19: Cultural Competency: Organizations and Diverse Populations
- BUILDING AND MAINTAINING AN ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE
- DEVELOPING A MORE INCLUSIVE AND CULTURALLY BASED ORGANIZATION
- VALUES AND SERVICE DELIVERY
- CASE STUDIES
- EXERCISE: FRAMEWORK FOR ASSESSING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURAL COMPETENCY
- AUTHOR'S NOTE
Patricia St. Onge
Troughout this chapter, when I refer to “we,” I mean my organization, Seven Generations Consulting. We chose the name Seven Generations to remind us that we stand on the shoulders of the generations who came before us and that our decisions will impact seven generations after us. This is a cultural worldview rooted in my Haudenosaune identity.
Over the past 11 years, we have worked with more than 100 organizations around the country, supporting them in their commitment to provide more effective services and advocacy for and with their communities. Organizations that pay attention to elements of culture in carrying forward their mission, program development, operations, and decision making are what I call “culturally based.”
A culturally based organization recognizes the need for ongoing attention to the question of culture (St. Onge, 2009). We see culture as dynamic; the lens changes as people's experiences expand. As we engage across differences, our worldview also expands to include a deeper understanding of other people's and communities' experiences. Moving beyond cultural competency, our culturally based approach is not a topic but, rather, a methodology. More than a skill set, it is a perspective that shapes and informs how we arrive in communities, how we participate in the process of facilitating transformation, and how we leave tools, resources, and capacity behind for community members to continue their own processes of growth, change, and development (St. Onge, 2009).
We engage in a continuous developmental process of becoming an authentic culturally based organization. Our approach is to integrate and transfer knowledge about the cultural dynamics of organizations, communities, and constituencies into specific policies, practices, and standards to enhance the quality of life. We understand that, in this process, the effectiveness and proficiency of our services are enhanced as well.
Culture has a multitude of elements and grows through time. Because of the way history has unfolded in the United States, with its origins in conquest of indigenous peoples, slavery, and misogyny, we see race and gender as the fault lines of oppression in our context. In their book The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres (2003) point out how U.S. society “racializes” Page 426 | Top of Articlesocial problems that are in fact class issues that impact poor Caucasians in much higher numbers (though in lower proportions) than they do communities of color. Guinier and Torres see race and the racializing of our society as functioning in much the same way as canaries did deep in coal mine shafts; the canary's death alerted miners to poisonous air in the mine. Marginalized communities in our society face similar circumstances, and their struggles point to poisons in our economic/social system. Our public policy reaction is to pathologize those who are already marginalized and to provide them with minimal assistance—which functions like “gas masks” to afford a bit of protection so they can survive the poison a bit longer—as opposed to addressing the issue of poison itself and the imminent danger to everyone. The canary represents those who are most vulnerable in society and so the first to feel the effects of social and economic crises. Indeed, in any of the crises related to health, education, housing, or employment facing our society, the first and hardest hit are the people and communities on the margins, while the rest of society fares much better. For example, since the “economic crisis” hit, much of the public discourse has centered on the middle class. If we had paid closer attention to the members of our communities and society who were struggling when things seemed “OK” and fixed the system, we can assume two outcomes. First, the situation would never have gotten as bad as it did, because we would have put measures in place to support vulnerable people and our society would be more just and healthy. Second, we would know what to do when a larger group fell into the same situation.
Instead, our political leaders—unchallenged by us, their constituents—pretended that only the “canaries” were in trouble. It is clear from the metaphor that we all inhabit the same “mine” and that now many more of us suffer the ill effects of a society not attendant to the sources of economic and social crises. Our work seeks to show how society is being poisoned, and to provide vulnerable people and allies with the tools for transforming negative conditions and alerting others to serious societal risks.
In my view, there is a direct relationship between the quality of life in a community and the capacity of its social institutions to address basic human needs, build community, promote social transformation, and achieve institutional change. The key to transforming neighborhoods and communities is developing a strong infrastructure of sustainable community-based organizations with visionary leadership, effective management systems, feasible development plans, and viable organizing/advocacy methods.
Organizations, like people, are rooted in cultural identities. As individuals, we need to understand our personal cultural location in order to function effectively cross-culturally. So, too, organizations need to understand their culture in order to be open and effective at engaging cross-culturally, both internally and in their external relationships.
How does an organization go about clarifying its culture? The most important step is to recognize that the organization has a culture. This is particularly challenging when the organization is made up of members (board, staff, constituents or clients, etc.) who come from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. When we think of culture, the elements that first come to mind are generally race and ethnicity, music, dress, religion, visual art, food, celebrations, and language. In fact, in addition to these cultural elements, elements that we call “deep culture” further inform how we orient ourselves to the world. These deeper elements include notions of modesty, concepts of food, ideals of governing, attitudes about child rearing, conceptions of justice, patterns of group decision making, attitudes toward the dependent, patterns of superior/subordinate relations, and preference for competition or cooperation. The following illustration by Sharon Ruhly (1976) presents these deeper elements of culture (see Figure 19.1 ).
As individuals and organizations, we swim in a complex culture derived from a past that was shaped, if not defined, by conquest, slavery, and misogyny. Unable to see themselves through those lenses, the U.S. founders developed a cultural worldview and narrative of freedom, justice, and equality that far exceeded the realities experienced by the
diverse peoples inhabiting the newly colonized nation. From its founding, the United States has juggled the spoken and the unspoken cultures, often creating dissonance for many who try to elevate the unspoken cultures in more visible ways.
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING AN ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE
Once members of an organization articulate their culture in a deep and transparent way, they should pay attention to key elements as they practice. One of these elements is shared definitions. So much of our language is peppered with jargon, much of which has never been defined with everyone in mind. As a result, we often talk around one another, both within our organizations and in the field of social services and social justice. The process of creating shared definitions may take many forms. One method that we find helpful is to brainstorm a list of the most commonly used words in our organizational lexicon.
Once the list of words is created, taking the time to be sure everyone shares the same understanding of their meanings is equally important. At some level definitions are fluid, and allowing for that fluidity is often more helpful than deciding on a rigid definition for each term. If, indeed, information is power, then the objective is to have a shared understanding of the definition in order to level the playing field of our environment.
