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ASTC Staff Begin a Journey with Cultural Competency Conversations

By Gwen Crider

Washington, D.C., community members describe their experiences with homelessness during a panel discussion organized by ASTC staff.

In January 2017, ASTC launched Cultural Competency Conversations (C3), a journey through which ASTC staff could increase their understanding of cultural differences and grow their cultural competency skills. While some structured learning sessions were included along the way, the team wanted to learn directly from those with different lived experiences. Instead of the traditional training approach, the journey took us out into the community to expand our worldview. Specific objectives were

  • Understanding of the importance of cultural competence
  • Awareness of one’s own cultural influences and biases
  • Ability to identify the impact of cultural differences
  • Ability to better communicate and work with others from different backgrounds.

These objectives were, by all accounts, not only met but exceeded. It was expected that C3 would result in both professional and personal growth and, as one participant confirmed, “this experience has had a profound impact on me professionally as well as personally.” Another staff member shared, “As someone who works closely with our membership and has one-on-one conversations with staff in member institutions, our experiences in C3 have helped me be a more open, active listener.” The importance of this type of personal impact cannot be overstated—successfully bridging cultural differences begins on the individual level when both the heart and the head are engaged. C3 did just that.

What We Did

During the past 18 months, in addition to visiting community organizations, staff arranged activities inside the office around specific dimensions of cultural competency.

During C3, staff engaged in conversation with community members based on the cultures, topics or issues staff were most interested in learning more about—immigration, LGBT experiences, African American experiences, homelessness, and political ideologies. The perspectives shared by individuals or groups with experience in these areas were supplemented with facilitated staff dialogues, experiential exercises, and other activities. Additional resources, such as articles, films and videos, websites, etc., were also provided so participants could take a deeper dive into the topics explored during visits with the various communities.

From the outset of the journey, staff felt it important that the learning experiences in C3 have relevance to the work they do with and on behalf of ASTC members. This too was achieved. One participant explained that “The Cultural Competency Conversations have given us insight into the challenges that our members face as they make their centers welcoming, inclusive, and culturally relevant community organizations.” Rather than learning solely about theories of change or cultural competence, C3 provided practical skills as explained by another participant: “This is really easy to say and really difficult to do! The C3 sessions have helped to highlight some of the hurdles our member institutions face. It has provided some strategies that might help my work to achieve our goals.”

Why We Did It

A visit to N Street Village in Washington, D.C., a community that empowers homeless and low-income women to claim their highest quality of life

C3 evolved from a desire and commitment to build cultural competency among the staff, which was seen as critical if ASTC is to succeed in efforts to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in the field. It is not unusual that colleagues work together, side-by-side, day-by-day, without ever getting to know much about who they are below the surface. As is true with the best journeys, this one included some unexpected discoveries along the way—discoveries that increased their understanding and appreciation of each other. Several participants commented on this aspect of the journey. “It has been a valuable process to confront and address cultural competency-related issues with my colleagues. In discussing these topics, we discover more alignment as well as divergence in thought and approach among ourselves than we would in our day-to-day work interactions,” said one participant. Another staff member shared, “I’ve gotten to know my colleagues better and understand some of their backgrounds and experiences, and I appreciate more how their perspectives enhance our work.” The C3 experience has already had a positive impact on interactions within the ASTC office as highlighted by yet another staff member: “Since starting C3, I can see little shifts in the way we talk to each other and the actions we want to take as an office. It has certainly given us a bonding experience as we go through a tough year of change.”

At a time when conscious biases and cultural divides are on prominent display around the world, Cultural Competency Conversations offered an opportunity to experience first-hand what research has documented to be true—it is much more difficult to hold on to assumptions, stereotypes, and false perceptions about “the other” when we get outside our comfort zones to know them on more than a superficial level. As a good friend of mine used to say, as humans we are more alike than we are different, but the differences matter.

Reaching into communities that are different from our own can be challenging. It requires a willingness to take a risk; it can feel risky to go into unfamiliar territory and confront our own biases—both conscious and unconscious. But, as participants found, it is a risk well worth taking; and, as one participant reminded us, “. . . change comes from people who put themselves in danger. We also need to put ourselves in danger as an organization by standing up against injustice and exclusion.”

ASTC staff toured CASA de Maryland’s vocational training center, which serves immigrants and refugees and offers certification in building maintenance, cabinetry, plumbing, and other skills.

Where We Are Going Next

We continually encounter new people, situations, and experiences that enhance our ability to understand cultural differences and build relationships with others. Thus, cultural competence is a lifelong journey that begins with recognizing the power and influence of culture in our everyday lives.

C3 then was just a beginning on ASTC’s journey. One participant said it this way, “My mentality towards this has evolved over the year to embrace this as an actual journey . . . when these visits and conversations end, they’re really not ending, per se—they’re the launching pad for greater exploration of people and cultures different from my own.” Another perspective recognized the ongoing possibilities for staff interactions: “The opportunity to keep learning about our colleagues through different “lenses,” as it were, seems like it has ongoing potential for greater understanding and bonding.”

Although critically important, becoming culturally competent is about much more than being respectful of other cultures and perspectives. It is an expansion of our own world view that allows us to acknowledge other ways of seeing and being—even if we disagree with them.

Talking live with Iraqi refugees living in Turkey via “The Portal” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Cultural Competency Conversations was a powerful experience. One that touched both head and heart. One that can lead to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. One that encouraged

  • Critical self-reflection on, and assessment of, how one’s own beliefs, values, and other cultural messages—including unconscious biases—may affect the assumptions we make about other people and situations.
  • Recognizing that when someone sees a situation from a perspective different from one’s own, it does not mean that person is wrong; it means they have a different worldview.
  • Pro-actively increasing our exposure to other worldviews by placing ourselves in environments where we are unfamiliar with the culture.
  • Understanding that differences are important, but recognizing commonalities lay a foundation for building relationships across cultural differences.

Cultural Competency Conversations was only the beginning of a journey that will continue. There will, no doubt, be detours and unexpected bumps along the way, but, with persistence and intentionality, ASTC staff will continue to grow, and ASTC as an organization will be even stronger in service to its members.

 

 

ASTC staff members had a masterful guide when they started out on their ongoing journey—Gwen Crider, who leverages 20 years of leadership in the diversity and inclusion field to help corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations create and sustain respectful, inclusive, and equitable workplace environments. She became actively engaged in developing initiatives in these areas while working in the museum field, including as Executive Director of the Austin Children’s Museum, Executive Director of the Science and Technology Center of Atlanta, and Deputy Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.