Tag Archives: cultural competency

Are you or your nonprofit or foundation being an askhole?

askholeGo Hawks, everyone. Last week, I wrote about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE), a frustrating phenomenon that each year causes many of us EDs of grassroot organizations to daydream about abandoning civilization to live with adorable woodland critters, foraging for grubs and berries, which would actually feel very much like nonprofit fundraising, but at least would be cuter and more whimsical. (Note to self: Stop writing blog after watching Disney movies with toddler). Today, I want to touch base on a related topic: Askhole Community Engagement (ACE). TDCE and ACE are connected, like two peas in a dysfunctional pod.

So what’s an askhole? Here are some Urban Dictionary definitions. Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.
Continue reading

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.

Cultural compentency wombats: My keynote speech at the NDOA conference on June 7th

wombatHi everyone. Sorry I’ve been absent for two weeks. I am going to try to consistently publish each Monday morning from now on, rain or shine. With such a schedule, the quality of the posts may be lacking, but at least they’ll be consistent. Like someone once said: “Consistent adequacy always trumps inconsistent excellence,” a motto that I want to pass down to my son in one of those idyllic father-son moments. With the setting sun painting the skies crimson and amber in front of us as we sit on our porch, the last remnants of summer fading to the mournful song of the cicadas, I’d turn to him and say, “Son, excellence is hard to achieve, and consistent excellence next to impossible. Aim for reliable mediocrity…”

With so many profound life lessons to share, I am glad the Northwest Development Officers Association (NDOA) invited me to be their keynote speaker on June 7th at their Spring conference. This decision to invite me just proves that NDOA is run by highly-intelligent, innovative, and good-looking people. Public speaking is scary, though, and I want to be very honest and say that I am freaking out more than a little and have thought once or twice about running off into the wilderness, far far away from civilization…like maybe Federal Way, Washington.

Still, it is a great honor, and a great chance to avoid my staff for several hours, so I will work hard to ensure that I don’t suck at my speech in front of three or four hundred development professionals.

So, what am I going to talk about? Cultural competency, community engagement, and wombats. I have been writing about these topics for several years now, including a post called “Are You a Cultural Competency Wombat? Take this Quiz to Find Out.” Of course, this was a while ago, so only 7 or 8 people actually read that post (and only because I threatened to cut their health insurance), so I am going to just repost an excerpt here:

Are You a Cultural Competency Wombat? Take this Quiz to Find Out.”

The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”

We all agree that Cultural Competency is a good thing, but do any of us really understand what it is? I mean, sure, there are tons of research papers and books and stuff on the subject, but who actually reads them when we all have so much work to do and Season 3 of Downton Abbey just started? [Note, this post was written in February, when references to Downton Abbey were still relevant and very cool].

Cultural Competency is complex, and we can delve deep into it for hours. But for this post, I just want to spend a few minutes discussing cultural competency and how it manifests in the basic logistics of community engagement. Let’s begin by checking to see how culturally competent you currently are.

Question 1: You are leading a committee to talk about community safety and you want to ensure participation from residents of color. Where should you have the meeting? A. At my office downtown; it’ll make it easy for everyone, since downtown is a central location. B. At the local bar, since it’s an informal place where people can be free to express their opinions. C. Maybe a library, or a community center, some place with easy parking.

Question 2: You are thinking of having food at this meeting. What should you order? A. Prosciutto finger sandwiches, baked brie and dried pears, crudités and olives, accompanied by a nice pinot noir. B. Grilled pork banh mi’s (Vietnamese sandwiches), spring rolls C. Pita and hummus, chicken skewers, fruit.

Question 3: You want communities of color to be well-represented at this meeting. How should you go about outreaching? A. Send out flyers, emails, and Facebook messages. B. Call up the various ethnic organizations and ask them send out word to their community members. C. Have information translated and placed in ethnic media such as newspapers and radios, send staff to physically visit various places with translated materials.

Scoring: Give yourself 0 points for every A answer, 17 points for every B, and 900 points for every C. If you got 0 to 900 points, you are a cultural competency goblin. If you have 901 to 1816 points, you are a cultural competency wombat. If you have 1817 to 2700 points, you are a cultural competency platypus.

***End of excerpt. Read the rest of the post here.***

Most of us are wombats. Wombats are cuddly and cute in their clumsiness. But in order for us to be effective, to bring about change, to successfully fight for social justice, we must strive to be a cultural competency platypus. I will be talking about experiences I’ve had and observations I’ve made about wombat-like behaviors that I’ve seen, both at the micro and the macro level (we’ll also discuss the mezzo level, which everyone ignores, because “mezzo” just sounds silly). We will brainstorm tips to be more cultural competent, within our own individual work, in partnerships with other organizations, and in systems that have been impacting our field and our clients. We will touch on community engagement, a crucial element of nonprofit work, one that many of us screw up on all the time, and how we can avoid sucking at that (Hint: stop asking ethnic nonprofits to recruit their clients for focus groups without sufficient funding).

