No more “cultural competence” trainings and other thoughts about power


It’s time to turn our backs on Cultural Competence Trainings.

Erin, our Chief Fakequity Writer, is away, so she left me with the fakequity keyboard. I’ve had a lot of random and not so random fakequity topics running through my head and scattered on post-it notes. Today, I decided to write a post calling myself out on fakequity in training. If we’re honest, we all have a little (or a lot) of fakequity we’re personally upholding. The good news is that I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

[Before I dive into this self-exposing blog post, I feel the deep desire to justify, qualify, or put my work in context. I need to affirm I’m a good social justice advocate. And this is one of the greatest barriers to doing real, raw, and truthful racial and social justice work. So like the old Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley skit, I am just going to tell myself, “I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” And, I believe I’m not the only one who needs to expose the fakequity in my personal actions. This work is hard. And every time I feel the need to share my justifications, I’m going to do it in italics and brackets, so we can see how often this feeling shows up.]

I have been facilitating and conducting “cultural competence” workshops for the past ten years. Most of this work has been in mainstream, historical white and currently ‘mostly white’ spaces. Clients have been anxious to talk about differences, especially cultural differences. I have often been asked to talk about cultural competence in connection with community engagement, interpersonal communication, and access/inclusion. I have obliged. [Of course, from the very beginning I also talked about privilege and power, but mostly at the individual level and in more recent years more deeply at the systemic level.] But it has only been in the past year or so that I have told people I am no longer interested in conducting “cultural competence” workshops. Even my website still reflects this language. [But will be changed as soon as my copywriter, also known as the Chief Fakequity blogger gets back to Seattle.]

I believe “cultural competence” is popular because it allows mainstream systems, mostly full of white folks in power, to feel ok talking about cultural and identity differences, without talking about the uncomfortable topic of race and power. [I really wanted to believe that cultural competence could be an entry point into more explicit conversations about race and power.] But what really happens is cultural competence becomes a way to show or prove we’ve ‘checked the box,’ without changing or giving up power, and leads to people saying “I did it, I’m ok – I’m a good racial equity person.” I am not longer willing to be complicit in supporting the “good person/good organization” flag waving.

Let’s get real about power, especially racialized power.

I recognize we can’t talk about differences without talking explicitly about power. Race is the ultimate example of how systems and power have used (the perception of) differences to inequitable distribute power. We live and operate in a system where white people’s feelings, thinking, and doing are more valued. White people’s feelings are important, and I want people of color’s feelings, thinking, and doing to be equally valued. This means shifting power, which will feel like disequilibrium for many. But if you’re a true white ally or accomplice, you’ll understand that the way things have been centered around you, isn’t even good for you, and definitely hasn’t been good for people of color.

How most cultural competency trainings cater to white culture and upholds structural racism

Feelings: The unspoken and underlying appeal of these types of trainings are they are comfortable for white people, especially white people in power. Unintentionally, or not, most mainstream organizations practice tone policing – toning down anger, frustration, or direct truth-telling by people of color. Why should people of color need to make white people feel comfortable when we talk about racism? This hurts all of us by racializing power and holding back important stories about hurt, anger, injustice, and on the flip side hope, joy, and the coming together of communities.

Thinking: Mainstream organizations value people who speak English, can quote research and best practices, and have fancy degrees. If your organization values academia more than lived experiences by people of color experiencing racism and classism your organization is part of the problem. If you can only listen to people who sound like you and speak to you, you are part of the problem. Overvaluing the methods and ways white people think and frame ideas is racialized power. Ideas, brilliance, and experiences come in all different packages, some with fancy degrees attached and some without, some with an accent and some in a language other than English, some via PowerPoint and some via theater or spoken word.

Doing: I’ve started to refer to doing cultural competence training in groups of mostly white people as working in an echo chamber. Even if I present an idea or tool that has been created by and for people of color, it is still interpreted and filtered through mostly white experiences. Or sometimes, ideas I present are totally disregarded or written off as too idealistic, not realistic, or too radical. The ability to dismiss the ideas of people of color is racialized power.

 So are you ready to engage in racial equity work?

 Today I am more honest with clients about what I believe will advance racial equity for organizations. And, interestingly the power and freedom to be more honest about my work has also made me better at my work. Here are the four questions I now ask every prospective client.

