Culturally Competent

MidAmerica Region UUA New Leaders logo with compass rose

Culturally competent: Leaders are aware, or becoming aware, that much in their world is based on cultural assumptions of the dominant groups, rather than simply “the way things are;” they understand that congregations must work to determine how they will be—that commonality in values is either created, discovered, or negotiated, and they are learning skills to be able to work more competently across any of the differences that make a difference

Here in the United States, we have unfettered access to other people, cultures, thoughts, ideas. Even if we live in isolated communities, through the value of Internet and libraries and movies and television and radio, we “visit” with other people and get glimpses into the way others view the world. But chances are that unless we’ve done deep work to understand ourselves and our own cultures, including the assumptions we bring into every interaction, we will continue to view the world from our own perspective alone, complete with value judgments about how “they” are doing it “wrong.”

I’m reminded of a cartoon I’ve seen — a rhinoceros is out in a beautiful countryside, doing landscape paintings. And in every one, in the foreground, there is the rhino’s horn! No matter what, the rhino can’t see around its own view of a situation, and thinks that having the horn front and center is normative. That happens to each of us, until we’ve done the deeper work to understand that much of what we think is “the way things are” is really instead something that we take from our own cultural perspective, and that there are fewer universals than we think there are.

Being culturally competent means that we can do both — see our own horn, and see around it. That we understand we see the world from our own perspective, but realize that it’s a partial and incomplete perspective. We also know that our experience provides us a particular view, and that it’s different than that of other people. We might say “we all value justice,” but until we understand what we mean by justice, and what others mean by justice, we can’t discover whether we all value the same thing. Who gets to make the laws? Who gets to enforce them? How can they be changed? Who do the laws benefit? Are they fair for everyone? And what does “fairness” mean? We might all value justice, but we might mean something totally different than our next door neighbor, the person across the street, the family down the block, the people who live across the sea, and those who have no homes of their own.

To be culturally competent, we need to know who we are, we need to be curious about others, we need to be open to the possibility that our perspectives are partial, and we have to be willing to do the discovery, negotiation and creation of shared meanings, common values. Here in MidAmerica, we can help you through our workshops on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, and there are resources on-line and in many communities that can help us learn how to embrace and competently navigate intercultural interactions.

About the Author

Lisa Presley

Lisa Presley is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who was an active lay leader before entering our ministry in 1991. As a lay leader she was board president, board member, worship associate, stewardship campaign chair, religious education teacher, bookkeeper, secretary, and shoveled the snow as...

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