Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #7: Advocating

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2There is a perception difference between an Advocate and an Activist.  Activists often have the ethos of someone who is angry about something, focused on being "against," maintain an ideological stance that does not allow compromise,. An Activist is often seen as taking dramatic (often symbolic) action, and carrying around the weight of victimization. Even though Activists often have much more to offer and can be very positive, the popular perception remains. Advocates, on the other hand, have the perception of coming alongside someone, working to empower them, speaking on their behalf when those in authority or otherwise consider them invisible. Advocates excel at creating space for relationship and solution-building that avoids the (perceived or real) demagoguery that Activists tend to be known for. This shift in process allows people to save face, which is  needed to move toward reconciliation, collaboration, and community.

In summary, Activists tend to take the stand, "If you're not completely with me, then you're against me," (either by being part of the apathetic herd or a part of the systemic opposition). Advocates, on the other hand, tend to take the stand of, "We're all in this together,  to build something better than we have, we need to take the needs/perspectives/values of these other people/stakeholders/groups into consideration, and use our new-found perspective and connectedness to do something powerful." In this final post in her series on Building Capacity for Cultural Competence, Sandra Quick offers an example of how Advocacy works and the way it can bring about positive transformation. 

New Call-to-action For the rest of the series, see:

#1: Assessment

#2: Awareness

#3: Acknowledgement

#4: Accepting

#5: Adapting

#6: Applying

See also my post on why Building Capacity for Cultural Competence is an essential part of organizational leadership.


Here I am at my alma mater, West High School, Columbus, Ohio, class of ’68. The Alumni Association invited all alumni authors to display and discuss their published books at an “Alumni Book Fair”. The purpose was to encourage the current student population to write their “great American novel” even if they weren’t from America. The students could see people who achieved their dream, despite obstacles and trials. We, the alumni, were people who had walked the same halls as they were walking now. We had a connection.

If your high school is like the majority in the United States, the ethnic and cultural population has changed tremendously in the last 20-30 -40 years. Is that true for your high school? In this photo, I’m discussing my books, Our History Awakens: Creating MY Living History Avatar and Our History Awakens: Creating YOUR Living History Avatar with three Asian girls. There were no Asians at West High when I was a student, just 90% white and 10% black.

When I was growing up, I took advantage of the opportunities to learn, even though these opportunities were shadowed by the 1940’s mind set of my high school counselor. He encouraged me to “learn a trade”; instead of aspiring to go to college, “because there are good cleaning jobs for poor black girls like you.”  How did I overcome this affront to my intellect and future prosperity? I became my own Advocate through sheer determination. I took action. I studied harder. I made myself known, through volunteering to do community service, to teachers who encouraged me to apply to college. I researched what it would take for me to apply to, get money for, and succeed in college. My source of determination was personal and powerful.

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This seventh level of Building Capacity for Cultural Competence is about Advocacy. Advocating is being able to transcend cultural differences to establish trusting and meaningful relationships with persons from different cultures. Advocating is action. An Advocate gets out there and makes themselves known, makes contact, puts forth the effort to engage in conversation and communal camaraderie with people of other cultures, even when the expected outcome is not guaranteed. As Matt mentioned in his introduction, Advocacy and Activism are two different genre. Matt also revisited the path to reach this high level of connectedness.

Pyramid-brown-blue-7-AdvocacyEighteen months after the Alumni Book Fair, I received an e-mail from the organizer. West High’s guidance counselor knew of a Somali  girl who wanted write a book. They asked if I would mentor her. I was not surprised at the full circle connection. I joyfully agreed.

Mahatma Gandhi promoted us towards Advocacy,

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Bill Clinton provided an example of the path towards the Advocacy journey,

“A whole new generation moves from a past of clenched fists                                                             into a future of outstretched hands.”

Will you be a change agent? Will you reach out and shake a hand? Will you be an Advocate?