  1. Is your organization ready to talk about race explicitly? This doesn’t mean I won’t talk about race at the intersections of other identities, but I will not work with you if you shy away from talking about race directly and deeply.
  1. Are white employees ready to be uncomfortable? The point to racial equity work is to disrupt the monopoly white people have on comfort. It’s ok, normal, and promotes growth to be uncomfortable some times. And, how people deal with discomfort is part of the learning.
  1. Are you willing to ensure, and offer compensation, so there are more than a token few people of color in the room? This is my commitment to no-more white echo chambers. This means organizations need to stipend community members, volunteers, students, or community partners to participate. It also means holding workshops at different locations or at different times to accommodate poc partners.
  1. Is your organization ready to slow down, change course, and try something new? Part of upholding institutional racism is we follow the same paths, approaches, and practices that we’ve inherited. Fast and “efficient” is not always productive. Yes, this also means your organization will need to dedicate more resources to achieving racial equity but the longer term outcomes are worth it.

The next time you think about hiring a consultant to come in and help you, ask yourself if your organization is willing to dig deeper. Ask some harder questions and try something new versus the standard trainings.

Post By Heidi

Spot the Fakequity Quiz

onionWhen Fakequity first started I periodically posted Spot the Fakequity questions on our Facebook page. I’d post an example and ask our Facebook community to write answers about where the fakequity showed up. Correct answers would win a virtual onion as a prize. We’ll explain why an onion at the end to keep you reading. I thought we’d play more Spot the Fakequity. Here is how it works, read the short statement and look for where fakequity (fake equity) shows up.

Spot the Fakequity: In an urban fire department at a Mayor mandated Race and Social Justice training, a white battalion chief says “We’re all good in this department. Look at the diversity we have here.” His department is majority People of Color (poc), leadership in this department is mostly white assistant chiefs, the Fire Chief (overall head who reports to the Mayor) is an African American, and the fire department’s mandate is they serve everyone in the city – anyone who calls 911 receives care, anyone who calls for prevention services receives services based on order received. The battalion chief boasts to his bosses how great the prevention services are in serving communities. Can you spot the fakequity?

Imagine being a firefighter of color sitting in that room wearing a blue uniform shirt and looking to your right to see your poc brothers and sisters in blue, then hearing the statement “I see diversity in the room” and looking to your left and seeing all of the ‘white shirts’ with badges who hold leadership. Not a great feeling realizing your boss doesn’t believe in your leadership potential, nor is he open to understanding his role in upholding institutional racism. Fakequity is in the battalion chief not recognizing the power imbalance in the room.

Fakequity also shows up in the prevention services they offer. By having a first-come first-serve model the department is practicing equality. Equity would be coming up with a way to prioritize low income communities of color would demonstrate racial equity.

Spot the Fakequity: The director of an education advocacy organization says “I have a focus on supporting all children; black, brown, and white children – they all need our help.” Can you spot the fakequity?

It is tempting to say “Oh they are practicing equity since they support children of color.” Nah, they are drooling fakequity. Racial equity work is about acknowledging children of color have different needs to be made whole, and to reach a fair starting point. The word all is dismissive of the experiences of people of color. All says we are all in the same group and we all have the same access to programs, information, leadership, etc. We need to recognize not all students need the same resources. Equitable practices is creating systems to target resources to students of color who need support. There is also a problem with the word ‘help.’ Communities of color do not always need help. We need access to resources, a recognition of opening and sharing power, and to be seen and understood.

I also smell fakequity in failing to acknowledge Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Native American students. Too often Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans (and probably a few other race groups) are left out conversations about racial inequities. Thanks for making us invisible.

Spot the Fakequity: A board member (policymaker) says “I just watched a great TED Talk on bias. I now see the importance of professional development for teachers on addressing bias in our programs. Teachers are the ones who are with our students everyday.”

I once heard the joke the TV show Law & Order is always on somewhere in the world. The desire to ‘fix’ things through trainings is like Law & Order – its everywhere. We like to send people to trainings to fix things. I’m guilty of this as well, earlier this week I co-presented at a family engagement conference on our coalition’s work with family engagement data. But it’s too easy to read a conference description and think “Wow this sounds amazing! I need to send staff to learn all about race. They’ll come back ready to go!” Just as you can’t solve a complex crime in one-hour (unless you’re Jerry Orbach on Law & Order), professional development alone won’t solve all of our classroom or program problems. Fakequity is for policymakers to think they can take the easy road to fixing problems.