For our purposes in writing this chapter, we have prepared the definitions. Working in person, we would develop shared definitions that come from the group. The following definitions grow out of our experience working with dozens of organizations over the years.
Structural/institutionalized oppression is the pattern of inequity embedded in the systems, structures, and institutions that influence our lives (Solomon, 1985). It reaches beyond individual behaviors—conscious or unconscious—that denigrate one group or elevate another. Structural oppression is a system that impacts both those who are the (perceived) beneficiaries from the system of imbalances as well as those who are its targets. If we understand that we are all connected at a deep, human level, we can experience the system's impact on the privileged party diminishing that party's capacity to be fully present to all parties. Both those who benefit from and those who are targets of systems of oppression lose that sense of connection and experience the dynamic in isolation.
For example, during World War II, when Japanese Americans were interned they had only hours to put their lives in order before being shipped to the camps. The situation of a family who owned a grocery store illustrates the impact of oppression. One of their Caucasian neighbors offered to buy the store for $5,000. A year later, while the Japanese American family was still interned, the Caucasian family sold the store for $50,000. When thinking about the impact of the racist, xenophobic policy of internment, it is easy to recognize the impact on the Japanese American family. The European American family was impacted in significant ways that we can just imagine. Perhaps their children got to go to college, or they were able to buy a house. The impact on those who benefit from structural oppression is often perceived as good fortune rather than the consequences of oppression. The edited volume by Rivera and Erlich (1998) documents oppression and effective organizing among ethnic communities.
I define culture as the behaviors, norms, attitudes, and assumptions that inform a group of people who are joined by common values, myths, beliefs, and worldviews. Culture forms the group's context, based on shared knowledge, experience, and sensitivity to aspects of life, primarily through race/ethnicity, language, group identity, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, age, and religion. Deep culture is composed of the elements of a culture that are less visible but equally informative and meaningful to the group. All culture serves as a road map for the members of the group.
Internalized oppression is the phenomenon that occurs when those who are targets of the dominant worldview internalize the negative assumptions (Solomon, 1977, 1985) of that worldview. Believing the assumptions and stereotypes about their group that are imposed from outside, people may come to treat one another based on those negative assumptions and stereotypes (see Solomon, 1977 ).
Functioning in a culturally based way requires understanding historical and current contexts. When launching an advocacy campaign with a coalition of service providers in Northern California, we asked them what they had learned about advocacy and the role of advocates in their home country. Some of the responses included the following:
- In our country, we were told not to make noise; don't attract attention out of fear of reprisal.
- We were brought up never to question authority.
- We know from our history that if we don't speak up, we will be taken advantage of.
- There was fear that if we spoke up, we'd be dealt with even more harshly and get treated even worse.
- In my home country, if you're not an expert, you don't say anything. We feel uneducated and are told, “You don't know what you're talking about…. You're not the expert.”
- The way I was brought up, it is the responsibility of individuals to make it. … You're not supposed to need help.
- We don't air our dirty laundry. If you do, you're shamed and made to think it's your own fault.
- There is great cost in not speaking up.
- We have great champions who worked tirelessly for the people of our community. They are seen as heroes.
As you can imagine, sitting together to develop an advocacy strategy with this coalition developed understanding of how members' histories and personal stories created the lenses through which they see advocacy. The more the individuals within the group learned one another's stories, the easier it became to find strategies everyone could embrace. The dialogue brought understanding of one another and their communities. It also taught the group to be more open to multiple perspectives people brought to the table that might lead to various strategies. Finally, it helped provide support to group members in ways that were thoughtful and ultimately more effective.
Another element necessary for culturally appropriate work is attention to power dynamics. When we hear the word power, most of us think of power as power-over (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126; VeneKlasen, 2007). This is one kind of power; when someone wields power—positively or negatively—over another person or group. There are other ways of thinking about power (Art of Leadership, 2009; French & Raven, 1959). O'Connor and Netting (2009, p. 165) examine how different sources and types of power will result in different relations and outcomes. We can have power with someone—relational power—that is collaborative in nature and horizontal in its exercise, rather than the vertical expression of power-over (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126; VeneKlasen, 2007). The development of feminist theory in social work has frequently emphasized the importance of power with people, which is particularly important in community practice (Gutiérrez & Lewis, 1999; Hyde, 2005; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986; Weil, 1986). In A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics, VeneKlasen (2007) states: “Both these forms of power [power-to and power-with] are referred to as agency—the ability to act and change the world—by scholars writing about development and social change” (p. 45).
There is a kind of power that is not relational in the same way as power-over or power-with. This is power from within, more like the energy that drives an engine. As VeneKlasen (2007) notes,
Power within has to do with a person's sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others. Power within is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfillment. (p. 45)
In addition to these essential forms of power, there are multiple types and sources of power (French & Raven, 1959; O'Connor & Netting, 2009). Among them are the following:
- Positional power that comes from organizational authority or position—often forgotten by people with the power, rarely forgotten by those without it (French & Raven, 1959; Jansson, 2010).
- Referred (or referent) power that comes from connections to those with positional power (e.g., a school secretary who may not have much positional power but who everyone knows is the “go-to” person who gets things done and has access to the school principal) (French & Raven, 1959; Jansson, 2010).
- Expert power that comes from wisdom, knowledge, experience, or skills (French & Raven, 1959).
- Ideological power that comes from an idea, vision, or analysis. It can be an original idea of an individual or an ideal such as “democracy” or “liberation” (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126).
- Obstructive power stemming from the ability to coerce or block (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126).
- Personal power that comes from an individual's energy, vision, ability to communicate, capacity to influence, emotional intelligence, etc.Page 430 | Top of Article
- Co-powering speaks to the responsibility for individual leaders to mindfully work toward supporting the personal power of others through modeling, validating, and feedback (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126; Vargas, 2009).
- Collaborative power that comes from our ability to join our energies in partnership with others, in pairs, teams, organizations, communities, coalitions, and movements (Berkowitz & Wolff, 2000).