Don’t stop at your own ascension to the pinnacle; help someone else climb the Building Capacity of Cultural Competence pyramid. Share this blog with colleagues and friends.  I write this blog post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. The first level is Assessment, the second level is Awareness,  the third level is Acknowledgement,  the fourth level is Acceptance,  the fifth level is Adapting and the sixth level is Applying.  I define the top and seventh  level of capacity building as:

Advocating  - Being able to transcend cultural differences to establish trusting and meaningful relationships with persons from different cultures.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!

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Topics: Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Why Build Capacity for Cultural Competence?

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2In our increasingly globalized society, it is no longer optional for most leaders to operate in multiple cultural settings other than the one in which they were raised. And they must do so with deft grace, a level of competence greater than that which was expected for most of history. 

The expectations these days are different than they once were: no longer do most people find it appropriate that dominant, majority cultures can "just be themselves" while all others scramble to adjust. Many see that to exert superiority and simultaneously lack empathy, compassion, and hospitality. And now, as these assumptions have shifted, both the underlying anger at (historical and present) roughshod treatment and the fear and anger from those who see their social order slipping away rises up all over. What some portray as the clash of classes, colors, creeds, cultures or civilizations (because epic news is the best news) is really a reflection of the multipolar and complex shifts going on in domestic US politics as well as on a global scale. 

Over the past few months, we have chosen to feature posts by Sandra Quick as she works through her Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model because we understnand that the ability to read, understand and participate in these shifting environments requires adaptive learning to build new capacities - particularly for organizational leaders, whether that organization be a business, a public-sector entity, a church, or a nonprofit. Far beyond dealing merely with American racism, we encounter many who are unable to operate outside of their own self-reinforcing culture - whichever culture it is - whether that be in the echo chambers of cable news or social media. We humans have a strong, primal, tendency to self-silo and self-Balkanize, even as much as we have the tendency to impose negative-shaded otherness upon just about anyone else around us. 

Within this tempest, it has become a badge of honor simultaneously to seethe with anger over someone else's (perceived and real) oppressive, bigoted actions, while bearing a tortured martyr's stripes due to some belief, behavior, or cause that is not yet (or no longer) able to be expressed without a negative reaction from others (or fear of a negative reaction), while also at the same time painting caricaitures of the "other side" with even greater distortions than the finest sidewalk artists could ever produce. 

Pyramid-brown-blue-1Even the most robust organizational structures find themselves strained to their limits by this cultural torsion. In order to find a way forward, we must begin by self assessing: where do we, in fact, stand? Then, as we become aware of where we stand, we must begin to acknowledge other cultures' practices, and that these cultures are not beneath us - they are our equals. Accepting others, adapting to the perspectives of others, and applying what we learn so we can advocate in other situations - this is the path toward organizational health in this society in transition. 

Fear and anger drive much of the underlying tension; in the broader culture, of course, money, sex, power and fame drive a good portion of the rest. Nevertheless, within it all, it still appears that "love your neighbor as yourself" holds true. The question is, then: will we?

Some of our organizations and institutions will fall to dust in these days, no doubt.The vast majority will not, though. Yet others will be reinforced; still others will be formed new. As organizational leaders, our job is to help our systems, corporate cultures, and institutions adapt to the new conditions, do our part to influence them for good, and work diligently to make sure we offer a way through the fear and anger and out the other side - whatever the outcome. 

Join me in taking a self-assessment of your capacity for cultural competence. And let's work together to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly - as Micah said, "with our God," and of course, with our neighbor.



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Topics: Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Building Capacity For Cultural Competence #6: Applying

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Putting our growing cultural capacity into practice can be difficult at many of the levels we have reached, but the application level is where we often see people leaving the game and streaming toward the exits. When we resist the urge to go with that flow, we discover the difficulty: application invades our systems as much as adaptation invaded our behaviors and acceptance invaded our attitude. And systems, even more than attitude and behaviors, tend to be resiliant in the face of change: that is, they tend to revert to previous states, shapes, and processes once outside pressure is released, unless true transformation has taken root inside of them. Application, then, experience systemic resistance because it is working at levels that transform the most resiliant and rooted parts of our organizational, family, and cultural systems. 

