Why Build Cultural Competency to Effectively Engage With Diversity

According to 2013 U.S. Census data:

48 percent of children under the age of 18 were members of racial/ethnic groups other than non-Hispanic white.

Of this group, Hispanics represented the largest racial/ethnic group (24 percent), followed by non-Hispanic blacks (14 percent) and non-Hispanic Asians (5 percent).

Hispanics also are a fast-growing racial/ethnic group, almost tripling as a share of the U.S. population between 1980 (9 percent) and 2013 (24 percent).

Across that culturally and linguistically diverse population, however, there is great variability within any given racial/ethnic group. Understanding the variability within and across racial/ethnic subgroups is an important step any organization must take to ensure its services are culturally responsive to the needs of its targeted population.

Given the rapidly changing demographics among high-poverty communities in the United States, it is of the utmost importance to recognize the particular needs of the culturally and linguistically diverse populations served. To appropriately reflect this responsiveness to increasingly diverse populations, in order to keep pace with the demand, we must deliver more culturally responsive academic, social, and behavioral health services.

Cultural competency is important to become more responsive to the needs of the increasingly diverse populations served in the classrooms and communities where we are located. First, a working definition of diversity must be understood, in order to provide and deliver responsive services to these populations. For our purposes,  Diversity  means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies.

An essentially difficult construct, diversity is every one of us, as individuals, even within the same or similar socially-defined groups. For instance, diversity is represented by an African-American, male or female, of the same socially-defined race, economic status, income bracket, and even family structure. Yet, within that diversity exists diversity in experience, religion, beliefs, interests, skills, values, and so forth. Therefore, to understand diversity, we must not limit ourselves to easily identified characteristics. We must broaden the lens to identify the nuances of individual differences and unique aspects of what their differences are. People are different, as much as we are similar, but responsiveness reflects an understanding that within general representations of difference or diversity, in order to deliver more appropriate services, we must seek to identify, respect and acknowledge the uniqueness possessed by each person individually. This awareness helps us to avoid assuming a one size fits all approach to service delivery.

What we should assume about anyone who represents diversity, whether Hispanic, African-American, LGBTQ, Muslim, and so forth, each person, child and family deserves to be valued, respected, appreciated. Assume that everyone possesses strengths and frame services from an individualized, solutions focused, and strengths based culturally competent approach. Cultural competency is generally defined as:

A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or amongst professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.… A culturally competent system of care acknowledges and incorporates—at all levels—the importance of culture, the assessment of cross-cultural relations, vigilance towards the dynamics that result from cultural differences, the expansion of cultural knowledge, and the adaptation of services to meet culturally unique needs.

A critical element of that definition is the phrase “at all levels.”

A culturally competent organizational practice model integrates three dimensions:

Critical awareness/knowledge—an awareness of one’s own knowledge and biases of culturally diverse populations;

Skills development—effective communication and skills that foster trust with individuals from diverse backgrounds; and

Organizational supports—organizational systems and policies that facilitate practices that are responsive to the varied needs of diverse families.

How an organization’s policies and practices operate depends on the nature of the services it offers. Within the health professions, for example, culturally competent strategies are likely to focus on attitudes and behaviors related to health services. Likewise, education and instructional practices and strategies should reflect an understanding of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of African-American students and past experiences of their parents as it relates to their children’s education and family engagement at school.

Because cultural misunderstandings around health and health care can have life-or-death consequences, cultural competency efforts in that area are robust. Within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Office of Minority Health has established the Center for Linguistic and Cultural Competency in Health Care to address the needs of diverse populations. The Office also has developed the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care (National CLAS Standards). These standards “aim to improve health care quality and advance health equity by establishing a framework for organizations to serve the nation’s increasingly diverse communities.”

Similarly, the National Association of Social Workers includes provisions within its Code of Ethics that hold social workers to be culturally competent. For example, social workers are expected to “have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.”

Educators must demonstrate fidelity to the same types of standards and ethics to guide their practices as it pertains to school children, developing minds, and their families. That one size fits all approach to teaching and learning is outdated because of the dire consequences it has had on the education, life and success of diverse black and poor populations who attend[ed] our nation’s public schools. A growing non- or limited English speaking immigrant population in this country, whose children attend or will attend our schools, demands an even more urgent need to reframe the policies, practices, and the curricula that guide teaching to promote learning and achievement in school.

The assessments, evaluation, disciplinary polices and practices, and the educational materials, specifically textbooks, must undergo a reform or transformation. To better respond to the need for cultural responsiveness, instructional relevance with respect to equity, and equal access and opportunity, all learners need to be affirmed, encouraged, supported, safe and healthy in 21st Century community schools. We are becoming a rapidly growing diverse society, and euro-centricity is no longer valid nor acceptable to  encourage college and career ready, globally competent learners.

Now we must think globally, and young learners must be prepared to take a seat at a global table of decision-makers and leaders alongside their diversely represented counterparts. We need to prepare educators and service providers by building levels of cultural competency needed to communicate, establish trust, engage, and empower EVERY family in all of the complexities of diversity they may reflect.

A good way start building trust and improving communication among staff and individuals served is to identify which definition of cultural competence fits best. Here are some activities that can be useful:

Inviting discussions with members of different cultural groups to gather opinions and viewpoints that are truly representative.

Assessing the organization’s current strengths and weaknesses in providing culturally competent services.

Revising the mission statement to incorporate cultural competency.

Developing goals and identifying milestones to measure progress.

Identifying who will help ensure that conversations about cultural competency are ongoing and make adequate progress.

Dedicating funds and resources to making improvements.

 Why cultural competence is needed for organizations to best serve their stakeholders? Because, we are a culturally and linguistically diverse nation! Our future and our children’s future depends on our commitment to build capacity to engage, embrace and empower children and families with the tools, skills and services necessary for global economic survival, total health and wellness and life-long learning.


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