- Charismatic power—vision and expertise that inspires loyalty and trust (Jansson, 2010; Sager, 2008).
- Institutional/structural power—economic, legal, and political power directly wielded by institutions. It exists apart from the individuals who work there at any one time (St. Onge, 2009, p. 126).
- Cultural power—the cultural norms, conditioning, and privilege regarding the elements of culture granted to the members of a group, who receive energy from the shared experience, whether the shared experience is positive or negative, conscious or not (St. Onge, 2009).
- Transcendent power that comes from our connection to a spiritual sensibility, an appreciation of nature, or adherence to a set of ideals. It may also derive from a commitment to a historical imperative or ideals (St. Onge, 2009).
These sources of power are themselves neutral, neither good nor bad. How we exercise them influences the impact they have. For example, when operating in the sphere of political participation and social change, VeneKlasen (2007, pp. 47–51) discusses these additional factors: visible power (observable power), hidden power (setting the political agenda), and invisible power (shaping meaning). Community practitioners need to gain and exercise power in these three ways to support communities and vulnerable populations, and they need strategies to overcome the exercise of power in these ways by others who seek to disempower or oppress specific groups.
Recent literature on critical theory takes a different stance on power, arguing that while modernist perspectives view gaining knowledge as a form of power,
those with power can control the language of the discourse and can therefore influence how the world is to be seen and what it will mean. Language promotes some possibilities and excludes others; it constrains what we see and what we do not see. (Howe, 1994 , p. 522)
Dominant groups in societies—economically, politically, and socially—seek to control what is talked about and how. This use of power most often has major negative effects on low-wealth and minority communities and further emphasizes the need for community practitioners to have knowledge and skills to assist groups in combating racism, sexism, and classism. There are many strategies for addressing racism, oppression, and power dynamics. A key step in dealing with diversity is to look beyond personal behavior and address structures of oppression and internalized oppression. Another is to gain an understanding of privilege and how it is used in organizations and communities. Identifying privilege, wherever it is held, is a first step toward dealing with it. Again, privilege isn't necessarily a bad thing; what is bad is the unjust exclusion of some that diminishes our capacity to engage holistically within organizations and/or communities. Therefore, a good strategy is to extend privilege and respect to everyone, which moves us beyond the “zero-sum” game, which posits the belief that one group's well-being means another group is deprived.
Another critical step in addressing power dynamics is to analyze how the dominant culture is affecting the organization. Ask the questions: What is considered “normal,” and what is considered outside the norm? What is the cultural base for the way an organization envisions its purpose, operates, and evaluates success? I once worked with a group of tribes who were trying to decrease the prevalence of commercial, addictive tobacco in their communities, particularly among young people. For indigenous communities, the message around tobacco is “Keep tobacco sacred,” rather than just “Don't smoke.” The state tobacco prevention agency would not fund Page 431 | Top of Articleany “sacred use” work, so the tribes formed a coalition and engaged the power structure by deciding that they would not take any funding if it didn't include sacred use. Because the state was mandated to serve all communities, it had to work with the coalition as a body, which shifted the power relationships and made space for the tribes to exercise cultural power in a way that led to better outcomes related to youth and tobacco addiction.
When there are power differentials within an organization or community group, we can employ numerous strategies to equalize:
STRATEGIES TO EQUALIZE POWER DIFFERENTIALS1
- Orient. Effective orientation of new members helps equalize power relationships.
- Use ground rules. Ground rules work best if they are developed by the entire group, acknowledged, hung in a prominent place during meetings, and periodically reviewed by the group to see if they are being honored or if there are additions or deletions.
- Acknowledge and affirm different kinds of power. Explore opportunities for people to exercise different kinds of power.
- Increase the numbers of those with less power. The best way to begin dealing with this is to have open discussions in your agency or collaborative. If you are sincere about wanting to change the power dynamics of your group, you are the best experts on how to do this. For example, if you are looking to increase participation of parents of young children, you may have to change meetings to evening events with potlucks and child care.
- Make full preparations. Approaches include understanding the various methods groups have for making decisions (see Chapter 14 ). In your meetings, acknowledge the various methods and use them in alternating ways.
- Offer comprehensive support. Transportation, child care, and stipends are commonly needed supports to enable parents to participate in meetings. Acknowledge the power differential for those who get paid to come to meetings and those who don't.
- Create a culture of active listening. Have sufficient translators so that everyone can speak in their own language. Honor different styles of speaking equitably. The challenge often raised is that it takes too much time to say everything twice. I would suggest that organizations see this as an investment that will reap benefits far greater than the time expended.
- Be a relationship builder. Help facilitate and establish personal relationships between leaders in the organization or collaborative and those with less positional power. People need to know their ideas will be heard and respected.
As organizational leaders, we need to identify unspoken elements of our culture as well as those we consciously espouse. Most often, deep normative culture is invisible to its members and is experienced as “just the way we do things.” If we assume our organization doesn't have a culture, this reduces our effectiveness to deal with culturally based challenges and diminishes the contributions of those who might bring a cultural lens that falls outside of what is considered “normal” to the organization. Often, in considering organizational culture, we may focus on interpersonal behaviors. This is an important Page 432 | Top of Articlepart of culture building and leads to a more sensitive workforce whose behaviors and attitudes improve the working environment. In order to make the deeper changes that will support the organization in becoming an open and inclusive institution, however, we need to take a step beyond interpersonal behaviors and look to institutional behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions.
In my own experience, both as an executive director and as an interim executive director, I have worked in many different issue-oriented organizations that have ranged in focus from environmental justice to affordable housing to serving the homeless to building collaboratives to conducting research to philanthropy. I found that the content of the challenges may differ, but the challenges themselves are largely the same. When engaging as a culturally based organization, the first principle is that culture is a given. Everything has a culture, whether we recognize it or not. Like sea life in the deep ocean, whether we acknowledge it or not, it is there. Even if we don't know all that it is, we can affirm it is there and worth examining.
