What is cultural competency?

The University of Reading is a global university, with a global engagement strategy. Increasingly, understanding and appreciating different cultures is necessary at work in the University and in our broader lives. In some HE institutions, health care and prison services, there is a recognised “thing” called “cultural competency”. The Cultural Diversity Group (open to anyone at the University interested in how race or ethnicity might affect staff or student experiences at Reading) on 6th September was an animated discussion on what “cultural competency” actually means, whether it is relevant to us as individuals, the University of Reading as an organisation or to our students as global citizens.

A quick wander around the internet suggests that cultural competency is variously defined as…

  • The ability to appreciate and interpret accurately other cultures.
  • The ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than their own.
  • The ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients (much of the cultural competency framework has its origin in healthcare).

Other terms are sometimes used, including cultural awareness or intercultural awareness. Employers and commercial organisations often use the term to refer to very practical matters such as how to greet people of other cultures, understanding the laws when working in other countries. Many Universities interpret cultural competency as applying only to international students coming to study here – who undoubtedly do need support in getting the maximum benefit from their time here, but this seems rather narrow!

I will now attempt to summarise our discussions.

Theme 1: Meaning, relevance and terminology

“Culturally Competent” vs “Culturally Aware”

There was quite a lot of resistance to the term “culturally competent”, at least initially, because:

  • Felt to be challenging for people to admit they weren’t competent.
  • Implies it is something that can easily be measured?

However, it is a term recognised by employers who want “employees who can demonstrate that they can adapt and work with people from other countries, ethnicities and religions

“Culturally aware” felt like a “softer” term which more people might sign up to, but actually on discussion we realised that you can be aware of something but not engage with or d  anything about it. Is this term therefore too passive?

Does “Competence” equate to skills, whilst “awareness” equates to knowledge?

 

CONCLUSION 1: We prefer the term “Intercultural” as opposed to “Cultural” because what we would like to improve is communication between, understanding of and learning across cultures. We felt that “Cultural” could be interpreted as knowing about only one culture.

CONCLUSION 2: Intercultural skills (or whatever the term that is used) is entirely consistent with the University’s espoused position as being a university with global reach and a “thriving community”. From a student point of view, Employers definition of cultural competency is a strong driver, particularly for students associated with Business and professional degree programmes.

CONCLUSION 3: We can imagine that there is a spectrum of positive engagement with intercultural issues beginning with “Awareness” at the lowest end. We thought therefore that a framework whereby individuals and the organisation moved from “Awareness” to “Competent” to “Confident” might be a more useful way of thinking. We recognised that there are other levels of engagement described as “Unaware”, “Ignorant”, “Uninterested” and “Opposed”.

CONCLUSION 4: Intercultural awareness is NOT just for international students and staff. It is something that is relevant to, and reflection on would be beneficial to ALL students and staff.

Theme 2: Current situation

Discussion here was wide-ranging. As with many Diversity and Inclusion issues, we recognised that there are already lots of good practice examples in many parts of the University, but that finding out about them and adopting them is difficult. For example, we already have employers who visit through the careers service to give presentations on Cultural Competency – these tend to be attended mostly by HBS students although they are open to everyone. IoE have had discussions with student groups about cultural diversity in order to prepare their trainee teachers for posts in Schools. Resources from RISC on cultural diversity were recommended.

We also recognised:

  • The tendency for cultural segregation amongst students and the challenges of persuading students to work in culturally mixed groups (associated with students dislike of group work in general)
  • The lack of confidence felt by some members of staff in terms of interacting with culturally diverse students and colleagues. In the latter case, people were particularly worried about “saying something wrong / offensive”.
  • The difficulty in involving home / English as a first language students in working with international students, particularly in terms of language development and support.
  • The multiple demands on staff and students.

Theme 3 Moving forward

Assuming that we can convince the rest of the University (or even if we can’t!) that there is a need (driven by competition for students, increasing numbers of students on campus for part of their degrees and changing expectations of students and employers), to move staff, students and the organisation from a state of (partial) awareness towards competency and confidence, we came up with some suggestions as to how to move forward in the short term.

