Every summer MnAEYC-MnSACA hosts the Summer Leadership Institute, an event for established and inspiring leaders in the fields of early childhood education and school age programming. This year, it was held at Normandale College. I had the honor of presenting on the topic of cultural competence and how it relates to creating a respectful and inclusive culture in the workplace.
I had a great time working with the leaders who came to my session as we explored what it means to be culturally competent and how to develop and build this skill. Through laughs and thoughtful conversations we learned why cultural competence is key to effective leadership.
Trust is key to making people feel safe and valued in the work place. When we exercise the components of cultural competence we foster trust and emotional safety. If staff aren’t able to trust the person in the leadership position there is bound to be extraneous conflict and an unhealthy emotional environment. I’m sure that as you are reading this you can think of a time or work place where you felt conflict and a heavy emotional environment, it’s not uncommon.
In order to practice cultural competency we have to recognize that each person has a unique active culture- the set of filters- beliefs, customs, habits and values that influence how we perceive and respond to situations. After we define our own active culture we can more easily hit the pause button and exercise awareness of why and how we react to different scenarios.
Once we are able to control our responses to others, we can put ourselves in the shoes of the person on the other side of the conflict/situation. What are they feeling? What are their filters? What questions can I ask to better understand what is happening here?
We are often quick to judge and jump to conclusions and many times they are based in our experiences and believes. In order to start to redirect our thinking we have to ask the questions mentioned above, and apply the concept of cultural relativity. First we judge the occurrence in the culture where it occurs, then we analyze it in terms of the dominant culture. I’ll share an example of this with you.
I traveled to Venezuela to stay with my boyfriend’s (now husband) family. Upon arriving to their home I started to take off my shoes, as is customary in many Minnesotan households. I started to walk around the house barefoot and my boyfriend immediately told me to put flip flops or slippers on. As you can imagine, initially I was confused. He explained that in most households in Venezuela people don’t walk around the house barefoot. In fact, in his home they even showered with flip flops on. To me, it was super weird, if I’m frank about it. I had to take a step back, understand my filters and understand that in this new context my customs didn’t match up. As a result, I had to adjust and understand the new rules and judge the fact that I showered with flip flops in the context of a different culture, one that was different from mine. By doing this I created a space for an equally valid perspective and custom to be integrated into my active culture.
This is the foundation for another important concept that we discussed in the presentation. Culture is not synonymous with skin color, religion or even ethnicity. Culture is synonymous with context, and when we realize and internalize this message we become more responsive and aware. Consider the culture you experience at home, at work, at a restaurant and at a friend’s house. They are all different and all of them require a different applications of social skills and behaviors. Reframing culture in this light makes it easier to identify and work through our differences.
These skills and lessons are crucial as our world becomes more globalized and more cultures meet and begin to coexist in closer quarters.