In this post, Sandra talks about how applying the principles we have built upon so far will help us with true systemic transformation. Read on!


Congratulations! So far you have worked through the first five levels in Building Capacity for Cultural Competence . Keep up the good work. You have worked your way almost to the pinnacle of the pyramid.  After today, there is only one more level to go.

Pyramid-brown-blue “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. ” Henri  J.M. Nouwen

I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.Mahatma Gandhi


A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.Martin Luther King, Jr.


A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.Nelson Mandela

These first four quotes describe the kind of leadership required to build competence. Below are examples of things one might hear when someone is not operating out of leadership:

“Let someone else do it. I’m too busy, too tired, too far removed from the core issue.”
“That’s not in my sphere of influence to make changes.”
“If THEY would just stop A,B,C, and start X,Y,Z then things would get better.”
“I suppose something ought to be done about THEM.”
“Talk, talk, talk, I’m sick of talking, nothing ever comes from talking. It’s a waste of my time.”

Could it be that these statements, as Mandela said, are  “arrogant, superficial and uninformed”?


6-South_Africa_2008In 2008 I was privileged to experience the 20 foot tall statue of Nelson Mandela sculpted by Kobus Hattingh and Jacob Maponyane in Johannesburg, South Africa. The chiseled tribute is an imposing reminder of South Africa’s favorite grandfather who continues to inspire to this day. Apartheid, from the Afrikaans word for "apartness," was a system of laws that enforced deep racial segregation and empowered whites over other races, especially blacks. It was enacted in 1948 and lasted until 1994 when Mandela was elected President.


Applying is the  sixth level of Cultural Competence. The premise is, Apply leadership strategies of learned and accepted cultural knowledge within organizations to develop and nurture diverse, effective, and collaborative work forces.

Mandela’s  leadership through the turbulent times and troubled waters of apartheid, embodied Applying strategic and effective principles again and again. Not only were his leadership  measures Applied, but those with whom he sought to reconcile had to put on cultural “lens” of which they were not familiar. President Mandela’s leadership personified his cultural values and beliefs, his thoughts and actions. These foundations helped to make South Africa a better country for black, white and brown.  Application was the process that forced both sides to “mold consensus” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King specified.  Nor can one Apply what one does not know (Nouwen).

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President Mandela's role in toppling apartheid was an enormous, historic achievement. But it was what he did after winning that battle that made him such a hero, not just to black South Africans but to the world. Mandela was always clear that he didn't want to end apartheid just because it was horrible and racist, although it was, but because his ultimate goal was, as he said at his 1964 trial, "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

This new pluralistic and democratic regime was the only mechanism that would right the wrongs and heal the wounds of the worlds of Africans (indigenous/black/poor/oppressed) and Afrikaans (colonist/white/prosperous/ruling). A more recent example of Application is found in The Church.

The January, 2015 NEW YORK TIMES headline read, “20 Newest Cardinals a Diverse Group.” VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis named his second group of new cardinals yesterday, including 15 who will be eligible to elect his successor after his death or resignation. Many are from developing countries, reflecting the Roman Catholic Church’s grown in Asia and Africa.  

What examples of Application Leadership do you exhibit and employ in your home, in your business, in your community, in your faith based institution? Have you taken the Self-Assessment yet? The Self-Assessment categories address how you are Applying Cultural Competence. The categories are: Personal Involvement; Knowledge of Communities; Process Procedures; Staffing; Resources and Linkages; Reaching out to Communities.

 If you have not taken the SELF- Assessment yet, click on the link below. If so, how did you score in these areas? 

I write this blog post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. The first level is Assessment, the second level is Awareness,  the third level is Acknowledgement,  the fourth level is Acceptance, and the fifth level is Adapting.  I define the sixth level of capacity building as:

Applying – Applying cultural knowledge within organizations to develop and nurture diverse, effective, and collaborative work forces.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!

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Topics: Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #5: Adapting

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2This past week I attended the 2015 Stewardship Summit in Orlando, Florida. At the summit, several of the presenters spoke on the issues of teaching good stewardship of resources in a variety of cross-cultural environments.

