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  • Dr. Rogéair D. Purnell

Maintaining Cultural Competency



HOW TO ADVANCE, DEEPEN AND SUSTAIN CULTURAL COMPETENCY: More examples from a domestic violence initiative

Cultural competency—again not a perfect term—is an ongoing journey to be prepared to respond to relevant issues within various contexts in ways that supports partnership, promote just, appropriate and sensitive service provision and that safeguard equity and result in effective practice. However, cultural competency is not a destination, but more of an ongoing journey that requires regular assessment, development and monitoring to maintain and be prepared to effectively respond to various contexts and situations. Many advocates and providers talked about how changes in community demographics, social issues, current events, high level policies and general economic climate often affected how they approached their work. Strategies and activities that had been effective in the past often had to be re-tooled or outright abandoned to engage and effectively address issues and problems on which they may have been working for years. In all of these cases, advocates and providers looked for ways to build on the strengths of their communities and to engage partners that were willing to reflect and adjust to ensure their collaborative work was culturally competent.


If you think about cultural competency as a continuum, consider the following ways you might advance your efforts to maintain it. The following continuum offers examples of how to move from advancing to deepening to sustaining cultural competency.





Advancing Cultural Competency


Strengthen partnerships. The complex factors and forces in which violence exists require a concerted and collaborative effort among many different types of organizations to effect real change. To prevent violence, cross-sector collaboration is needed from a plethora of advocates and service providers, including lawyers, faith-based, health advocates, housing, workforce development officers, teachers, language access coordinators, anti-violence advocates, women’s empowerment advocates, and immigrant rights advocate. A single organization cannot address all of the issues; no one type of effort will be sufficient without engaging with others who have a commitment to cultural competency and promoting peace.


Win hearts and minds. Successful efforts to engage and support high-need underserved populations require messages and services that speak to and address the emotional trauma that results from domestic violence. These efforts should include education for survivors and their communities. It is imperative that all involved know what to do and where to receive assistance should DV occur. Equally as important as education, prevention awareness should be a component of this messaging. Anti-violence campaigns should move people to consider any form of gender violence as a violation of basic human rights while providing knowledge that empowers them to do something to prevent and address it.


Participate in relevant capacity building activities. Becoming culturally competent takes work and support. Consider organizing or participating in activities that allow for reflection, introduction of new approaches and community education. These practices should engage, serve, and inform both survivors and their communities. Additionally, reflection and education should build administrative and staff assessment skills. Administrators and staff persons should be given tools to aid in the identification, assessment, and prevention of DV. Cultural competence does not come naturally. Like any skill, it should be honed through deliberate effort.


Share lessons and expertise. Anti-violence organizations often face the same challenges and are afforded the same opportunities to effect change. Rather than learning from trial and error, many organizations would welcome an opportunity to learn from and partner with other organizations whether they are anti-violence in broad terms or more specific terms such as being able to provide legal consultation, mental health services, and job training.


Deepening Cultural Competency


Apply programmatic learnings.

Cultural competence is not a set of activities that reside in one staff member or a team of staff members. Rather, it is a philosophy as evidenced by a set of practices, policies and approaches that are held by the organization and throughout all aspects of organizational structure and decision-making. It becomes part of an organization’s DNA—imbedded in its beliefs, aspirations, vision, practices, language, materials, behaviors and structures. As in a holistic cycle, programmatic learnings are applied throughout the organization, and in turn, infused back into strengthening programs and services, creating and disseminating the most appropriate and effective messages and attracting and engaging the partners needed to design a comprehensive set of strategies necessary to better serve high-need underserved populations.


Commit organizational resources.

Professional development opportunities and incentives should be provided as staff encouragement to assume greater responsibilities and to continue advancing cultural competency. The organization budget should include dedicated funding to cover professional development, coaching opportunities and participation in these activities. These activities should create a safe space for administrators and staff to explore how they can continue on their journey to be more culturally competent and explore their beliefs, attitudes and values about issues that impact their work and their efforts to do the most effective work possible. Incentives such as bonuses and promotions should be dependent upon employees’ active participation in development opportunities and their subsequent efforts to grow personally and professionally.


Embrace risk and failure.

Becoming culturally competent is high stakes and by its nature it is not something that is without challenges. Inevitably, as with other high stakes endeavors, the journey to be more culturally competent will have setbacks. However, tolerance for risk and failure is part of being a strong, effective and culturally competent organization. Conflict and soul searching are often defining elements of transformation and work towards becoming culturally competent. Advancing along the cultural competency continuum may require moving beyond one’s comfort zone and implementing new strategies and approaches that are possibly untested.


Sustaining Cultural Competency


Work to maintain cultural competency.

Cultural competency is a journey and not a destination. Considering cultural competency to be in progress rather than as a state of being is a more accurate approach. This approach to cultural competency requires:

  • a willingness to question and review beliefs, values and attitudes;

  • a drive to assess gathered information and optimize professional development opportunities to learn and reflect;

  • a willingness to welcome ambiguity and face conflict; and

  • an understanding that this process should be ongoing.

Expand networks.

A multi-level response is necessary to address the multitude of ways that violence impacts our lives. Violence permeates our lives regardless of whether we experience directly the emotional and physical abuse that defines intimate partner violence. The media, video games, movies, the Internet and music and music videos often glorify the mistreatment and exploitation of women. Just as familial and social norms and practices, shape how we filter and experience violence, many other external forces play a role in preventing and addressing violence. To truly end domestic violence, DV advocates and their partners must consider how culturally competent practices, approaches and policies affect individuals, can be promoted and sustain within and across organizations and in the local community including a connection to and understanding of statewide and national efforts.


Diversify Messaging.

Articulating the work that you do and how cultural competency is an integral part is as important as the philosophy, vision and passion that frames your efforts. Consider how to message the organization’s successes and commitment to cultural competence to various audiences—potential clients, volunteers, partners, funders, and the community—to popularize is the meaning of cultural competence, the journey to become more culturally competent, and programmatic successes in the exploration. These messages help solidify the internal learning process as well as affirm the importance of cultural competency among partners, funders, and the community in the external world. Be ready to tell your story in a way that resonates.


My next post will explore what to say to someone who doesn’t think cultural competency is important.






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