In response to that realization, at Seven Generations we have developed a process by which we look at cultural dynamics as a starting point for increasing our cross-cultural effectiveness. As organizational leaders or consultants, we often create a culture design team that reflects the multiple perspectives represented in the agency. It is important to have a program staff person, an administrative staff person, as well as organizational leaders from the staff and, if possible, the board. This design team creates the agenda for our work together. After the design team has done the work of understanding their personal cultural lenses, they look at and discuss Ruhly's “How Culture Is Like an Iceberg” diagram (see Figure 19.1 ). Together, we articulate the cultural elements and their expressions in the agency.
For example, one agency design team identified that they had historically held a preference for competition over cooperation. We explored the strengths of that preference: It increased productivity of programs for people who liked the idea of a reward based on performance. Also, the holiday incentives built into the system of competition created greater commitment to the work. The team looked at the challenges it presented as well. Opportunities for collaboration might be missed because people were seeing other departments in a more adversarial relationship. In addition, the team discussed the implications for people who might come from a cultural perspective that preferred cooperation over competition. By being clear about what the organization's culture was, and what it meant to be competition oriented, we were better able to determine when/ how we might integrate more explicit opportunities for cooperation. This allowed for more flexibility as an organization and created opportunities for staff and board whose cultural experience was to opt for cooperation rather than competition to take leadership when cooperation was more useful.
The approach was not to say that competition is bad but, rather, to see that both cultural perspectives are valid and that by using each one strategically, the organization was more culturally aware and, as a result, more effective. The agency as a whole became more flexible and better able to articulate its culture with respect to cooperation and competition. By bringing the unspoken cultural perspective from below to above the surface, where it was clearly articulated, individuals could navigate that cultural space more easily and the organization could determine when it was appropriate to function in a different cultural way (choosing to be cooperative rather than competitive) in certain circumstances.
When organizational leaders are able to engage staff and members from a place of cultural enrichment, not blame or shame, it changes the culture of the organization. We've created an organizational assessment tool that enhances the planning process or any other assessment process. When organizations look at themselves and honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses, they often pay attention to mission, vision, values, systems of operation, program development, fundraising, and resource management. Most of the questions are designed to assess the effectiveness of the content of each area as well as to provide opportunities to assess cultural Page 433 | Top of Articleawareness for each area. We strongly encourage organizations to incorporate examination of their cultural capacity as a major part of their organizational self-assessment, not to see it as an “add-on” or separate assessment. We encourage agencies to examine not just what they do to raise money from different sources but also how they view their donors and potential donors and what power relationship the organization has with all its donors and potential donors. An organizational assessment tool (St. Onge, 2009) is included at the end of this chapter as a learning exercise for your consideration and use.
DEVELOPING A MORE INCLUSIVE AND CULTURALLY BASED ORGANIZATION
What do culturally unaware dynamics look like, and how can we change existing organizational dynamics to be more inclusive and culturally based? Imagine a collection of “circles of cultural perspectives.” In U.S. society, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, often referred to as the “dominant culture,” would be at the center. All other cultures would be in circles tangential to the dominant culture, in a reactive relationship to it. As long as the dominant group sees itself as the norm (and the marginalized groups comply), it is difficult to broker any conversation that does not go through that middle circle. This is true whenever there are “mainstream/margins” dynamics in relationships.
When I did tobacco policy work, the middle circle was occupied by the Cancer Society, Lung Association, and Heart Association. The orbiting circles were the grassroots organizations working to change tobacco policy and serve communities targeted by tobacco companies. Because the “big three” had the infrastructure, they received the lion's share of the funding for tobacco policy work. In some states, they regranted minimal funding to the grassroots groups but retained power and major financial control. Think about almost any institution, system, or structure and you are likely to see the same dynamic played out. Figure 19.2 illustrates this “mainstream/ margin” relationship.
When we identify the cultural aspects of the position in the center and name it as a cultural worldview, it can then move from the center to take its place as simply one of the many “circles of culture.” My contention is that when members of the dominant culture learn to behave in a culturally based way, it gives them the capacity to understand that all cultures are formed and developed in similar ways. This recognition then begins to dismantle the dominant approaches used (both consciously and unconsciously) to marginalize “minority” cultures.
If and when the dominant/mainstream group sees itself as one more perspective or worldview, it moves out of the center and takes its place among the other circles. Conversations can happen across all the lines between circles, and there isn't a group to serve as “broker” or “gatekeeper” at the center. Then, collectively, the circles can determine what does belong at the center. It is usually a core value instead of one particular group. When we make that shift, we begin to change more than behaviors; we invest in creating more culturally based worldviews and more inclusive systems. As the illustration in Figure 19.3 shows, power-with is more complex—each participating organization can speak equally with all the others. This democratic structuring works to equalize power, and to do so takes a greater investment of time and attention. Skillful facilitation is key.
In the United States, the dominant culture's language (English) and other languages are imbued with
culturally charged concepts. These concepts influence our thinking and expressions without much critical thought on our part. Many of the assumptions behind our business, political, community, and personal roles are also culturally charged.
When we appreciate each cultural lens for what it is—that is, a part of a bigger picture and not the picture itself—our assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shift. For example, from a “mainstream” perspective, cultural differences are relevant only at some points in time and in some situations, and often arise in a crisis in very obvious ways. In a culturally based organization, attention to culture is woven throughout the system, much like other values such as sound fiscal practices or strong, responsive programs.
Mainstream organizations often purport to be identity neutral and value neutral, whereas culturally based agencies invite and value multiple perspectives or lenses. Mainstream organizations also tend to value “hard” skills such as fundraising, program development, and governance more highly and as separate from culture. In culturally based organizations, “soft” skills such as human relations, stakeholder engagement, and team building are equally valued as essential parts of the organization's mission and work. Both “hard” and “soft” skills are viewed through the lens of culture. Mainstream organizations often believe that hiring people from diverse groups constitutes cultural competency and that when people from historically marginalized groups join the organization, they need to be “developed.” However, when viewed through the lens of culture, maintaining diversity is achieved by recognizing that people from historically marginalized groups bring skills and strengths to the organization and that the organization itself needs to be “developed” in order to appreciate the range of talents and approaches.
