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Cultural Competency Is Not a 'Soft' Skill

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Educators are very familiar with "soft skills," or those that are peripheral to the core curriculum—nice additions if you have the time. Associating "soft" with a skill often means it is often difficult to assess, and consequently, we believe it becomes less worthy of the effort. After all, we usually find ways to explicitly teach and measure skills we think are critical.

But cultural competency, one skill that gets put into this camp, should not be considered soft. Abilities that are critical to navigating inevitable cultural and demographic shifts can hardly be considered optional. Critical and comparative thinking, self-awareness and appreciation of different points of view, and the ability to collaborate, to listen, and to speak and think in an inclusive manner are all essential skills for communicating and understanding diverse perspectives.

A Country Divided

The 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump provoked a significant backlash against "political correctness" (which is often referred to as "cultural sensitivity," a core component of cultural competency). Many people became much more vocal about their distrust of the rapid changes confronting them. Redefining marriage, sharing a public bathroom with a person of ambiguous gender, finding compassion for a religion that had become associated with foreign terrorism, understanding the complexities that drive illegal immigration, identifying institutionalized inequities favoring white people, or even accepting a woman as their president—these ideas represented a distinct cultural threat for a large swath of the country.

Additionally, little attention had been paid to regions in the country, such as rural areas and Southern border states, that have been disproportionately impacted by illegal immigration and the economic displacement caused by mechanization and globalization. It is not hard to imagine why many feel their way of life is threatened and find comfort in the idea of returning to familiar norms, even when, in some cases, it’s at the cost of the rights of others. In fact, The Washington Post recently published a poll that revealed low-income residents in rural and urban areas are less united in their poverty than they are divided by their cultural differences.

As educators, we would be wise to take an honest look at the magnitude of the economic and cultural changes the average American citizen has been asked to digest in a short period of time. Challenges to traditional norms related to race, gender, religion, sexuality, and globalization have been ushered into our political dialogue without solutions for how we can effectively host sensitive and complex conversations about them.

But educators know that cultural capacity can only be expanded through education. As a large and diverse nation, we cannot afford to ignore these deep divides. Educating our students in cultural competency is critical to sustaining U.S. democracy.

Where to Begin?

If critical thinking is not taught during one’s youth, it is unlikely that it will be independently acquired in adulthood. Conversely, if students receive a solid educational foundation in flexible thinking, they will be more able to continue to evolve as social, political, demographic, and economic changes take place. We need to end the thinking that assumes we can rush cultural changes without first slowing down to educate people on the issues that brought about such changes. There are no shortcuts.

My own beliefs and ideas did not come to me overnight. They have evolved as people taught me about my own biases and blind spots regarding gender, race, poverty, privilege, and the power of language. I have benefited from thoughtful activities, articles, and discussions on those issues. That learning never ends.

I also benefit from being a part of a school community that models and supports a commitment to building cultural capacity. We find ways to support same-sex parents and gender-identity changes in our faculty and student body, and develop culturally sensitive policies and curricula.

Our school leaders do not assume that they can make these shifts simply through policy changes, nor do they tempt possible backlash by making assumptions about how changes will be received. They intentionally grow our school’s capacity to support these changes by hosting community speakers, providing professional development and mentoring groups for faculty and staff, and facilitating regular discussions about culturally responsive language and practices, such as how we define gender in broader terms or how white teachers can host sensitive conversations about race in the classroom.

Most importantly, they do not shame members of the community who may need additional support to embrace change. Though our school still has significant work to do, we understand that this work is essential.

Putting in the Effort

There is no single, simple blueprint for building cultural capacity in students. However, there are critical foundational underpinnings. Schools need to explicitly decide that these skills matter. They need to understand that building cultural capacity includes the adults in the community, starting with educators and school staff, and later, parents.

Teachers need to develop or adopt curriculum that supports and emphasizes cultural capacity. To do so, disciplined discussion techniques and activities designed to explore issues from multiple perspectives need to be built into classes. Helping students formulate informed arguments and understand different perspectives is contingent upon exposure to diverse stories, media, and information.

For example, transgender issues take on a different hue when students learn that at least one child out of every 1,500 born displays intersex traits. Additionally, most urban students do not know that lack of broadband in rural areas prevents many people in America from having access to critical information and basic opportunities and services related to modern life.

Finally, schools need to explore ways to measure and evaluate cultural competency skills with the same rigor and intention that they measure skills associated with math or writing. Our school changed student reports to reflect cultural-competency evaluation by designing rubrics to measure how students listen, express themselves, build on one another's comments, and use respectful language. They are categorized under "Practices of an Effective Learner," and are factored into students’ final grades.

Only then will these skills begin to transfer. Building cultural capacity is not "soft" work. It is hard. Nor can it be considered optional if we are going to educate students who have the skills to sustain a functioning democracy and adapt to a constantly changing world.

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