When Wombats Go Wild: Cultural Competency at the Mezzo and Macro Levels


wombatinaboxLast week I delivered my keynote speech in front of 300 or 400 people at the Northwest Development Officers Association (NDOA)’s spring conference. I think it went pretty well, except that my light jokes at the expense of hipsters may have offended some people. A young man came up to me after the speech and said, “Maybe next time, you might want to refrain from making fun of some people. I mean, I’m not a hipster, but if there were any in the audience, they may not have liked to be made fun of.”

Look, nonprofit work is plenty serious and very stressful, and if we can’t make gentle fun of hipsters and their asymmetrical hair, skinny jeans, and ridiculous glasses at a conference for fundraisers, then there is no hope for humanity.

Anyway, the speech was about cultural competency and community engagement. It was 35 minutes long and I swear only about 3 minutes total were spent ribbing on hipsters and their Pabst Blue Ribbon and weird, weather-inappropriate scarves. (29 seconds were spent making fun of “gluten-free” people who don’t have Celiac disease).

Since the speech was so long, I thought I would summarize the main point. Basically, “cultural competency” is a term we throw around a lot in the field, usually with metaphors like “Cultural Competency is not a destination, it’s a journey” and “Culture is like the engine of a car: You don’t see it, but it is integral to and greatly influences the car” and “In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director lemonade on demand, so get to it!”

What I’ve been seeing is that the discussion of cultural competency usually stays at the micro level, the differentiated interactions between individuals: Take off your shoes when you enter an Asian person’s house; hugging is not big in some cultures, so don’t hug everyone you meet; it’s not “Chinese New Year” it’s “Lunar New Year” since many Asian countries celebrate it besides China; label food, especially when you serve pork; just because a person doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t mean they’re trying to be disrespectful; etc.

With so many cultures in existence, it is impossible to understand and be fluent in all of them. When we mean well, but because of our gap in knowledge we screw up, I call that being a cultural competency wombat, because wombats are cute and cuddly and they probably don’t mean any harm. I have been the recipient of wombat interactions, and I have been a wombat on numerous occasions. All of us are wombats from time to time, and it is OK, as long as we learn and don’t make the same mistakes.

But cultural competency extends beyond the micro level. At these higher levels—organizational, systemic—where our inherent wombattiness can cause some serious damage. Or at least, be extremely annoying.

When Wombats Go Wild, Mezzo Level

wombats 3When you have some color in your background, you’re a person of color. This is easy to understand. In the same vein, when an organization is led by communities of color and serves communities of color, it’s basically an organization of color. And when a school is 95% kids of color (and we have several in Southeast Seattle), it’s basically a school of color. We have to understand that it’s no longer just an issue of people of color, but whole organizations and schools and neighborhoods of color, and the challenges faced by an individual of color is replicated at these higher levels too, and cultural competency must extend to these levels.

One challenge, for example, is that organizations of color become that one kid in the class that has to teach everyone about his culture. Or that Spanish speaking kid that has to help other kids with their Spanish homework.

Seattle has a strong emphasis on inclusion. We LOVE getting input from everyone on everything, and we know it is essential to get the communities of color’s input (even if we do absolutely nothing with it). Which is why my organization, the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), gets hit up for everything. Each week we get at least two or three requests to recruit our Vietnamese clients for some focus groups—on education, safety, transportation, sewage overflow, you name it—usually without a single thought that we may require funds to do the work.

Inclusion is commendable, but if it doesn’t come with resources, it becomes a burden on organizations of color. I was on a committee that was in charge of allocating a bunch of money. We were reviewing a list of requirements to put in the RFP. Among the requirements were “Applicants must get input from communities and families of color.” That sounds great. But what happens, at least in Seattle, is that mainstream organizations cannot reach the communities of color. So then they contact organizations like VFA and Horn of Africa and Filipino Community of Seattle and East African Community Services to get help. These sort of well-intentioned “inclusiveness” opens the floodgate. It’s like if you’re a teacher and you’re teaching a lesson on Latin American countries and you said, “Pick a Latin American country and write a report. But before you turn in your report, check in with your classmate Pedro to make sure it’s accurate.” So now all the kids descend on Pedro. It’s not that Pedro does not want to help, but he has his own challenges and his own report to write.

The funding for “inclusiveness” is usually never equitable. In fact, most of the time, it’s never even a consideration. Two weeks ago someone called me to ask us to help recruit Vietnamese clients for a focus group. They hired an outreach staff, but she had no luck getting people to sign up for the focus group, so they called me. I said, “So…basically, you got some money to hire a staff, but that didn’t work, so now you’re asking my organization to do this for you for free?”