Systems level solutions are also needed to achieve greater and more long lasting racial equity solutions. When we look at the systems in place holding students of color back we begin to really ask harder questions rather than the Band-Aid solutions of sending people to trainings. Creating more equitable systems doesn’t have to be overwhelming or hard, but it does take intentional work to look for why people of color aren’t thriving in the same system where white people thrive.

Fakequtiy vs. Equity
Did you spot the fakequity in the examples above? Fakequity shows up in wanting to do the easy stuff and not looking for the larger inequities, doing the harder work in engaging the community, and basically in being lazy in thinking and actions. Equity work is challenging and requires us to dig deeper and search for solutions. Racial equity work requires us to talk about race which makes many people uncomfortable. The rewards are there when we get our work right.

Legend of the Fakequity Onion
Around the time I started the Fakequity Facebook page, my colleagues James Hong, Heidi Schillinger, Jill Mangaliman, and I spoke to social work students at the University of Washington. A few days before my officemate Laurel Saito brought a gigantic box of onion from a farm near her parent’s house. As a joke and a way to share the onions I packed some for our presentation. When we got to the class James, Heidi, Jill, and I rewarded students who came up with the best answers with an onion. Onions were pitched all over the classroom. One student said “I’ve never wanted an onion so badly before in my life,” sadly he didn’t win one for saying that. This is how the fakequity onion came to be.

Who’s in Your Network?

Before we get to this week’s blog post please take a moment to fill out this three question survey on reading, books, and writing. Heidi, of the Fakequity Team, would appreciate your thoughts and she is offering prizes! If you’re in Seattle you can probably convince her to take you out for a bowl of pho or a taco as a prize, tell her she’ll grow her personal network (the topic of this week’s blog post).

Two GoFundMe Campaigns
social-network-links.jpgAs an avid procrastinator I often wander over to Facebook to read what is happening in my online network. Over the past few years I’ve noticed crowd sourcing for donations and support has become more commonplace and an easy way for people to ask and receive support from each other. A few weeks ago I saw a GoFundMe campaign in a group page. Sharon (not her real name) had a piece of business equipment stolen. The theft crippled her business and she didn’t have extra funds for a replacement. She humbly and reluctantly posted the online campaign page. Sharon is well-networked in her neighborhood, likeable, and her family while not rich is stable and comfortable. Within a few days she had made significant progress towards the campaign’s financial goal.

A few days later I saw a contrasting online campaign on a Facebook neighborhood page, Carla (fake name), is homeless and is asking for support to pay off outstanding fines in order to get a license so she could also get to work. She’s had less success in raising the funds needed even though her total is less than what has been raised by the other campaign. Some in the neighborhood supported her campaign, but there wasn’t as much community bonds or support on her posts.

Having watched both of these GoFundMe campaigns I was struck by the difference in how they were received and how people reacted to them. Sharon’s campaign was welcomed by her online social network, friends stepped in and made personal donations and left notes of encouragement. I’m assuming they wanted to help someone they know and like. We are inclined to support people who we perceive are like us and we can see ourselves creating a relationship with. Sharon is easy to like online and probably in person. Carla who equally needs support doesn’t have the same network of support even though she worked just as hard to retire her debt so she can also move ahead in life.

Network Equity or Fakequity
At a favorite program officer’s goodbye party another colleague mentioned she recently had an appointment with her financial advisor. Her financial advisor asked her if her charitable giving aligned with her values, her answer was “no, they don’t,” which prompted her to think about where she wanted her financial donations to go to. Having worked in nonprofits long enough I’ve learned a few fundraising lessons:

1.       We give because we’re asked by someone.
2.       We give to people, not organizations and to a lesser extent causes.
3.       We give to people we know.

If we believe giving is personal and we give to who we know and have relationships with than it also means wealth and charity stay within circles and networks. This also means the rich benefit themselves and communities of color which have historically overall had less wealth are at a disadvantaged. To get to equitable results we need to widen and deepen networks so we can gain and give more support to each other. When funding and support is concentrated it reinforces power and social dynamics that allow institutional and other forms of racism to continue. We need to slow down and ask ourselves are we sharing and opening our networks to understand diversity and to challenge the stories we tell ourselves about other networks and communities.

