Cultural Competency

About ten years ago, I worked, as a school counselor, for a very progressive school district in Pennsylvania.  I volunteered, with a cohort of district employees, to participate in the “cultural competency cadre.” I figured, why not, it had a cool name, and the extra pay was enticing.

It turned out to be an amazing experience. We met twice a month for almost two years.  During our meetings we engaged in meaningful conversations about culture, race, personal biases, and most importantly, how to be agents for social change.

Through the experience, I was challenged to explore my own biases, (because, believe it or not we all have them), and to disclose personal information with strangers (something that is not comfortable for me). After developing this deeper sense of self-awareness, the last component of my cultural competency training was to attempt to change the culture of my school.

This was the most incredible part.  Our instructor, (whose name I can no longer remember), shared the following steps to create social change:

  1. Accepting others where they are
  2. Showing them that we genuinely care about them
  3. Challenging them to see things differently

So step one made sense to me. I knew that I needed to respect and treat others the way I wanted to be treated, even if I disagreed with them. But step two was the challenge.  I thought, how do I show someone whom I disagree with that I genuinely care about them? Upon reflection, I realized that typically once I discovred someone had a different opinion than me, I used it as an excuse to distance myself from them…. when I should have been seizing it as an opportunity to grow personally.  The challenge was that this new way of thinking required me to lay aside my pride, emotions, and opinions.

Well, as luck would have it, an opportunity to exercise the new skills that I was learning came my way.

In the middle school where I was working there was a technology teacher who had a strong personality.  Quite frankly he was rude to me, and sarcastic to everyone.  Since his course was a special, and students in his classes did not typically have homework, we didn’t interact too often.

However one particular year, he became very frustrated with a number of his students.  One student in particular came from a single parent home.  The student and her mother were living in poverty, and the mother had a brain tumor.

Now this mother,  was not the most pleasant person to speak with.  She would typically call the school and yell at whomever she spoke to, in an attempt to get information about her child’s grades. (They didn’t have a working computer at home). But not everyone knew about her situation.

So this teacher, came to me to express his displeasure with the student’s lack of effort in his class. He had strong opinions about the student, and he was set on dumping them on me.  Of course, my initial thought was to jump in, interrupt him and explain the family dynamic in hopes that he would be sympathetic to this student.  However, with the cultural competency training under my belt, I decided that this time I would just hear him out.

It turned out that by allowing him the time to vent,  I built trust with him and I discovered that deep down he was really just frustrated with himself, not the student.  This initial conversation, set the stage for more positive communication between us and eventually opportunities for step three. I was finally able to challenge him to see the child differently once I built a trusting relationship with him.

It took more work and time than I could have ever imagined, but the results were amazing. In the end, the key for me was step two.  Once this teacher knew that I genuinely cared about him, step three was a breeze.

So I challenge you to consider trying this model to impact social change in your neck of the woods.

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