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  • Writer's pictureRogéair D. Purnell, PhD

Cultural Competency at Three Different Levels

In line with previous research (Betancourt et al., 2002; Betancourt et al., 2003; Brach & Fraser, 2000), my team identified three levels at which the initiative’s advocates and service providers had focused their work – individual, organizational and community. Below are some examples of these foci in action.

Individual Level

At the individual level, attention is paid to the interpersonal interactions between survivors and service providers. Cultural competency at this level requires being sensitive to and aware of cultural differences so that direct service provision is appropriate and effective.1

Organizational Level

For organizations, cultural competency involves a commitment to assessing, supporting, and evaluating an agency’s ability to effectively meet the needs of the community in which it works. Assessment should examine: who is being served and who is not; what services are requested or needed; and whether the services offered really made a difference.2

Community Level

At a community level, cultural competency involves understanding and working to shift the larger context in which services are being provided.3

In many cases, the individuals and the organizations they represented instituted a number of policies and practices that illustrated that cultural competency was in the organization’s DNA—part and parcel of what they do—and not a distinct and separate activity that was tangential to their main work. The following are examples of the some of the straightforward ways in which the advocates and providers actualized ‘cultural competency’ in their organizations and the communities at these three levels.

Although these examples are from DV prevention efforts, these strategies and approaches are very relevant for any effort focused on promoting social change. When you are trying to shift attitudes, change norms and inform values, cultural competency must be a foundation from which you launch for efforts given how culture and context ultimately shape beliefs and behavior.

An awareness of, sensitivity to and understanding about how culture and context intersect to influence perceptions, attitudes and behaviors is at the root of becoming culturally competent. At the individual level, cultural competency involves service providers having the awareness and skill to create a productive, safe and supportive space where they can partner with survivors to outline a pathway to peace, healing, and self-sufficiency. Success depends on trusting relationships built on understanding and respect for differences and a commitment to negotiate and support versus judge and direct. Within the organization, cultural competency is the foundation of effective practices, approaches and policies; the natural and unspoken way of being that supports an ongoing recognition of, commitment to and reward of efforts to be and remain culturally sensitive and aware.

For the community, cultural competency leads to strong and resonant messages, provides knowledge about available services, attracts likeminded partners and imparts information and skills that promote peace and prepare everyone to protect the basic human right of safety. The anti-violence movement requires a continuous, concerted and strategic approach at all three levels—individual, community, and organizational. Focus on just one or two will not result in the robust and sustainable change necessary to end violence once and for all.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how to advance, deepen and maintain cultural competency.

[1] Purnell, R. D. and Teng, S. (2012). Cultural competency in California’s domestic violence field: Ensuring access to DV services for all Californians. Oakland, CA: RDP Consulting. Available at:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.



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