainly didn’t need copies. We have so many!—“

“Which we thoroughly reviewed,” the other woman chimed in cheerfully.

“We’ll talk to our assistant,” they said.

We left, feeling extra crappy. Not getting the grant is one thing, and something that all nonprofits are used to even though it hurts each time, but driving all the way downtown and wasting our time preparing for this meeting only to get 5 minutes of feedback that could have easily been delivered by phone, simply because they didn’t want word spreading prematurely—that sucks. Since this was downtown Seattle, we wasted 20 bucks on parking the two cars, making us all feel like we each paid to get kicked in the gonads, and not in a good way.

“Let’s go get a drink,” I said, and others thought it was a great idea. After a mimosa in each of us at 11:37am, the episode seemed hilarious. This was hysterical! Ha, James stayed up making a chart! Sharonne drove up from Olympia! Me spending several minutes this morning figuring out if I should wear my red button-down shirt, which conveys power, or my purple striped button-down shirt, which conveys practicality. (I chose the purple one). We didn’t get the 100K grant that we had spent hours working on! It was really, really funny!

I love this work. It is never boring, even on some days when I wish for it to be.

Our waitress was extra nice when we told her what happened. “Keep trying,” she said. I should have asked her for some sympathy fries.


How awesome is having a baby?

IMAG2338-1Hi everyone,

My apologies for being absent the past couple of weeks. My little son arrived on Tuesday, after 13 hours of hard labor that were almost as difficult as some grant application processes. We’re naming him Viet William Prinzing Le. We got lots of good suggestions for names, but the auctioning off the baby’s naming rights mentioned earlier…well, that was actually an April Fool’s joke. (Although, I think we may just do that if we have another kid, maybe get some corporate sponsors. “Doritos Shamwow Le” does have a nice ring to it).

I am sleep deprived, looking like an extra from the Walking Dead. I have not had more than two consecutive hours of sleep for seven days. Don’t worry, though, the poor sleep and exhaustion hasn’t been affecting me at yes, yes we would love a donation, Benjamin Franklin, thank you!

Huh? Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes, the baby. This has been one of the hardest few days of my life, trying to stay up to console the baby. For the first few days, he wouldn’t sleep without being held. Now he can for a short period of time, but once in a while, he jolts awake, and I have to tap him and say soothing things like “shhhhh, shhhh, Daddy’s here, and you don’t have to plan an annual dinner…” It is exhausting. And I have to learn all sorts of new stuff, like how to use cloth diapers (Since this is Seattle, the diapers are organic, gluten-free, and artisanal, made with hemp fibers). Having a baby changes you. Last week, I walked into the birthing center a boy. When I walked out, I was no longer a boy.

But a boy with an awesome baby! Sweeeet!!! Seriously, despite the exhaustion, the long nights, the hoarse voice, and the constant lingering smell of spit-up that surrounds me, this is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. How awesome is it, you ask? Since this is a nonprofit blog, I’ll try to put it into nonprofit perspective:

  • It is more awesome than a funder that you don’t know emailing you asking you to apply to a grant, and then you apply, and then you actually get the grant.
  • It is better than a four-day weekend where you don’t have any community meetings and you can just watch like an entire Season of Breaking Bad or Arrested Development.
  • It is better than giving someone feedback, and then seeing evidence that they actually used it and you no longer want to smack them each time you see them.
  • It is better than getting a thank-you note from a student saying how much your program has helped her, with terrible spelling and a sweet but horrible drawing of you.
  • Better than checking your email and finding someone has made an online donation. Better than meeting your annual dinner goal. Better than that feeling you get the day after a major event when you still have so much crap to do but at least it’s over and you can go splurge on some ice cream.
  • Better than a retreat that actually leads to a doable action plan that everyone is happy about.
  • It is better than cleaning up your cubicle and finding a gift certificate for a dozen vegan cupcakes that someone gave you but you promptly lost because your cubicle is the Bermuda Triangle of documents.
  • It is better than beating traffic and arriving early for a meeting, so early that you can take a 15-minute nap in your car in the sunshine and then waking up and freaking out thinking you may have overslept but then realizing you still have six minutes so you set your alarm for five minutes and go back to sleep.

Having a sweet little baby is better than all those things. And almost as good as a multiyear general operating grant.

The grant

12605crazyhandLast month we had to work on a grant. I don’t really mind writing grants, but this one was painful. It was awful. It was the worst grant I had ever written. It was like getting a thousand paper cuts, bathing in lime juice, and then drying off with a towel dusted with salt.

It was excruciating, like taking some tin foil, covering it with barbecue sauce, and then chewing the whole thing for five or six minutes and only taking a break once to punch yourself in the face.

Seriously, this grant was horrifying, like someone taking a garden statue of a skunk, breaking off its tail, dipping the tail in chunky peanut butter and fire ants, and then beating you with it while forcing you to watch Superman IV.

This grant was insane, like taking a Funshine Bear Care Bear doll, removing all the stuffing, filling it with sauerkraut, then duct-taping the kraut-stuffed bear to your chest before you run screaming into a garage wall while passers-by spit tapioca pearls at you with those giant bubble tea straws.

The grant was horrendously agonizing, like someone going to the farmer’s market, buying three organic purple carrots, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, smashing them into pieces, loading those pieces into a T-shirt cannon and firing them at you while you have one foot in a duffel bag filled with live scorpions and a puree of habanero peppers.

It was stressful and unpleasant, like taking a codpiece and some leeches and a blowtorch and some rope and a handful of pistachio shells and a week-old baguette and some mouthwash and …

Anyway, you get the point. It was an awful, awful grant, mind-numbingly tedious, frustrating, annoying, infuriating, and very, very irritating.

This week we just got notice that we made it to the interview round. Sweet!