Leaders' Edge Advisor

Vol. 1, No. 3 - Reflections on Cultural Competence

"All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership." John Kenneth Galbraith, U.S. economist “The Age of Uncertainty”

Cultural Competence within human service systems is so doable, yet it continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of community-based service systems to achieve. The notion of service systems being culturally competent has been around for some 20 years. Some of the best minds in the country have honed the theory of Cultural Competence. Yet actualizing cultural competence in community systems remains elusive.

One must ask the question, Why is it so hard to achieve? What gets in the way of communities embracing this critical part of community service systems? Here are some thoughts to consider:

Achievement of a culturally competent community-based service system requires people to take risks and leave their comfort zones. The book Common Fire, which looks at a hundred successful social change leaders, asserts that one of the key ingredients that helps forge these leaders is their having an “out of tribe” experience early in life. The experiences they had were simple: summer camp with children from other cultures, a family trip to another country, or visiting relatives in another part of the United States. Yet these sufficed to expand their views of the world. It gave the future leaders the opportunity to see that life was much broader than just their own ethnic or cultural norms.

We can all have that experience. It is never too late. It is disheartening to go to communities that are rich with cultural diversity and then see that the staff hired to work with those same communities are so often limited to one race, usually white! If we go past the obvious prejudice issues that still exist in this country and try to look at what else is driving this clear lack of sensitivity for the unique characteristics and value of the many cultures, races and ethnic backgrounds of this country we might find some answers.

Barriers to Cultural Competence

  • There is a low level of trust between and among the races, classes and cultural and ethnic groups in this country. Our history as a nation has eroded the ability of people to trust each other, especially as people of color think about relating to Anglo-Americans.
  • There is an incredible inertia to opening oneself up to working with people from different cultures. The need for comfort and familiarity too often means that leaders of organizations choose people who look like themselves, rather than reflecting the cultural makeup of the communities they are engaged in serving.
  • Fear! What will it mean if you disclose that you know very little about someone else’s culture? Hint: This is where we begin the process of becoming culturally competent.

If we cannot move out of our comfort zones, and take the risk of inviting someone into our work lives that is from a different class or race, and learn to work together in diversity, then we will have a difficult time building any community-based service system that can make a difference in people’s lives. Today, building vibrant community-based service systems for children and families is all about taking risks and system change. As with most change processes, it begins with one small step. Take that step and then another and another.

The following questions will help you move towards solutions to creating culturally competent human service systems. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream can be achieved with commitment, knowledge and action. The time is now!

Questions to Ask Your Organization

  • What is good policy in cultural competence for human service organizations?
  • How do we operationalize the principle of cultural competence so that it becomes part of the day to day operations of our organization?
  • What are stellar cultural competence training programs for new staff?
  • How do we make sure that services, including type and location, are tailored to meet the various cultures within our community? Are we listening to family voices?
  • How do we gain consistent insight into the cultural needs of families from various cultures?
  • How do we celebrate culture within our human service systems? Within communities?

These and other questions need to be answered so that we create an infrastructure around Cultural Competence.

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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