Some requests are as ridiculous as some hipsters’ hair. One time a mainstream organization contacted me asking for help. “Can you spread the word about this community event?” the rep asked, “Also can you look these documents over to make sure they’re translated correctly into Vietnamese? It’s due in two days, so if you can get back to me by tomorrow, that would be great.” (I sent her a link to a translation company). We nonprofits of color do not have magical unicorn outreach power. Engagement of communities of color takes five times as much effort, since we’re dealing with language, transportation, socioeconomic, and other barriers. Even for VFA’s own workshops and community meetings, it takes calling our clients multiple times before they show up. Most don’t have emails and Google calendar. They have to be reminded a week ahead, three days ahead, one day ahead, the day of, and then relationship building follow-up the week after. This sort of work, if it is valued, must be funded. Just like people of color face challenges, nonprofits of color face challenges. Schools of color, neighborhoods of color face challenges. Often, it’s in the form of “Well, we can’t fund them because they don’t have much capacity. But we still want them to be involved. That will make them feel good to be asked to be involved.”

At this level, funders should try to distribute funds equitably, and try to contract directly with organizations of color if that is what the work entails. Mainstream organizations, if you need help with outreach, build sufficient funds into your project budget to compensate nonprofits of color for their time and expertise.

When Wombats Go Wild, Macro Level

Awombats go wildt the systems level, that’s when we see how critical cultural competency is. For the past couple of years, I have been chairing the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a collaboration of nonprofits of color, schools, families, and community members working together to improve schools in SE Seattle, the most diverse quadrant of the City. 8% of SE Seattle is White, compared to 43% district-wide. 72% of the students are free and reduced lunch, compared to 43% also. 22% are English Language Learners, compared to 10%. We have awesome restaurants down here, and also the most struggling schools. Seattle Public Schools grade their schools from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest in performance. In SE Seattle, with some of the most amazing educators, only a single school is graded above a level 3. That would be Mercer Middle School, Level 5. Over 50% of kids of color will fail to graduate from high school.

It’s been like this for decades. And the lack of cultural competency at this level is pretty glaring. For example, I was attending a meeting on SE Seattle a while ago, and we talked about these issues, and a school board member was there. Everyone was upset by the disparities in SE Seattle. The school board member stood up, the sun dappled on her hair, and a hush fell over the room (I’m trying make this story more interesting, since this blog post is pretty long). “These numbers are unacceptable,” she said, “I need all you guys to send in letters and emails and bring your community members to show up at board meetings, because without an army behind me, there’s nothing I can do. Parents at other schools organize and send 50 emails, and they get what they want, so we have to do the same.” People murmured their agreement, vowing to rally the troops.

That was totally wombat, because the intention was good, and at first it makes sense. A man stood up, his face gaunt with time and planning too many annual dinners, his back hunched from too many meetings. “We can try to do that,” he said, “because our parents must make their voices known. At the same time, many of our parents don’t speak much English. Some have never touched a computer, much less know how to send an email. They work several jobs, so they might not be able to join meetings. How fair is this system then? While we build the capacity of our families, we MUST also change this system.” This system that exists, where the loudest voices win, is culturally incompetent and has been perpetuating inequity in education and other areas for decades.

We see this lack of cultural competency play out again and again at the macro level. The Families and Education Levy, for example, is supposed to help schools like the ones in SE Seattle. But the grant application is ridiculously complicated and burdensome, which is fine if every school had the same resources to write it. But the schools that have the least capacity to write these grants are the ones that most need the grants, as usually they’re the ones with the most kids of color and low-income kids. I was helping a school with this grant. This school has 97% kids of color. The principal and I locked ourselves in her office for several days to write this thing, and by the time we were done, the narrative was 28 pages long. It was the most ridiculous grant I had ever written, and it was like giving birth. (I know all about the pains of giving birth now that I have witnessed it first-hand). Another school, with even more needs, did not apply.

Cultural competency is extremely critical, especially when the injustices that we are trying to address usually disproportionately affect communities of color. The concept has been tossed around a lot and beaten into all of us, but usually only at the micro level. What we have at all levels are often well-meaning people who are trying to help, but all of us naturally impose our own perspectives on to things and people. If VFA has time to recruit people for their workshops, why can’t they recruit the same people for my focus group? If I can access social media, other people should be able to. If I can write a 28-page grant, why can’t these school principals? If some parents can write emails and testify at school board meetings and write op-eds, why can’t other parents? These wombat assumptions are annoying, but at the higher levels, they can be deadly, silently perpetuating the cycle of inequity while all of us are talking about whether it is culturally appropriate to shake hands with some clients or not, or whether we should take off our shoes.

