Focus Area 5: Intercultural Engagement
5. Fundamentals of Cultural Competency

Cultivating intercultural engagement requires a holistic approach to bring about transformative thinking, feeling, and actions that will lead you to become more competent over time. The concept of cultural competency - the ability to acknowledge and respect the cultural differences of the young people you serve - was first introduced in 1989. It established a solid foundation for skill-building and is still relevant today even as it continues to evolve. Since it is generally well understood now, we'll base this section on the fundamental concepts of cultural competence with the understanding that it is just another piece of the process to incorporate intercultural engagement into your work.

There is not any one single definition of cultural competency that everyone would agree on. The concept has evolved from “cultural awareness” (having knowledge about a particular group, primarily through reading or studies about that group) to “cultural sensitivity” (having knowledge as well as some level of experience with a group other your own) to “cultural competency” which speaks directly to the need for actual skill development in this area.

The Child Welfare League of America defines cultural competency as "the ability of individuals and systems to respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and faiths or religions in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, tribes, and communities, and protects and preserves the dignity of each."1

By now, it should be abundantly clear that cultural differences can’t be assumed based on obvious external factors like appearance or skin color.

Knowing that each person’s individual responses to the differences of every other person is driven first and foremost by culture, your task will be to better understand your own culture as the filter through which you interact with every other person, and their unique cultural makeup. 

Some of the various aspects, traits, or characteristics in which you and the young people you serve may differ include:

  • Gender identity
  • Religious affiliation or spirituality
  • Socio-economic status
  • Culture
  • Ethnicity (which many people will still think of as “race”)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Political beliefs
  • Ability/Disability
  • Age

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. It’s very possible you could think of other aspects, traits, or characteristics of difference, based on your own experiences.

When you consider the many dimensions of difference, it’s not hard to see how fear and misunderstandings can arise. But you can begin to explore your own perception about these differences, whether you’ve been conscious of them before or are just beginning to tune into them.

To avoid over-generalizing the particular dimension of race (ethnicity), keep these two important considerations in mind:

  • Many individuals experience multiple racial and ethnic identities. For example, a teen whose mom is White and dad is Black may identify as “mixed,” “Black,” “White” or something else.
  • An individual’s self-identity can change over time based on experiences.

These considerations are brought to life in a compelling way in this YouTube recording of a TEDxLeHighRiver Talk by Elizabeth Dobson. Please watch it and then complete the Reflection Exercise that follows.

View this video: How to Fix Our Sub-Conscious Racism: A Mixed-Race Perspective (run time 17:50 minutes)
Reflection Exercise: Images of Depression

Now that you’ve seen the video, consider how “thinking outside of the box” might be useful in your work. Think of a particular young person you work with who is different from you. (If no one comes to mind, consider a co-worker or friend). Ask yourself:

What are some of the things that would be different about how I interact with this young person I have in mind now if I could stop seeing them in a particular category or as a particular race?

People who are different from you usually experience life through a different cultural lens than you. While you cannot ever step into their lived experience, you can learn to see the world through other cultural perspectives. The way you judge what you see affects your actions and behaviors.

Dr. Steven Jones, known as one of “America’s Top Experts on Diversity” defines cultural competence as “the application of knowledge, awareness and skills that lead to effective interactions across individual, group, and institutional level differences. The outcomes of these personal and professional interactions consistently result in respectful, inclusive, and equitable relationships, treatment and systems.”2 

It’s easy to talk about things you have in common with others. Many people find it more difficult to talk about their differences, especially those differences that have to do with your identity. That’s personal stuff and talking about it can make you feel vulnerable, unsure how the other person might respond or react.

Genuine communication is crucial for fostering understanding and bridging the cultural differences between you and young people in your program.


Snéha Khilay is a trainer with Speak First, a communication skills training company. She shares important tips for communicating successfully with people from different cultures in this short video.

View this video: Communicating with Cultural Awareness (run time 5:01 minutes)

Snéha offers four tips that you’ll find helpful in communicating cross-culturally:

  1. Use your observation skills and try to match/mirror the person you’re interacting with when possible.
  2. Appreciate differences and be adaptable.
  3. Remember that an individual may not fit the cultural tendencies of their culture or group.
  4. Exercise patience when interacting with someone with a different cultural map.

In summary, Snéha encourages us to remember that cultural diversity is fundamentally about acknowledging differences and respecting those differences. That’s an easy take away that you can put to use every day!


Activist, speaker, and author of two best-selling books on the subjects of diversity and inclusion, Verna Myers, put it this way; “Diversity is getting asked to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”3

Many times, an agency or program will implement plans to increase diversity, to reach more young people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in the areas they serve. Outreach and recruitment efforts get ramped up and representation of minority groups increases. That’s great – needed and appreciated. But if it stops there, it stops short.

Before you read on, please watch this 4-minute video to get your wheels turning around ideas for inclusion strategies. Anne LaFrinier-Ritchie brings lived experience along with her coaching and training perspective in this thought-provoking message. She is the Safe Harbor Regional Navigator for Someplace Safe in West Central Minnesota. One of her many focuses is to provide culturally responsive services for Indigenous youth and families. In this video, she shares the importance of intentionally building culturally inclusive youth program spaces in your community.

You’ll need to also implement every inclusion strategy you can think of; remove barriers, review processes and procedures, policies, and forms to ensure they are not communicating bias or inequity, directly or indirectly.

You’ll have to ask different questions about your programs. Not just how many youth of color, or Muslim youth, or gay youth participate, for example. But deeper questions that come from your unwavering commitment to intercultural engagement:

  • What is the experience here for individuals who are the minority in our program?
  • What barriers stand in the way of young people with marginalized identities feeling a genuine sense of welcome and belonging?
  • What is something we can stop doing that causes young people in our programs, or coworkers in our agency to feel excluded?
  • What is something we can start doing to let our young people and coworkers of different social identities feel respected and valued here?

And then you move on to ensuring equity for everyone. Equity is a process that starts by acknowledging if an unequal starting place exists for someone, you and your program will implement needed supports to address the inequity and adjust to correct the imbalance.

Diversity is not really about having a program or agency that represents people from different genders, religions, ethnicities. To reap the many benefits of diversity, you have to get really very good at authentic inclusion. And that is a lot easier to do when you  and everyone in your program and community learn to operate from the perspective of intercultural engagement.

And then really work on how you communicate (verbally and non-verbally) to build true rapport, to foster authentic relationships so that you, your coworkers and leaders, and all the young people you work with can get to know each other as individuals instead of as an ethnic group or category of any kind.

Keep this guiding principle foremost in your head and centered in your heart: Intercultural engagement is the commitment to create deep, genuine understanding and respect for all cultures.

You’re putting all this effort into learning so that you can then let all the learning run automatically in the background, so you can just be with one another as people working for social justice, working to dismantle discrimination, breaking down bias and prejudice on every level. When you do that, every day, the difference you will make really will change the world.

Reference Sources

1 Child Welfare League of America, 2001, Cultural Competence Defined

2 How to Make the Invisible Visible, Steven Jones, Ph.D. (Jones 2010)

3 The Verna Myers Company,

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