Another dynamic often at play is internalized oppression. In a culturally based organization, understanding this dynamic and how to name it and work through issues on individual, organizational, interorganizational, and community levels is critical. In much the same way as power and privilege are often invisible and unrecognized by those who have them, so internalized oppression is often not seen for what it is. When group members believe the negative ideas that others have about them, they may act in ways that are against their own best interests. As culturally based service providers, when we help unmask these negative behaviors and help people focus on their strengths and assets, we go a long way toward changing the need for services in the first place (Lee, 2001; Solomon, 1985; St. Onge, 2009).
For example, when I was director of an agency that provided transitional housing for homeless women and their children, in order to work from a strengths perspective (Saleebey, 2008), I decided to stop asking them what their needs were and instead ask them to identify one gift or skill they brought into the household. At first, not one of them could name a single thing. When encouraged to think more about it, most of the women said, “My kids; my kids are my best thing.”
In response, I changed the intake process from an interview to an invitation to dinner. Over dinner I asked each woman to tell us her story. Those of us around the table (residents and staff) listened to the stories for hints of gifts and skills. One mom was living in her car with two babies under 3 years old. In that very cramped place, she knew where everything was and kept it well organized. I could use that gift! Another found clothes from second-hand Page 435 | Top of Articleshops, tore them up, and recombined them to make wonderful little outfits for her twin girls—all by hand. Through our discussion, it was a delight to see the women shift their view of themselves from “needy” to creative people with something to offer.
As I reflected on the situations faced by the women applying to our program, I realized there were some fundamentally flawed approaches to the work we were doing and that many social services agencies are likely to repeat over and over. Some of us throughout our lives interface with institutions that ask us to articulate what's good about us. We are taught to tell our stories from the point of view of our strengths and talents. Examples of this situation might include school applications and job interviews. Others of us are required to tell our problems or what's wrong with us. Social service intakes are very different in flavor and content from job interviews.
When my children were small, we came on hard times. I took them to the welfare office to see about getting WIC (the Women, Infants, and Children's program benefit—for milk and other necessities) and maybe food stamps. I waited with them long past the time my interview was scheduled. When the case worker came to the waiting room and called my name, I got up to shake his hand. He didn't extend his hand but said, “Hi, Patricia. I'm Mr. Smith.” Because most of my life I had been reasonably well respected by most of the institutions I engaged with, I felt a dissonance and disrespect from his tone and his suggestion that he should be addressed by his last name while he could address me by my first. I told him as much. Not knowing what to do with my reaction, he closed the door and left me standing in the waiting room. A few minutes later, he came back and addressed me by my last name. As we talked, he was uneasy. At one point, when I asked about WIC, he asked what I thought were inappropriate questions about my husband. I responded by saying that his disrespectful tone was not helpful and that the only thing that separated us from each other as human beings was his desk. I was in a temporarily difficult financial situation and would appreciate more respect. He initially got upset, but after a minute, thought about what I'd said. He thanked me for reminding him that people are not defined by their circumstances. His workload was immense, and he often didn't have time to get to know the people he was working with. It was easy to understand how he might get jaded or impatient with the situation. Though I hadn't thought it through at the time, I now realize that in some ways, he had become an instrument of the institution, though as a person, he might very well have been a kind soul.
I realized even then that for some people who had rarely been respected by institutions, the internal dissonance might not even have happened. There is a wearing effect on us when we are disrespected or dismissed in some way over and over. We begin to believe what institutions believe about us. We internalize those beliefs and believe them about others who share our circumstances or identity. When we observe members of our cultural group behaving in ways that, though logical given the circumstances, may be interpreted as inferior or even wrong by those outside the culture——we may, if in the grip of internalized oppression, respond even more harshly to our cultural peers than “outsiders” do. The situations at the group home and at the welfare office remind me that consciously or not, we communicate our values in all our interactions. Therefore, it is important for organizations to clearly articulate and enact their values as part of their mission.
VALUES AND SERVICE DELIVERY
Key values that guide us in our culturally based approach include the recognition that each member of the organization or community has inherent worth, dignity, and unique assets or gifts he or she brings to the table. We include attention to the realms of feeling, spirit, and relationships in our work. We seek to learn from every interaction. Our focus is on interdependence as the pathway to transformation. We work with organizations and communities grounded in the cultural perspectives of those communities. Implicit in this is the need to first Page 436 | Top of Articlerecognize and then honor the existing culture(s) in a community. We are intentional about relationship building in the organizations and among communities into which we are invited. We are committed to understanding the history of community struggles, triumphs, strengths, and challenges.
We strive to provide effective services in cross-cultural contexts based on knowledge of, experience with, and sensitivity to the elements of culture that we identify as part of our work within organizations and communities. Providing culturally based services includes attending to our own cultural orientations; helping those we work with articulate, share, and celebrate their own and each other's cultural frameworks; and recognizing that as we move toward social transformation, considering culture is central to the way we deliver services.
Given this commitment, the key elements of our approach to service delivery include the following:
- We are client driven and responsive to the communities we serve.
- We listen to the authentic voice of our clients, peers, and partners in the field.
- We see our roles as facilitator, translator, and coach of the change process.
- We provide reliable services to each client that the client deems beneficial.
- We leave capacity and resources with the community so they have less need for external support (such as ours) over time.
- We help individuals, organizations, and communities identify and articulate their cultural context and create an environment, and use that knowledge in community-building work.
- We pay attention to the set of assumptions we bring as well as to the community's assumptions.
- We acknowledge that we have a cultural lens through which we engage the world; we look critically at it, and we assess how it informs our behavior.
- We value and utilize the unique approaches that communities have historically used to move themselves toward growth and transformation as the basis for any support we provide to them.
A culturally based approach helps communities become aware of multiple cultures within each community. It helps communities and those who would assist them understand that context matters. With this attention to assumptions, history, context, spirit, and behavior, it is more likely that the authentic voices in a community or organization will be heard, understood, affirmed, and engaged with in a way that promotes a higher degree of powerful, community-led transformation.