Over the years, Christian mission agencies have had to adapt to the changes in their organizational culture and the changes in the cultures in which they work as people overseas have moved from being the recipients of Western missions to equal partners in the agencies' work. Along the way, the agencies have had to learn how to work in a variety of cultural styles - often finding that what works in one place is an utter disaster in another, and that just as often, a third cultural group has a better opportunity to work in certain environments than does a North American group. 

Adaptation to other cultures, and, indeed, adapting our own to better interact and relate to other cultures, is an essential part of building capacity for cultural competence. In her fifth post, Sandra Quick uses the example of a little-known motorcyclist from the 1930s and 1940s to lead us in to a deeper understanding and practice of cultural adaptation.


Papers from the 1st Stewardship Summit

Papers from the first (2013) Stewardship Summit are available by clicking the button above. 2015 papers will be available shortly.


5_Adapting“I Spy with my little eye.” Did you ever play this game in the family car? This game is about seeing things other people cannot see and then giving them clues so that they too can eventually  “spy”, with their own little eye,  the grandeur of the object you are admiring. It’s against the rules to give false clues or change the object originally spied, or mislead the other game player(s).

I am a Living History Professional Teaching Artist in the theatre company I founded, Our History Awakens.  My mission is  to commemorate the African-American Experience in American History through Living History Performances and Engaging Educational Activities “…lest we forget”.  One of the forgotten heroines I portray is Bessie Stringfield. Called “BB” by her friends and honored as "The Motorcycle Queen of Miami" by the Mayor, Bessie was the first African-American woman to ride across the United States solo, eight (8) times! These “penny tours” were an exceptional feat when you consider that the time was the 1930’s-40’s when women, black or white, rarely rode motorcycles solo. She was a pioneer to prove women had the courage, tenacity, and ability to serve their country to support the World War II war effort.

This picture is of me portraying Bessie Stringfield as a look out, trying to spy to see if it was safe to travel to the next military post. If you look her up there is little information about Bessie on the internet because it really wasn’t important to “see” colored women in the 1930’s and 40’s.

During World War II, Bessie served as one of the few contract motorcycle dispatch riders for the United States military. A dispatch rider is a military messenger, mounted on horse or motorcycle, who was used by armed forces to deliver urgent orders and messages between headquarters and military units. They had a vital role at a time when telecommunications were limited and insecure. Credited with breaking down barriers for both women and African American motorcyclists, Bessie Stringfield was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. The award ‘Motorcyclist' is named in her honor and bestowed by the American Motorcyclist Association for 'Superior Achievement by a Female’. BUT, Bessie would have never been hired as a contract dispatch rider without the Adaptation of  President Roosevelt who ‘spied’ a problem and won the civil rights game for blacks.

In early 1941, millions of jobs were being created, primarily in urban areas, as the United States prepared for war. When large numbers of African Americans moved to cities in the north and west to work in defense industries, they were often met with violence and discrimination. In response, A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and other black leaders, met with Eleanor Roosevelt and members of the Presidents’ cabinet. Randolph presented a list of grievances regarding the civil rights of African Americans, demanding that an Executive Order be issued to stop job discrimination in the defense industry. In June of 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce the new policy.

Bessie had to be on the constant “look out” to “spy” how other folks were “seeing” her. She had to constantly Adapt to the changing environments on the roads from the Northern to Southern states. Her binocular’s  “lens” had to be clear and clean so that she was not misled by false clues of safety. President Roosevelt Adapted federal policies against the “closed eyes” of Congress.

Now, what does this American and African-American history lesson have to do with your Building Capacity for Cultural Competence? The fifth level of the pyramid is Adapting. Adapting  is Understanding the effect our own culture has on our values, beliefs, thoughts, and actions, and how our cultural “lens” can distort, OR help us Adapt our interpretation of different cultures.

Here’s where it becomes personal, “From what cultural ‘lens’ are you viewing another culture different from your own? What values, beliefs, thoughts, actions help you Adapt to the changing times or do these same cultural attributes distort or “fog up” your cultural ‘lens” so that you ‘see’ actions or attitudes that are not there, or misinterpret those right in front of you?