We’ll discuss all those issues and others, and if we have time, I want to run by the group my idea for a Broadway show about nonprofit work: “501c3: The Musical!”

I hope to see you at the conference.

Are you a cultural competency wombat? Take this quiz to find out

The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”

We all agree that Cultural Competency is a good thing, but do any of us really understand what it is? I mean, sure, there are tons of research papers and books and stuff on the subject, but who actually reads them when we all have so much work to do and Season 3 of Downton Abbey just started?

Cultural Competency is complex, and we can delve deep into it for hours. But for this post, I just want to spend a few minutes discussing cultural competency and how it manifests in the basic logistics of community engagement. Let’s begin by checking to see how culturally competent you currently are.

Question 1: You are leading a committee to talk about community safety and you want to ensure participation from residents of color. Where should you have the meeting? A. At my office downtown; it’ll make it easy for everyone, since downtown is a central location. B. At the local bar, since it’s an informal place where people can be free to express their opinions. C. Maybe a library, or a community center, some place with easy parking.

Question 2: You are thinking of having food at this meeting. What should you order? A. Prosciutto finger sandwiches, baked brie and dried pears, crudités and olives, accompanied by a nice pinot noir. B. Grilled pork banh mi’s (Vietnamese sandwiches), spring rolls C. Pita and hummus, chicken skewers, fruit.

Question 3: You want communities of color to be well-represented at this meeting. How should you go about outreaching? A. Send out flyers, emails, and Facebook messages. B. Call up the various ethnic organizations and ask them send out word to their community members. C. Have information translated and placed in ethnic media such as newspapers and radios, send staff to physically visit various places with translated materials.

Scoring: Give yourself 0 points for every A answer, 17 points for every B, and 900 points for every C. If you got 0 to 900 points, you are a cultural competency goblin*. If you have 901 to 1816 points, you are a cultural competency wombat*. If you have 1817 to 2700 points, you are a cultural competency platypus*.

Now that you have your score, let’s get on to the tips to make us all become more culturally competent!

Tip 1: Do not assume a person of color is culturally competent. How dare you automatically think I am qualified to talk about cultural competency! People of color can be just as culturally incompetent as everyone else. Why, just over the holiday break I managed to offend people from at least four separate cultures.

Tip 2: Ask questions, but check your assumptions. Assumptions lead to annoying questions like “Vu, what’s the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle?” How the heck would I know? A better question would be “Vu, do you know what the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle is?” (“No clue; I’m vegan.”)

Tip 3: Be where people are. I mean literally, geographically. Come down to the neighborhood. Ironically, I’ve attended a bunch of meetings about cultural competency that are held downtown, known to many of us as “The Maze of $8-Per-Hour Parking and the Endless Gnashing of Teeth.” Move your meetings around and check out all the cool locations where real people naturally congregate. Expecting people to come to you all the time is culturally insensitive. Plus, you can learn more about people and cultures by being where they are.

Tip 4: Have food at your community events, but try to avoid pork. Sounds kind of harsh, since bacon is so delicious and they’ve incorporated it into so many great things like chocolates and vodka. But several cultures and religions avoid pork, so you can make it easier on yourself and ease the mind of a ton of people by just not having it there. At VFA, whenever we have a public event, such as our Tet Celebration on 2/8, we just don’t have pork, since many of our friends who may attend are Muslim. When in doubt, go with chicken.

Tip 5: Be considerate of circumstances and challenges. Take into consideration childcare, transportation, and other factors as you engage communities. Not everyone has a car or knows how to take public transit. Have volunteers to watch over children and have appropriate games and activities for them.

Tip 6: Be careful giving out swag items. I was attending a meeting regarding improving the education system and how to get communities of color to be engaged in the process. At the end, as we left, we were each given a gift bag. I looked inside. It was a bottle of wine. Each person got a bottle of wine! Several cultures and religion do not encourage alcohol consumption, so this was in poor taste, especially in combination with a serious discussion on education. Swag items are fine, but make sure they are appropriate. Pens, note pads, travel-size hand sanitizer, flash drives, and food, especially vegan chocolates, are good. Avoid alcohol, weapons, and stuff made of leather or other animal products.

There are so many different cultures, and each culture is so complex, that it would be impossible to be completely competent. Competency, then, is an evolving process, a sense of self, and a willingness to ask questions and challenge one’s deeply-held beliefs. Or something profound like that. Look, I only scored 934 points, and Downton Abbey is on.

