Yo! Your red lanterns are dope, and not in the good way. Are you Culturally Competent or Culturally Enriching?

Every decade or so a new set of words gets created and their predecessor fades out of favor. Here are a few examples:

1980s/1990s/2000s words:9457391_orig
Achievement Gap
Equity gone wrong

Diversity and Inclusion
Opportunity and Achievement Gaps
People of Color

Many of the new terms came about because the previous word was inadequate. The previous words hit on one part of a social justice concept but didn’t go far enough in capturing the sentiment of what was truly being communicated. Our communities and work have evolved and we need more than platitudes and simplistic efforts. Such as diversity isn’t enough. We can get a room full of diverse people but if they don’t feel included or aren’t given space and room to have a meaningful role in the work taking place the diversity is meaningless. Or a short while ago people of color were called minorities, but as demographics change, language has to keep pace to reflect the growing number of people of color; in a few decades the term people of color will be out of fashion and some new word will be used.

I’m proposing a new term, Culturally Enriching. No longer is it enough to be culturally competent, we need to strive for better. We need to create spaces and programs where children and families of color receive culturally appropriate, relevant, and enriching experiences.

Why Culturally Competent is Blah
There are many definitions of cultural competency, some of them elaborate and use technical jargon. For the purposes of this blog post I’m going to use the everyday pedestrian bare bones snarky interpretation of the term:

Culturally competent means we do the bare minimum: celebrate holidays and heroes, put up red lanterns on Lunar New Years, celebrate diversity with multi-cultural potlucks at the office, order a banh mi but pronounces it ‘ban me,’ use Google-translated documents to prove we made an attempt at translating documents, post hiring notices in ethnic media but fail to have people of color on the hiring panel.

The definition above are some of the attempts people make to prove they are providing a culturally competent environment. Don’t get me wrong, these attempts help and sometimes are enough. But too often people and organizations stop at these surface level attempts of community engagement or program development and miss the boat on creating truly great programs that enhance and allow people of color to grow, feel grounded and included, and embraced by a larger community.

As an example a friend shared a story about how a co-worker received a lot of praise for creating a new program to honor Pride Month. Last year her organization marched in the Pride parade for the first time ever. They held open houses and special programs with art and books showing LGQBT families. And they have a special storytime with a drag queen. Many of these efforts demonstrate an awareness of diversity and an attempt at having LGQBT families feel included. But the efforts stopped there and didn’t move to culturally enriching.

If the program organizers used a racial equity lens they would have realized that simply focusing on LGQBT families fell short of their racial equity commitments. They could have focused on LGQBT families of color to target their efforts even more. Focusing their efforts into Pride month also stops short of realizing LGQBT families don’t stop being LGQBT once Pride month is over, a more enriching experience would be creating welcoming environments and ensuring their regular programming allows for diversity to shine through all year long. Finally, the drag queen storytime—come on! Can we move past perpetuating stereotypes? I don’t have anything against drag queens, seriously I don’t, but having a drag queen storytime be the capstone of Pride month doesn’t create an enriching environment where children feel like they have a normal cultural experience.

A culturally enhancing experience would have been having books and program on LGQBT experiences readily available all year long. Having LGQBT staff of color working within the program, creating relationships with the LGQBT families of color and listening to what sort of programing they want to see, and embracing. Partnering with the LGQBT community to hear what programs and experiences they want to have and making adjustments to help provide these experiences. Some may feel differently and I welcome dialogue around this.

Culturally Enhancing
We can do so much better than just being competent.  We can do better than hanging red lanterns and celebrating the heroes and holidays, we need to create spaces where people can be their best selves. Closing opportunity gaps, turning the tide on global warming, stopping youth violence, and all of our other world problems means we have to be open to new ideas and we get those new ideas by creating environments where everyone is included and brings their best selves. Culturally enhancing programs look like this:

  • We invite people of color in and partner with them to create an experience where they see themselves reflected and valued. This means we open doors and share leadership and resources to allow people of color to create a culture that is embraces and honors communities of color.
  • We center our work in communities of color and allow people of color to control the agenda.
  • We move beyond stereotypes and surface level comments. We need to disrupt and shift the dominant narrative to include communities of color.

So what do all of those fancy words mean? It means we adapt and make things relevant to communities of color by centering our work in their experiences. It means we work to creating relationships where people of color feel and are valued and included and an equal partner in the work that is needed.

Yesterday, after my coalition meeting a white educator attendee stopped me at the door.  As we talked she said “this is one of the few meetings where space is intentionally created to be welcoming.”
Because our coalition focuses on race, culture, and the wealth found in communities of color we are creating something different, a more enriching experience for everyone, especially people of color. It was so nice to hear a positive comment affirming our focus on race and equity.

Posted by Erin