The lyrics  about the necessity of seeing things differently through other people’s  “lens” is not a new concept. Bob Dylan’s revolution/Adapting song “The Times They are A Changin” are just as apropos 50 years later as when they were first published in 1963. In the second stanza, Dylan invites you to “keep your eyes wide”. Listen …

The_Fifth_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceCome gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’


Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Read the entire lyrics at

If you are not changing, why not? What is holding you back from Adapting? Are you willing to change with the times?

I write this blog post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. The first level is Assessment, the second level is Awarenessthe third level is Acknowledgement, and the fourth level is Acceptance.  I define the fifth level of capacity building as:

Adapting – Understanding the effect our own culture has on our values, beliefs, thoughts, and actions, and how our cultural “lens” can distort, or help us adapt, our interpretation of different cultures.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!

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Topics: Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #4: Acceptance

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2In Sandra’s first three blogs she talked about hair, crayons, yoga and vampires. That’s a pretty wide range of topics. Each of those topics dealt with cultural competence from an internal perspective.  In this blog, she shifts from internal to eternal perspective at the fourth level, Acceptance, of the Building Capacity for Cultural Competence pyramid. Having transcended the first level, Assessment, the second level, Awareness, and the third level, Acknowledgement, level four, Acceptance,  deals with being open to explore other cultural differences.  So you may ask, “What exactly does open mean and how far open do I have to go?”

To review, Culture is not synonymous with race. Cultures are social constructs of humankind, each with its own adaptive strategies for a life of meaning and worth. Cultures are dynamic and continually changing, permitting continued successful adaptation to changing life circumstances. Simply put, culture is “the way we do things around here." Whether it is driving on the left side of the road, as I experienced in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, or looking for street signs on buildings rather than on signposts, as I saw in Riga, Latvia, cultural differences are usually neither right nor wrong, but just different ways of doing things.

Let's listen to Sandra's fourth level of the Cultural Capacity pyramid, Acceptance.



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Few smells excite our noses like the smell of home cooked food from our childhood.  If you are of East Indian descent,  the aromas of  curry, cumin, and cardamom  may come to mind. If you are of Mexican descent,  smells of chili peppers, cilantro, and chipotle may bring back pleasant memories of elderly women bending over pots and tasting for just the right blend of seasonings.  If you are of Italian descent you may remember smelling  basil, oregano, or olive oil.  I am not a member of any one of these ethnicities, but I take every opportunity to enjoy food from other cultures. Even if I don’t think I’ll like it.

4_AcceptanceHere I am in Altamura, Italy in 2007 in a real Olive Garden.  I was on a mission trip and the guest of the Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica Battista. The church members welcomed us at an evening meal. What I wasn’t used to was that the meal started at about 8:30 PM, and was hosted in the church basement.  There were 5 or 6 courses and each course was accompanied by the everlasting toasting of homemade “Vino! Vino!  Vino!”. Trust me on this one, that scene would have never, ever happened in my church’s basement on a Saturday night.  Different culture, different social construct.  I had to choose between Accepting their hospitality or offending my hosts. I choose to Accept their generosity with humility and an overstuffed belly.  Acceptance is not agreeing with the culture, Acceptance is acknowledging their culture exists.

Before people were talking about race relations in Ferguson, MO or ethnic cleansings in Crimea, Ukraine or rape and gender issues in India, people were talking about culture. Culture is not synonymous with race or ethnicity. Culture is defined as … social constructs of humankind, each with its own adaptive strategies for a life of meaning and worth. Cultures are dynamic and continually changing, permitting continued successful adaptation to changing life circumstances. Simply put, culture is “the way we do things around here”.