Our social and professional networks are essential a bunch of people whom we feel some affinity to or tolerate for a reason (such as an annoying co-worker, a funder we’ve inherited, a cousin-in-law, etc.). I like ninety-eight percent of the people in my network and am thankful they are in my network. But this also means if I don’t include anyone in my network who makes me uncomfortable or makes me question my thoughts, habits, or humanness I’m probably just hanging out with people like me. I really shouldn’t be hanging out exclusively with people just like me all the time, while I appreciate having a personal fan club, I also need to break out and understand the world more. As an introvert I find this notion incredibly taxing, but I know in the long run it is for the better. The more we all work to understand each other the more we can support each other and the more we share of ourselves and our many forms of wealth.

Three starter questions for examining your social and professional networks:
1.       Think about who is in your top ten people you like and describe or list how you know them. Did you grow up together or grow up in the same place? Did you go to school/college together? Did you work together at some point? If the answer is yes, they are probably similar to you in thinking and attitudes.

2.       Who gets your work time? Is it people you like and fine easy to work with? How many new meetings or new people do you seek out to meet?

3.       Who do you sit with at meetings people you know or do you try to sit next to someone new?

Posted by Erin Okuno


Fakequity or Equity in Community Engagement

2016-08-04 10.09.46This morning I got a treat. I spent the morning watching elementary age students participate in their Freedom School’s harambee. Translated from Swahili harambee means to ‘let’s pull together.’ The morning harambee included ridiculously energetic songs and dance, chants, and call and response. To create a greater sense of community they include recognitions that sound like this (read this in your loudest voice): “Hey, I got a recognition!” “A what?” “A recognition! I want to recognize you for being a fakequity fighter!” Let’s go fight more fakequity in community engagement.

A few months ago I wrote about community engagement and debunked a few myths. We’re returning to the topic to highlight some ways we can work together to build better relationships. Like the last post the words family and community will be used interchangeably.

Fakequity: Community engagement happens in individual relationships.
I work for a neighborhood based coalition, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. We are intentional about bringing people into the coalition tent and encourage partners to build relationships not only with the organization and with each other. The more people know each other and form relationships the stronger our communities become. When we share our relationships we broaden and deepen the network of people supporting communities of color. With relationships comes access to information, new people, and resources.

As an example this morning on the Freedom School visit I brought a dozen people with me. The poor Freedom School staff didn’t realize I would invite so many others. nor did they know there would be over a dozen emails exchanged to arrange the tour. The people who came on the tour are amazing coalition supporters, and now they aware of another program and experienced the magic of community building. Community building isn’t a zero-sum game where if I have a relationship and I share it the relationship transfers; in reality the relationship network is now multiplied. This morning I saw many who hadn’t known each other before the visit chatting, building new relationships, and exchanging business cards for follow up. It will take a while for these relationships to yield tangible results, but the network of support is wider and deeper to allow sharing to happen.

Fakequity: Look outside for answers.
On the tour of the Freedom School Martin, the site coordinator, talked about how he encourages his Servant Leader Interns (what they call teachers) to look within their classrooms to solve problems. This includes smaller problems like resolving conflicts between scholars and larger social problems such as inequities in their schools and communities, many times the servant leaders found their scholars had suggestions about how to fix complex problems such as housing, hunger, etc. These children are living with the problems and they understand their community better than an outsider.

Communities, including schools, often know the solutions to their problems. What communities and families need is access to resources (e.g. information, money/capital, relationships with people who can clear barriers, etc.). A few weeks ago I sat in on a Head Start Policy Council meeting. Parents of color, many of whom who are immigrants and refugees, are taking the time to share what is working and not working at their Head Start program. Some of the problems were complex and there were also a few problems that were more easily resolved with increased communication or quick fixes. They didn’t need to bring in outsiders, new curriculum, consultants, or others to fix problems. The solutions were within, but more importantly the program has a system to listen to parents who traditionally don’t have access to decision makers so they can be heard and remove barriers to problems.

Community Engagement is About Others
Heidi (of the fakequity team) reminds me community engagement is about sharing control/power and recognizing often times that is uncomfortable. The discomfort shows up in big and little ways – leaving the building to go where families live or work, providing interpreters and translated materials, changing language to be accessible and understood and avoiding jargon, and bigger ways including changing practices and habits to be more inclusive and sharing of decision making power.

Community engagement is about sharing control of agendas, decisions, and having ongoing discussions about race. Can we make ourselves a little more uncomfortable and share access, relationships, and agendas? The temporary discomfort of having to work differently will be rewarded with better community engagement. If you need a little positive community engagement gather a group together and create your own harambee — remember community engagement is pulling together with the community, watch this video of a Freedom School’s harambee, it will get you out of a funk and into the community.

Posted by Erin Okuno