(*These titles are only to illustrate a point. In order to be an official Cultural Competency Platypus or even Unicorn, please follow directions here)

How Nonprofit With Balls got its name; it’s more complicated than you think

 

balls 2Recently, a new nonprofit came to meet me at the VFA office, which I appreciated, since I’m a very busy person, and meeting at my office allows me to watch a second episode of “The Daily Show” on hulu.com. This particular advocacy organization was trying to advance education in Seattle, and they wanted to see about collaborating with VFA. “Luke” came on time and was very friendly.

“Two separate people mentioned you, Vu, as someone we should talk to,” he said, beaming. He went on to present his concept, which was not altogether a horrible idea for advancing education. But I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. He was going to ask VFA to pull together a focus group.

“We’re trying to really engage communities of color, so we’re hoping you would do a focus group of 15 or 20 people for us to listen to.”

Every week, VFA gets some sort of request to rally our community members: “Vu, the seawall is breaking! Can you recruit several immigrants and refugees to give input?” The following week: “Vu, the combined sewers are overflowing! We want to get the Vietnamese community’s thoughts!” It is rarely anything fun: “Vu, a delegation is going to Hawaii to study the effects of hula and mild inebriation on nonprofit executives’ burnout rates, and we’d like you to come.”

“To be frank,” I said, “we are at capacity. We have only three full-time staff here at VFA running several programs and projects. I’m afraid that unless there are resources provided, I cannot ask my team to tackle any additional responsibilities.”

Luke looked perplexed and started talking about the importance of the effort he is trying to advance. I told him that if he wants effective collaborations, he should go to his funders and advocate for a more equitable financial support of organizations that are out there on the ground doing direct work so that we can have more capacity for advocacy. He became irritated and extremely defensive.

“So basically,” he said, “you want me to go back to my funders and say ‘Vu won’t play ball unless we give him money.’ I can’t do that.”

Luke must be new to Seattle. In a city known for process and indirectness, it was rather refreshing to hear him talk so bluntly. It had a certain symphony, like a wrench thrown into a blender.

“Play ball? Listen, we small ethnic nonprofits are knee-deep in balls! We have balls flying at us from every corner, from the City, from the County, from the School District, from organizations like yours. Usually without any funding to support our operations. We can’t juggle your balls for you!”

Kidding, I would never say that; at least, not while sober. What I said was, “The traditional ways of engaging communities of colors do not work. If you want to rally a few people to ‘listen’ to, then I am sure you can succeed in the short term. If you want long-term impact, I am telling you that you and others will need to shift your traditional way of doing and funding things. You can either hire a multicultural team of outreach staff, or you will need to work with cultural organizations; either way or preferably both, it will take resources because it takes much more effort to reach communities of color.”

He was visibly annoyed. “I am not looking for a handout, Vu,” he said, “you know what, if you just write down how much it’ll cost to pay for a few hours of someone’s time to call up people and how much facilities and food and other expenses will be, we’ll figure out a way to pay for them.”

I told him I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out his budget for him. And that even when there are resources, sometimes we have to turn down great projects because they do not align with our strategic plan.

“That really saddens me,” he responded, “and when this effort is huge and successful, and the Vietnamese community’s voice is missing, we’ll both understand why.”

I smiled. There was no point arguing further with him.

“All right,” he said, “how about this? We get lunch, you and I, and you bring just one Vietnamese client. Just one. You know what they say, the journey of ten thousand steps begins with one step, so can you do that? Just one client.”

“Luke,” I said—

“Just one!”

“Do you know what it takes to coordinate even something as simple as that? First I have to figure out which clients I know, then I have to call up four or five of them to see if any are interested. If one is interested, I have to find a slot that works with your schedule, my schedule, and this other person’s schedule. Also, I’d be more than glad to have lunch with you, but I am 90% certain that a client will not join, because they work during the day.”

Our time was up. I started feeling a pang of guilt. Perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Listen,” I said, “I want to be sure there is no misunderstanding between us—”

“Oh, there’s not,” he said, smirking, “I heard you loud and clear.”

“I don’t BS,” I said, staring him in the eye, “if you want real community engagement, help change the traditional way of doing things.”

I walked him out and sat down at my computer to write my follow-up thank-you email. Was I out of line? Was I taking out some sort of unconscious frustration on Luke? I don’t doubt his or his organization’s intentions. Perhaps he just came at a bad time. Every month, we get a dozen similar requests, usually from well-meaning and well-funded organizations. My staff work ridiculous hours managing programs and several capacity building and other projects. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated team. Is it unreasonable then for me to feel protective and to get annoyed at people like Luke, who seem to think we ethnic nonprofits have unlimited time and that we are selfish when we refuse to “collaborate” and “play ball” with mainstream organizations vastly better funded than we are?

Luke responded back, and we are having lunch in a couple of weeks. I’ll keep you updated. [Read Part 2, my lunch with Luke]

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address.