Merriam-Webster Inc., America's leading dictionary publisher, has announced its  2014 top ten Words of the Year. The Word of the Year, with the greatest number of lookups and a significant increase over last year, is culture. Merriam explains that:

Culture is not associated with any one event, but instead dominated the headlines this year, on topics ranging from "celebrity culture" to "rape culture" to "company culture." In years past, lookups for the word culture spiked in the fall, as students encountered the word in titles and descriptions of courses and books, but this year lookups have moved from seasonal to persistent, as culture has become a term frequently used in discussions of social phenomena.

When was the last time you were in a different social construct where the traditions, beliefs and/or practices were quite different from your own?  How did you respond? How did you react? Where you engaging, anxious, acknowledging?  Did you “fit in” or did you “stand out”? Did you feel Accepted or segregated? As you Build Capacity for Cultural Competence, allow me to introduce you to my friend T.I.N.A. T.I.N.A is an acronym for This Is Not America. In other words, we do things differently here. I invite my friend T.I.N.A. with me as I travel the globe allowing me the luxury of enveloping myself in the new and unfamiliar. Their way is not wrong or right, just uncommon to me.  Please do not hear me say that one should Accept practices that are unethical, unlawful, and harmful to self and others, such as embezzlement or female genital mutilation.  There are many manifestations of cultural practices, some good, some bad. These cultural practices  can be overt or covert. For example:

  • in a culture of peace,  people overlook minor offenses and forgiveness is rampant;
  • in a culture of silence, the mantra is “Don’t ask and don’t tell”;
  • in a culture of inclusion,  all are welcome to worship regardless of gender identity;
  • in a culture of predatory lending, people scream, “Give me bigger and better, no matter how much debt I’ll be in.”;
  • in a culture of moral bankruptcy, bosses and employees take off countless hours while still “on the clock”, share company secrets with the competition, and or disregard safety standards for the sake of the almighty dollar;
  • in a culture of better business,  certified businesses sport the motto, “Start with Trust”;
  • in a culture of bureaucracy, red tape and poor customer service rule;
  • in a culture of entitlement, “Because I exist, the world owes me” is the status quo;
  • in a  ‘smart’ culture, ‘ smart’ cars, ‘smart’ pills by Google X  are packed with tiny magnetic particles designed to circulate in the human body looking for signs of cancer and other diseases, and ‘smart’ shoe sole with a built-in GPS tracking chip that works with a variety of ‘smart’ phones  where artificial intelligence takes over for the human experience. [By the way, much to my IT careered son’s chagrin, I still do my monthly budget with pencil (including eraser) and ruled paper. I admit it is hard for us old-timers to change.]

The_Fourth_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceYet, do not be afraid or ashamed to change as you work through Accepting cultural practices and traditions that are different from your own family origins or learned behaviors. Acceptance does not mean you have to emulate the exact same practices. Acceptance means that you acknowledge the cultural difference and respect it. I encourage you to Accept T.I.N.A.‘s invitation to be your tour guide through this new culture adventures of lifelong learning.

Three examples of ways to Accept (be open to, recognize, appreciate) cultural differences and Build Capacity for Cultural Competence with another culture  different from you own is to:

1-      Listen, the first step is to talk with people of other cultures and listen to what they have to say;
2-      Learn , the second step is to  explore, investigate, research about other cultures;
3-      Linger , the third step is to take part in festivals,  community events, invite a person of another culture out for coffee.

Remember those childhood smells of home cooked foods. Use those memories of seasonings to add spice to your cultural diet. Go ahead, season relationships, spice them up. Tasting new foods is risky, but  try it, you may like it. As Dr. Seuss reminds us, "green eggs and ham" can be edible and enjoyed "here or there."

I write this blog post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. The first level is Assessment, the second level is Awareness, and the third level is Acknowledgement .  I define the fourth level of capacity building as:

Acceptance – being able to learn about other cultures from the people who know them best and live in that culture, to accept members of other cultural groups – being open to exploring cultural differences.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!


