Cultural Competency in Public Affairs

William Frey’s book on the “Diversity Explosion” signals that “the United States is in the midst of a pivotal period ushering in extraordinary shifts in the nation’s racial demographic makeup” (Frey 2015; p3). Frey estimates these demographic changes, propelled by younger, more diverse generations will shape a new era of labor and politics in America’s melting pot. His assertions are supported by the 2014 Census projections which indicate that no one race will be in the majority by the year 2044. This demographic transformation will continue in gateway cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston but is also predicted to expand to other cities like Atlanta,Phoenix and Minnesota in the New Sun Belt and Heartland regions. However, a recent New York Times article mulls that the potential decline of anon-Hispanic white majority could generate a backlash against racial minorities and preference for more restrictive immigration policies.  Some argue that the majority-minority picture is more complex as our current classifications of race are socially constructed, outdated and the very definitions of being ‘white’ and ‘minority’are changing.  The struggle to accurately frame the implications of pending shifts towards a more diverse polity demonstrates the importance of gaining demographic literacy and cultural competence while directly addressing sources of political and social discrimination, biases, fears and divisions.

We are entering a period of opportunity and responsibility. Our opportunity is to maximize the benefits and abilities of true multicultural places.  Our responsibility is to transform the growing diversity in cities to a true multicultural environment.  Multicultural cities are not solely cities where demographics reflect multiple races and ethnicities.  True multicultural spaces are places “where different races, cultures, and lifestyles are valued; their differences are recognized, accommodated, and interwoven into a shared citizenship and common institutions.” (Qadeer, 2016. P. 5). Consequently, there is a resounding call by advocates for public affairs practitioners to develop skill sets and awareness to respond to the diverse socio-cultural identities of constituents, including but not limited to race/ethnicity, class, gender,sexual orientation, age, disability and religion. This commitment to recognizing and understanding cross cultural situations through attuned behaviors,attitudes and practices is characterized as advancing along a continuum of cultural competence. More than just hiring a diverse workforce, cultural competency involves an awareness of cultural differences, and knowledge and skills to develop culturally appropriate practices, standards, plans and policies with the goal of providing not only more equitable but also more efficient and effective services. A culturally competent skill set emphasizes critical thinking, problem solving, communication, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, empathy, ethics, facilitation, deliberation, innovation and mindfulness. It is a continuous learning and proactive process, oriented to moving away from culturally destructive or insensitive practices on one extreme towards the goal of cultural awareness and proficiency on the other.

A culturally competent approach to public affairs, can provide communities with public goods and services that acknowledge unique needs, norms and values. Preparing culturally competent public affairs practitioners to lead organizations can facilitate more efficient, effective and equitable public services, which can lead to a more satisfied citizenry and a more peaceful collective environment.  As such, cultural competence is critical for effective policy making and implementation. FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy (COSSPP)’s Dr. Lisa Turner De Vera of Interdisciplinary Programs for Social Sciences and Drs. April Jackson and Tisha Holmes from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) are partnering with researchers at California State University Los Angeles, University of Utah and University of New Mexico to enhance the cultural competency of graduate students preparing for public affairs careers and demonstrate how learning about cultural competency can develop tangible, professional skill sets important for public affairs professionals.

Our research program also seeks to understand how various factors, such as group dynamics,institutional factors and diversity contexts, can influence the development and implementation of cultural competency curriculum and pedagogy. The team recently published a special collection of papers in the e-Journal of Public Affairs which provides insights for creating,improving and implementing cultural competency programs (http://www.ejournalofpublicaffairs.org/current-issue/ ). The contributions include DURP’s Professor Petra Doan and her PhD student Angela Leiber’s piece on “Queering Cultural Competence for Planning and Public Policy” and FSU Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems Associate Professor Shengli Dong et al.’s examination of “Mindfulness, Motivation and Intercultural Competence among Faculty and Staff”as well as other scholars who highlight the pedagogical practices as well as the conditions and capacities needed to support a constructive learning environment for cultural competency education.

Incorporating cultural competency curricula and facilitating discussions around cultural competency issues can provide a way for institutions to demonstrate their commitment to and support for diversity and inclusion in the communities they serve.  FSU has been recognized as a Diversity Champion by INISGHT into Diversity magazine for commitment to diversity in the university’s strategic planning process. DURP developed and adopted a Diversity Plan to mainstream diversity and inclusion principles in program admissions,faculty representation and curriculum content. This is a good start.   At the same time, a broader integrated system of cultural competency is necessary.  A cohesive and shared vision from the top of our administration through the teaching and research in the departments will lead to a continual progression in developing cultural competence in ourselves and our students.  Few examples of this type of consistency exist in higher education and there is much to learn from experiments underway in schools like Harvard University, University of Minnesota and University of Michigan and mainstreamed successes as seen in California State University -Los Angeles and Hunter College.   While the literature suggests some interest in building course content related to knowledge and experience around multicultural issues, our preliminary investigation reveals fragmented and inconsistent support for building cultural competency within university environments. We, as educators and researchers, have a unique ability to inform and prepare leadership through diversity and inclusion problems.   Through our research in cultural competency we hope to develop knowledge that can support FSU, COSSPP and encourage other universities to develop effective administrative and pedagogical approaches to meet the needs of a more diverse nation.   

Dr. Tisha Holmes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning. Her research promotes grassroots level capacities through community outreach and participatory engagement.

Dr. Lisa Turner de Vera is the Associate Director for Interdisciplinary Programs in Social Science and an affiliated faculty in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Dr. April Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning. Her research focuses on how professional planners and universities plan for, engage with, and train students to work in communities of color. 

The featured image is from the National Safe Place Network.

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