The following are some of the elements included in our approach to working with historically underserved communities (St. Onge, Cole, & Petty, 2003):
- We function as facilitators/resources/cocreators with the community, not as “experts” imposing “other” cultural perspectives or approaches.
- We identify, document, synthesize, and transfer knowledge about lessons learned and return it to the community because it belongs to them, and we incorporate the lessons learned into our own institutional practices so that we continue to grow.
- We engage in a process of assessment that consists of creating a codesign team made up of individuals who represent the various perspectives within an organization or community.
- We review the history and cultural elements of the community prior to beginning a project (conduct a “listening project”).
- We engage the planning team in dialogue to define the best approach for overall organizational effect (done with them, not to them).
- The personnel we send into communities are teams that are technically and culturally appropriate to the specific community in terms of background and experience.
- We do a scan of the environment and select tools and processes that are culturally based and arise from the organization's or community's wisdom.
- We include a strategy for leaving capacity in the community that outlives our work with them.
- We offer follow-up check-in to increase the chances of sustained institutional capacity.
- The processes and tools we provide are culturally and linguistically appropriate.
- We adapt our service delivery methods to meet the unique needs of diverse groups and to ensure that all voices are included in the process.
- We tailor the methods to the community's history and cultures, and we use the history and cultures as tools.
- We ensure that those impacted by decisions are in steering positions.
- We ensure that support services (child care, food, translation, transportation, etc.) are provided so everyone can participate.
- We deliver services and products in multiple media (written, oral, electronic, paper, etc.) so everyone in the community has access to them.
Individuals, organizations, and communities and those of us committed to social justice can engage to create a culturally based social change process. In this way, commitment is strengthened, and we have the opportunity to benefit from our collective resources, gifts, perspectives, and understandings. With this foundation, accompanied by a strong commitment to support and honor the authentic voices of community members, we have the possibility of seeing more widespread change. Communities of color and other marginalized communities can finally move beyond having “helpers” trying to do change to them to having supporters assist them as they transform themselves.
Consulting With ABCD
As often happens, I got a call from a colleague who sits on the board of an organization that received funding for work to increase its effectiveness with communities of color. When I met with the director of ABCD and asked the organization's motivation for seeking the grant to work with Seven Generations, she stated that ABCD staff were interested in having better relationships with communities of color in the organization's service area. As the staff of an advocacy organization, they were sometimes perceived as “outsiders” who didn't understand the communities they sought to serve. We identified a “design team” of staff and board members who would codesign the process with me as we worked to examine the organization's culture, which elements of it were inviting, and which were creating barriers to participation by people who didn't fit easily within the organization's unspoken culture.
The design team looked at the “iceberg” and chose a few elements of their organizational culture to examine. Then I met with each department within the organization. While the conversations were a little different, each department was able to identify cultural elements that had been invisible to them. They developed strategies to surface those cultural elements, examine how they affected their clients, and consider what they might do to make their organizational culture more welcoming and supportive for clients.
The fundraising department did a scan of their current donors and found they were mostly older, affluent White men who had a long history with the organization. When I asked how they might expand their donor base to include a broader set of potential donors, they acknowledged that the time it would take to research and cultivate that broader cross section of donors hadn't seemed worth the potential increase in financial support. We dug a little deeper. Through discussion, the staff concluded that the communities being served by the organization had no ownership stake in its work; they were never invited to participate in its support. When we talked about the framing of the requests for financial support, it became clear that the donors the organization was getting were responding to the ways they were being asked.
We discussed the difference between charity and justice as I understand it. Charity suggests that one group of people (such as donors) has skills and resources while another group (such as clients) has needs. In the context of charity, those with resources feel compelled (by love, duty, faith, etc.) to share their gifts with those in need. The people who need resources are expected to articulate why they need them and to be grateful when they get them.
Justice, on the other hand, says that the system is broken. The mine is poisoned, if you will. We need to work together to fix the air in the mine—in our culture, environment, and society. We all bring something to the table. Some of us bring financial resources, while others bring the experience of and capacity to survive breathing the poison while raising the alarm for everyone in the mine. When we Page 438 | Top of Articlework together to fix the air we share and focus our energy on the system that needs fixing, we come closer to achieving justice.
With this new understanding, the fundraisers were able to see the value of investing in partnerships with communities that had been targeted for their services and to view community members and groups as potential partners rather than recipients.
When I met with the legal department, we examined the internal dynamics of power and privilege. Through our questions, they saw that they had historically driven the programming agenda for the organization. Traditionally, they decided which advocacy or legislative issue ABCD should focus on and expected the organizing department, youth leadership team, and other programs to support their decision.
We explored the possibility of other ways of determining the programming agenda for the organization that might be more culturally based. They brainstormed ideas and determined that in some instances, as the organizing department was building relationships with communities, they might identify issues of importance to the community that needed litigation and/or advocacy. We looked at the benefits and challenges of determining issues from the communities' perspective. In the end, they decided that their own personal preferences and passions for particular issues were one—and only one—way to determine what issues the organization might take on. Supporting the efforts of the organizing department and bringing their own expertise to bear on the issues of concern to the communities the organizing department was working with could be equally gratifying.
When I met with the community organizing department, they were frustrated that community members came out when ABCD was working on an issue that specifically related to their community but did not remain engaged. I asked how department staff engaged communities. They said they identified issues they thought needed advocacy in various communities and then invited the communities to get involved with their work. When I asked if they ever came to communities in response to issues that the communities themselves had raised as important, they acknowledged they had no mechanism to do that. I asked, “If you went to the movies with a friend who insisted on always choosing which movies you saw, how long would you continue to go to the movies?” Considering the discussion, they decided to hold listening sessions in communities and build their organizing strategies around the communities' concerns and issues.
When the design team came back together after the department meetings, they heard about each department's new strategies. They quickly saw the overlap. The legal department would sometimes take the lead from organizing; organizing would sometimes take the lead from communities; and the development department would see the relationships being built by organizing and legal as its potential resource partners. As a result of our work together, they revised their budget to include funding to enact their new commitment to outreach and expanding their resources and strategies. I believe they have become a more culturally based organization.