  1. Complete a more systematic audit of existing initiatives and good practice across the University.
  2. Look to maximise benefits of opportunities that already exist – e.g. encouraging / incentivising involvement of home / native English speakers in language conversation sessions run in ISLI (developing skills to work with those from other ethnicities and countries etc as well as providing much needed conversation practice for non-English speakers); advertising Employers interest and talks more widely?

In the longer term, it was strongly felt that development of Intercultural Awareness and confidence should be mostly embedded within existing modules and development programmes (e.g. through Curriculum development and review and via careers and RED award?). However this approach relies on confident, competent and motivated teachers and staff – how would we get to this point? Many people thought that the best way to do this would be to bring different groups of people together more, and that ways of doing that could be the topic of discussion at a future meeting. Ideas and views should also be solicited from the wider staff body (through the Race Equality Survey or the subsequent action plan?)

It was acknowledged that there may be a place for specific staff training to be available but this might be more relevant for specific practical situations (e.g. staff heading overseas etc). Some colleagues had trialled using a team development day for this type of training, using free resources from culturewise.ltd to select exercises and make them relevant to their three main overseas groups. Georgia Riches-Jago shared with the wider group how useful they had found the exercises and the opportunity to reflect on the practical side of intercultural awareness in their own context.

What next? 

  • This blog!
  • Solicit wider views via staff portal article linking to blog, Race Equality survey and other methods during Autumn 2017.
  • Incorporation of proposed actions into draft Race Equality Charter Mark action plan, and discussion at UEB in November 2017.
  • Discussion of “bringing together” events at a future CDG meeting

Black History Month

Guest blog by Doyin Ogunmilua (RUSU Part-Time BME Students’ Officer)

[Please join us (and hear more from Doyin Ogunmilua) for a Black History Month Moment of Silence, Monday 2nd October at 1pm, by the flagpole between Whiteknights House and the Library. For other events planned during October see www.reading.ac.uk/diversity/diversity-events-news.aspx]

[Update added 2 October 2017. Please see the end of this blog for the text of the poem Free at Last, a Slavery Remembrance Day poem, which was written and read by Doyin Ogunmilua at today’s Black History Month Moment of Silence ceremony, at 1pm at the University flagpole.]

Introduction: Black History Month in a Summary

Black History Month is a month dedicated to those of black, Caribbean and Asian descent. During the month there is typically a uniting from those of minority backgrounds to celebrate shared histories, differences, traditions and to raise awareness of pressing racial issues. Black History Month is a specific period where people of similar backgrounds can hold events which highlight their talents and achievements while simultaneously pushing political, social and academic agendas. This is often done through a variety of different mediums such as art, film, dance, theatre, radio and social media.

Black History Month is vital in the further learning and education of a new generation of ethnic minorities in Britain. This education acts as a beacon of light on the past, present and future struggles of minorities in the fight for equality and justice.

The History of Black History Month

The event was created in the United States by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 in the hopes of acknowledging black achievements, which is still a priority to this day. It was initially a weekly campaign; “Negro History Week.” While Black History Month is celebrated in the US in February to acknowledge historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, the UK typically marks the event in October in correspondence to the start of a new academic year.

Inevitable questions in the run-up
As Black History Month approaches there are inevitable questions that will be raised such as why it is only celebrated in a month and not a year and why there is no white history month. I have been asked this question in the past and it still intrigues me as to why this is such an issue for some. In response I say, why should there be a celebration of a race and a culture which has been so overly idolised and praised for as long as I can remember? In my mind, there has been a white-washing when it comes to African history, grounded in a deception which runs deep and spans centuries. Black History Month was created specifically for the minority and not for the past-times of those who have never been and so cannot begin to relate.

The relevance
So, as UK Black History Month celebrates 30 years in existence, the question some may ask is if it is still relevant and if it should continue. Black History Walks in an organisation directed by Tony Walker. It provides monthly films and educational walking tours on London’s 2000-year African history. Walker explains that Black History Month was created to “correct the deliberate destruction done to African memories by European misrepresentation.” It is an important month as it prioritises re-informing and re-focusing minds on the true story of minority peoples. It teaches, in particular young people, that we must at times step away from what we are taught on a daily basis and start to question and challenge a status quo which aims to oppress and divide the marginalised.
Amid the increased racial attacks in the wake of Brexit and the ever-present figure of white supremacy in politics, academia and beyond, it is very much a justified campaign of strength and unity which must continue if we are to see further progress.