  • I just want to say YEAH! I no longer work locally, but your stories about “getting input” are so resonant. We need to rethink HOW inclusion works, and from whose perspective. I know I failed a lot… so many lessons still to learn.

    • Vu

      Nancy, thank you for the thoughtful comment. HOW inclusion works is so important, and I am not sure that people get that.

  • Sarah Kim Park

    I was there at the NDOA Conference and thought your keynote was fantastic! Thank you for delivering a much-needed message to this group of fundraisers. It’s always refreshing to see a POC have the spotlight and be fearless about speaking the truth.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Sarah! It was my first speech of that length in front of that many people. It was a terrifying and great experience. I hope to do more of it (It’s a good way to avoid my staff, who keep asking me to do work).

  • Shelly Crocker

    Just want to thank you once again for taking the time to write this, for writing so beautifully, for being so vulnerable. Commenting here because I want to tell you that you are making a difference for this one white person involved with several “mainstream” organizations, and hopefully capable of scaling up your individual point of view to some generalizations that might help at the mezzo or macro level. I agree with you that not everyone has the resources to blog, so that makes it even more important that you continue to do so!

    And also, this – as a citizen of north Seattle, unfairly benefited by this system of privilege, I also want to hear how I can support my neighbors in southeast Seattle, and especially to help make sure our southeast Seattle children receive the best possible education. So, if you felt like making suggestions, here in this public blog space, that people like me could do, that would be awesome. I’ll be listening (or reading, I guess) if you do.

    All my best to you and your family. You better hope your wife doesn’t read this blog post!

    • Vu

      Shelly, thank you so much for commenting, and for offering to help. SESEC and VFA are working on several projects, including a “Grantwriters Without Borders” sort of volunteer corps that helps SE schools to seek funding.

      Schools in SE Seattle often do not have strong PTSAs that can raise a ton of money and advocate for their students and families. And part of the problem is that people think they can only join a PTSA if they have a kid at that school. We’re trying to change that mindset, so that anyone can be involved with any school. If you are interested, please let me know. I’d also love to get coffee and discuss some of these cool projects with you further.

  • hilarystern

    Hi Vu,
    I personally laughed at all of your jokes at the expense of hipsters and gluten free people without celiac disease. I also nodded with recognition at your experience at being asked to provide community input to everything from the Seawall to the public schools. You gave me permission to feel annoyed and not guilty about not feeling grateful for being included. (I work with immigrant day laborers and domestic workers.) You should really give this talk to the Mayor’s staff. I love the Mayor but all of these community focus groups that we are being asked to host are driving me nutty.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Hilary! Yes, the focus groups drive me crazy, especially when little of community members’ input are actually incorporated. I’ve seen this happen time and time again.

  • I knew there had to be an appropriate way to call out good intentions with clumsy results. Now I can just look at the offender sideways and say, “That was totally wombat.” Brilliant!

    • Vu

      Thanks, Elizabeth. Here are other things you can say:
      “Your inner wombat is showing”
      “You’re being such a wombat right now!”
      “Sir, does your wombattiness know no bounds?”

  • Jenny Poast

    Vu – you were awesome last week. Thanks so much for all of time and preparation you put into your keynote. I too hope you get many opportunities to share your message with other community leaders.

    • Vu

      Jenny, thank you for inviting me to speak. It was fun, and NDOA folks are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I hope you get a good break, now that you’ve passed the torch onto Rebecca as the new NDOA president.

  • Willow Russell

    “This system that exists, where the loudest voices win, is culturally incompetent and has been perpetuating inequity in education and other areas for decades.” This really struck a cord. Thank you, Vu.

    • Vu

      Thanks for taking time to comment, Willow.

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  • Lynn Nee

    Vu – Sneaking back through your blog posts. Hope you’re okay with me using this in my class on Social Work Administration?!

    • Lynn, I would be flattered. Let me know how it goes.

      • Lynn Nee

        I will, thanks!

  • tenbroeckneighbor

    I’ve developed a new approach to this for the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, SUNY based on an article by Jonathan Metzl and Helena Hansen and some of their related efforts in medical education. It’s called structural competency. We have to recognize the social, economic and political structures that are at play here. Perhaps this term will help people be broader because cultural competency as it is currently used, as you point out here, has micro connotations, not macro ones. You can check out the program, which is for the health care and public health workforce here (everything is totally free by the way because we developed this with a grant) http://www.advancingcc.org