Housing Agency for All (HAFA)
I worked with HAFA for 12 years in four different capacities. I was director of education and training at the Boston affiliate. When my family moved to Oakland, I became the founding executive director. After 5 years, eight houses built, and four houses renovated, I helped the San Francisco affiliate get started. Eventually, I became the regional director, with 42 affiliates in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and Guam.
It was as regional director that I became interested in not only the what of social service but the how. Over 3 years, we supported the development of 28 additional affiliates in the region. What was fascinating to me was the fact that while all 70 affiliates had the same mission—helping people with limited resources build and own their own homes—how they organized themselves to do it varied tremendously. As I worked with many affiliates, some patterns emerged. One was the irony of Page 439 | Top of Articlehow some volunteers who were deeply committed to helping particular families build or renovate their homes then turned around and voted for policymakers whose policies created the dynamics that increased the likelihood more people would need HAFA to help them. I began to facilitate economic literacy discussions and training among the affiliates. At one regional conference, I did the 10 chairs exercise, which I had learned from the Center for Ethics and Social Policy (now defunct) in Berkeley, California.
I put 10 chairs across the front of a room and suggested that each chair represented 10% of the wealth in the United States. I asked for 10 volunteers to come to the front of the room. Each of them represented 10% of the U.S. population. I explained, if we lived in a relatively equitable society (which, clearly, we don't), each person would have a chair to sit in. I asked the 10 people to place themselves in the chairs in the same way they imagined the nation's wealth was distributed. The first person, representing the wealthiest 10% of the population took three chairs. The next five people each took one chair, and the last four people shared the last two chairs. This or similar patterns emerged almost every time I did the exercise. During discussion, participants were shocked to find that, reflecting recent economic shifts, the first person would in fact take up eight chairs. The next three people would share two chairs, and the remaining six people would have to stand behind the chairs. Of the people standing, three would have income but no wealth. I sent one of the standing people to the back of the room. That person would have no income or wealth. After the group got over their surprise about how disproportionately U.S. wealth is distributed, we talked about why that is so.
In the conversation that followed, we looked at where, in our public discourse, the blame is laid for most of our social problems. It is generally placed at the feet of the one person who was banished to the back of the room. When we looked at why that is so, we were reminded that the one person lying across eight chairs controls most of the media as well as the wealth. That person gets to decide how the conversation happens and what gets discussed. This drove us to talk about our own context as HAFA. Who were we serving? For many affiliates, it became clear that their primary focus had been on providing a fun and meaningful experience for the volunteers, many of whom already “had a seat” in society. As a result of this information and realization, some HAFA affiliates were able to shift “the how” of their work to more directly support the people working to become homeowners in fully engaging in their own process, thus creating a pathway for them to get a “seat,” rather than continuing to stand behind the chairs.
By looking at our organizational culture, HAFA staff members were able to see that we were sometimes perpetuating an unjust system even though we were trying to do good things. Some affiliates were not able to make the transition. And 20 years later, in several of these locations, we now see the children of original HAFA homeowners applying for their own HAFA homes. The pathway for change was too narrow for them. In other affiliates, where they could make the cultural shift toward promoting self-determination and empowerment, the homes became a vehicle for families to see themselves as and become fully participating members in their communities. Today they are leading community change efforts and providing support to others who haven't had access to the resources to buy their own homes.
The work of creating a culturally competent organization is important if we want to create change focused on social justice. In order to do it effectively, we need to develop shared definitions and agreements for interactions. We need to recognize both the historical and current contexts that create social interaction patterns. We need to pay attention to power dynamics and be willing to invest the time to make the changes we want to see. As we build the global community, we can choose to build it the way nations have been built in the past—as conquerors imposing a worldview and cultural perspectives—or Page 440 | Top of Articlewe can collectively discover new ways of respectfully engaging mutually with and learning from one another around issues of cultural difference.
The work of embracing culture as an essential element of social service and community change work is much more an ongoing process than an event. When organizations engage in diversity training or cultural competency work to appease a funder or to check off an item on their “to-do” list, the results are limited.
Sometimes organizations imagine that as they hire people from diverse backgrounds they are becoming culturally competent. However, this is just the first step. In order to become culturally based, organizations need to examine all the components of their work—both the content and the process.
Each of us has a sphere of influence. This is where we can make change; as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I invite and challenge you to see the scope of benefits that come to each member of the system, as well as to the system as a whole, when we make the commitment to fully embrace the richness that engaging across the complexity of culture can bring.
If, indeed, we are swimming in culture, we need to step out of the water long enough to see the elements of our culture as they are. Only then can we define for ourselves an organizational or community culture that reflects our values and aspirations. When we step back into the water, we can be more intentional about the culture we create and the community we want to build.
As organizational leaders, staff members, or consultants working with organizations that are seeking to become more culturally competent, we need to practice a continual assessment of our own interactions, internally and with the group. In Embracing Cultural Competency (St. Onge, 2009, pp. 207– 209), I have provided a self-assessment tool focused on cultural competency that is built from detailed analysis of three essential questions, applied to issues of differential power and to structural factors that shape organizational culture. The factors to be examined include race, ethnicity, physical ability/ disability, socioeconomic status, immigration status, culture, religion, family constellation, language, generation, sexual identity, gender identity, age, class, and national origin. These essential questions are as follows:
What's going on with me?
What's going on in the room—that is, with the other people who are present with me right now?
What historical and structural issues are at play?
The self-assessment—examining each of the questions in light of the structural factors—is designed to support the leader or facilitator in attending to issues that impact the organization's cross-cultural effectiveness. In much the same way as we need to ask ourselves provocative questions in order to increase our capacity for cross-cultural effectiveness, we also have to ask them of our organizations. A good organizational assessment and/or planning process guides an organization to think strategically about all the levels at which it has impact. Instead of treating cultural competency as a separate area of assessment, we encourage organizations to see cultural competency as a core competency, equally as important as effective program development and delivery or sound financial management. The following framework for assessing organizational cultural competency provides this integration by raising questions about every aspect of the organization, from governance to technology. We hope you find it useful!