Conclusion
In conclusion, Black History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate each other as well as acknowledging what divides us. This year’s Black History Month, as well as the ones to come, should not falter in promoting equality and justice and the fight against the deprivation and appropriation of an identity which is rightfully ours.

Postscript: a Slavery Remembrance Day Poem

As read by Doyin at 1pm, today, 2/10/2017, at the Black History Month Moment of Silence event at the University flagpole.

Free at last
by Doyin Ogunmilua

Hands and feet once bound by heavy chains
Black bodies once a white man’s claim
Now-a-days it’s minds in shackles
No rest for the wicked in this superiority game

My enslaved ancestors long dead and gone
Yet their cries still go on
Wringing in my ears, I see their tears
How can I play a game that’s already been won?

I sense their expectation
To fulfil a dream they could not touch
To see a promise come to pass
I admit the weight of expectation is much

And so, the victimisation of minds and bodies prevail
When will they stop killing our young black males?
Herded up like sheep and shot
When once herded up on a ship to rot

Haunted by the blood and tears of my ancestors
They stain the back pages of history
A dirty secret in which they are ashamed
Ashamed of my erased family tree

We were supposed to be strong and free
According to that particular act in 1833
Yet bound and gagged we still stand
Appropriated bodies in high demand

Untold stories hidden in the depths of a cotton field
In the depths of the soul of a young man killed
When will I see that promise come to pass?
So I can finally say I am free at last.

Why are there so few BME staff in leadership positions?

I am used to being a minority in terms of being a female physical scientist. I am less used to being a minority in terms of ethnicity at a Higher Education event. However, last week I attended the BME Leadership in Higher Education Summit run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). Around 200 delegates discussed the possible reasons why there has been relatively little progress in increasing the representation of BME staff at senior levels in HE, and shared possible ways to move forward. There were probably about 25 or so who were part of the WME (White Majority Ethnic) group – point number 1 – if we are going to label groups – we need to label ourselves and by doing so acknowledge our white-ness. There are too many interesting topics that were discussed to present comprehensively in one blog, but here I’d like to share a few questions here.

  • Is University of Reading ready to move forward on race equality? Public sector organisations tend to be at different levels in terms of their readiness and ability to move forward on race equality. Comparing local government and NHS experiences, these can be classified as:
    1. Resisting – no understanding
    2. Intending – say it’s important but don’t understand the depth of action needed
    3. Starting – have a better understanding of local issues in the context of high level statements
    4. Developing – understand the issues and their aims but need to prioritise
    5. Achieving – clear vision but need to maintain

I would suggest that some of us in the organisation are around the “starting” level, whilst others are closer to “intending”, and some areas may be closer to resisting. In moving forward, there may well be people who have in the past benefited from privilege who find themselves no longer in that position. How do we respond to those people’s whilst sticking to our commitment to equality? Are we ready to have the difficult conversations needed?

  • Are we doing the most effective  “diversity training”? There was much discussion of “diversity training” with the general view being that unconscious bias training can be useful for starting conversations, but more useful in terms of changing culture is bystander training – giving people the confidence to challenge behaviors, and cultural competence (also referred to as intercultural skills).
  • What is the role of the white majority ethnic (WME) group? Here at Reading we have had a strong growth in our LGBT+ Ally network. Is it appropriate to do something similar here – or perhaps better a way of publically acknowledging membership of the Cultural Diversity Group (which is open to anyone who has an interest in race and ethnicity and how these influence staff and students at Reading).
  • What is the role of a “race champion”? Here we were introduced to a 3 stage framework: Stand up (engage), stand together (self-organised groups), stand aside (let the emergent leadership drive the agenda)

But perhaps the question that summed up the day was in fact:

“Why do people who look differently have to perform differently to achieve the same?”