Building a Culturally Competent Team

This post was written by Katy Sauer, Aligned Impact Fellow, with contributions from Senior Consultant, Katy Bourgeois

How do nonprofit leaders begin to cultivate cultural competency? According to diversity consultant and Mission Driven 2017 speaker, DeWayne Street, it all starts with the individual. As the owner of Midway Diversity Solutions, Vice President of Workforce Advancement at Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, and a proud educator, DeWayne is no stranger to cultural competency.

The Cold Within

At Mission Driven, Dwayne drew in his audience with a gripping poem, “The Cold Within” by James Patrick Kinney, which illustrates the dangerous deadlock created when members of one social group are blinded by differences, losing their ability to see members of another group as individuals.

The poem describes six people gathered around a dying fire; they choose to hold tight to their individual sticks of firewood and risk freezing rather than contribute to the fire and share with someone of another color, religion or income. The poem ends:

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

With this poem fresh in our minds, DeWayne walked us through recent political protest footage reflecting the same fear, anger and isolation portrayed in Patrick Kinney’s poem. The parallels were uncanny. As DeWayne mentioned in his previous Power of Good Blog post, Let America Be America Again:

“The forces of history, economic angst, and the shifting demographics have all coalesced to produce the current state of increased marginalization and fear.”

Making a Choice

As nonprofit professionals, we make a daily choice to either feel safe inside our ideological bubbles or engage with adversity to make a difference. When it comes to creating a culturally competent country, the choice is no different. DeWayne provided us with actions we can take to hold ourselves and others accountable for cultivating cultural competency:

  • Recognize unconscious bias. We all have unconscious biases that influence the way we engage those who are different and/or unknown to us. Cultivating an awareness of these biases allows us to begin to control for them.
  • Strive to see the individual. Take on a learner’s mindset and create space for each person to share who they are and what their culture means to them as they see fit.
  • Return to data. Stereotypes are pervasive and shape many of our unconscious biases. One key way to challenge stereotypes and identify disparities is to leverage reliable data and view it in a historical context.
  • Reject marginalization. Don’t accept the normalcy of marginalization but instead tune into it and identify your role as a counteracting force.
  • Own your space. If those around you use words that marginalize others, confronting them, removing yourself, or asking them to remove themselves are all effective actions. Silence and/or inaction equate to complicity.

Social change comes from within. Asking our teams to hold ourselves accountable to these practices are the first steps toward repairing broken relationships within our country. Dwayne challenges us to take these initial steps to create the change our mission hopes to achieve, and to work together to beat “the cold within”.



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