EXERCISE: FRAMEWORK FOR ASSESSING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURAL COMPETENCY
Building cultural competency for organizational and community practice is not a process that is worked through and completed. It is rather an ongoing commitment and set of strategies for dealing with internalized oppression and structural racism. Organizations focused on human services across many nations are affected by their country's history—particularly by their negative legacies of Page 441 | Top of Articleracism, social castes, sex discrimination, and patterns of exclusion and oppression of minority populations. Indeed, many nations are still affected by the lingering effects of colonial rule, which legitimated subjugation and oppression of local populations or by more recent military occupations. Even organizations committed to human rights and social justice can benefit from work to dismantle racism and sexism, because negative aspects of the national cultures in which they exist frequently spill over into organizational settings. Like democracy, the price of organizational cultural competence is eternal vigilance. Understanding the realities of structural racism and internalized oppression is the ground from which organizational cultural competency can be built. “When the ‘carriers’ of racism [conscious or unconscious] are as continuously confronted with the impacts of structural racism and oppression on a conscious level as are the ‘targets,’ then we can say that sufficient commitment has been made. Real change is possible” (St. Onge, 2009, p. 199). While confrontation is needed, forgiveness is also necessary—though it is important for us all not to forget complex histories of injustice. New personal rituals, patterns of interaction, and transformed organizational operations and mechanisms are needed, and within organizations these changes become “the concrete, visible signs of change” (St. Onge, 2009, p. 200).
This is a change from unconscious, blind immersion to recognition of bias and distortion. It is not a change from being a racist organization into being a nonracist organization. The work is about innovating, updating, and accomplishing ongoing behavioral changes. The goal is to monitor the evolution of oppression in the external environment and blunt the negative impacts of this evolution on individuals and the organization. (St. Onge, 2009, p. 200)
OVERARCHING QUESTIONS TO ADDRESS IN EACH AREA OF ORGANIZATIONAL ASSESSMENT
- Does this aspect of our organization actively work to erase iniquity?
- Does it seek to create justice?
- Is this aspect of our work part of the greater building movement to create and support social change?
- What are the power dynamics at play?
- Is there a single cultural lens through which things get interpreted for the group?
- Whose voices are at the table? Whose are not?
- Who benefits from the way things are currently done?
- Who is hurt by the way things are currently done?
- Are differences celebrated or tolerated?
- What other questions do we need to ask? (St. Onge, 2009, p. 201)
To move toward cultural competency, all components of the organization need to be assessed and strategies developed to identify inequities and deal with them. This exercise, presented in a series of questions and two tables, will assist you in analysis and planning for organizational change, first by providing a set of questions to be asked about the structure, processes, and interactions of your organization, and second by addressing these questions (and others you may have) through a structured organizational analysis to identify problems and construct strategies for change with specific recommendations and action steps. Sample questions for a power analysis are also provided.
To assess organizational cultural competency, you will need to consider current strengths and weakness as you use the analytic framework in Table 19.1 to apply these questions to each component of your organization:
|Table 19.1 Analytic Framework: Identifying Problems and Developing Strategies to Build Organizational Cultural Competence|
|Area of Assessment||Power Analysis (Asks the questions in the box above)||Inequities Unearthed (What are the results of the analysis? What do we find?)||Internalized Oppression Indicators (Is there evidence that the group is playing out the way it does because some members struggle with their roles as minor?)||Redress Recommendations (What concrete actions can be taken by individuals and by the institution to address the issues and concerns raised?)||Additional Considerations and Action Steps|
|Source: Adapted from St. Onge (2009, p. 202).|
Additional useful areas included in the 2009 version of this framework include the organization's processes and operations related to information management and technology, legal support, pay scales, benefits and insurance, basic operations procedures, fiscal management, and facilities. These items should be included in a full-scale assessment.
To assist you in your own question construction for analysis of power differentials, the following table provides sample questions that have been used by Seven Generations for this complex aspect of cultural competency assessment. Within your organization you will need to develop relevant power analysis questions for each organizational component to be assessed and complete responses to the analytic categories in Table 19.2.
Planning and action strategies to deal with the problems identified by responding to the above questions would be recorded in the following columns: “inequities unearthed,” “internalized oppression indicators,” “redress recommendations,” and “additional considerations and action steps.”
Working through the organizational analysis can provide information needed to build cultural competence into all aspects of your organization. Your organizational progress toward cultural competency can be monitored by completion of action steps and identification of new actions needed so that this essential assessment becomes an ongoing part of your work.
|Table 19.2 Power Analysis: Sample Questions for Organizational Cultural Competency Assessment|
|Area of Assessment||Power Analysis|
|Source: St. Onge (2009, p. 204).|
|Governance board (Sample Component)||Does the board reflect the community it represents?
When does the board meet?
Who can attend at that time? (Hourly waged people can rarely get away from work during the day without getting financially penalized; this is often not the case with salaried workers.)
Are child care and food provided at the meetings? (Single parents can attend only if there is child care.)
Are there consumers of the organization's services on the board?
How are decisions made? (Do we use only Robert's Rules of Order? Do we make room for decision making that works more effectively in non-Western cultures?)
Are board members chosen only because of formal education (for example, as a banker, lawyer, or accountant)? Or are other skills (the ability to speak the language of clients, indigenous
leadership skills) recognized by communities (cross-cultural effectiveness, shared experience with clients, and so on)?
Are board members chosen only for their “diversity quotient”?
Does the board recognize its accountability to the community, understanding that it represents the community as the “stakeholders/shareholders” of the corporation?
Is there a periodic review of historical factors and current practices that might make potential board members from communities feel less welcome?
When we recruit hourly workers and their attendance drops off, do we check ourselves to see if the organizational systems and structures may have driven them away or made them feel unwelcome, or do we assume they aren't interested? Do we say, “We invited them, but they don't show up”? Do we check with people who leave the board or drop out without saying much with an exit interview that invites them to explore structural racism with us?
1. These strategies to equalize power differentials were created by Dahnesh Medora, Diana Marie Lee, and me for materials we developed for the National Community Development Institute (Berkeley, CA).
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