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Topics: Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment, capacity building

Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #3: Acknowledgement

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2As we build our capacity for cultural diversity, we move from Assessment (where do I stand? how do I act? what do I believe?) to Awareness (this is where I stand, this is how I act, this is what I believe). This helps us to discover the root behind a lot of our cultural disconnects: fear. Fear is a powerful set of emotions that simultaneously drives us in circles, paralyzes us, and causes us to react without seeing the whole picture. Fear leaves us feeling powerless, and urges us to act out of that powerlessness to restore a comfortable level of power and control. Fear of others drives much of the conflict around the world, whether it be war, racial/ethnic tensions, family dysfunction, or conflict in a boardroom or organization. 

In her latest post, Sandra Quick explains that fear of others often comes from ignorance of who they are, and that the appropriate response to that fear is to engage in lifelong learning to overcome the ignorance - even the ignorance dressed in what we think we know. In our increasingly global culture, can we learn enough about others, on an ongoing basis, that we can look at other cultures and not be afraid, even if we disagree? Are we unafraid because we have pushed others so far away they can't touch us, or are we unafraid because we engage so deeply that we know the "other" well enough to work through difficulties that arise?

Sandra's post did evoke fear in me - fear where I was short on knowledge of the "other." It caused me to want to go back and look at my own SELF-Assessment to take things to the next level. I would encourage you, if you haven't already, to take the SELF-Assessment. Sandra is offering a 30-minute free consultation to go over the results. I have found her to be quite helpful in seeing these results in a constructive light. Read the post, and take the Assessment!

Take A Cultural Comptetence SELF-Assessment

+Matt Thomas



By Sandra Quick: I am a Lady, an African American, 10 months from Medicare, two biscuits shy a full ton, dyed-in-the- wool American Baptist who practices yoga.  Here I am at Brio Spa at Grand Luxxe Riviera Maya in Cancun Mexico in 2011.  The asana (pose)  is the “tree pose” with hands at heart center. Ommmmm. Does this sound subversive or destabilizing to you? For me, yoga is peaceful.

Yet, here’s what some of my friends and family say to me, “Yoga? Really, yoga? Isn’t that an Eastern religion? And why in the world did YOU start practicing yoga? Isn’t your Pastor worried you’ll bring those crazy pagan worshiping ideas into your Sunday School class?” Some of my folks don’t know much about yoga and don’t want to know. They want to believe what they have always believed and not hear the truth.  Not knowing about, or being afraid of the influences of other cultures, religions, food, traditions or practices, is not a new phenomenon.  This ignorance is centuries old. Remember the witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts?  

A recent headline in the Science section of my local newspaper read, “Polish ‘vampire’ threat hit close of home.” The article reported:

      In 17th - and 18th- century Poland, the fear of vampires was so strong that some people were buried with sickles across their necks and rocks at their jaws to keep them from rising from the grave and attacking the living.  Written records suggested that these dead were stigmatized because they were immigrants. But a new study in the journal PLOS One contradicts that idea. The researchers excavated six bodies from so-called vampire graves in north-western Poland and compared the decay of radioactive strontium isotopes in the corpses’ dental enamel to that of local animals and found similar ratios, suggesting that it was unlikely the supposed vampires had come from outside the area. Instead, researchers said they might have been the first in the community to die from cholera, a disease spread through contaminated drinking water. The disease was attributed to the supernatural and people were thought to return from the dead to spread it.

The_Third_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceThey killed their own people out of ignorance. How do you combat ignorance? How do you build capacity for cultural competence? Knowledge is power.  This wisdom is also centuries old.

The phrase, knowledge is power, is often attributed to Francis Bacon, in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Thomas Jefferson used the phrase at least twice. In his letter to a friend, he confides his despair of his compatriots’ ignorance of the significance of the present challenge. Jefferson  writes:

"this last establishment will probably be within a mile of Charlottesville, and four from Monticello, if the system should be adopted at all by our legislature who meet within a week from this time, my hopes however are kept in check by the ordinary character of our state legislatures, the members of which do not generally possess information enough to perceive the important truths, that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness." - Thomas Jefferson to George Ticknor, 25 November 1817

Tavis Smiley’s PBS show is “a unique hybrid of news, issues and entertainment, featuring interviews with politicians, entertainers, athletes, authors and other newsmakers. Tavis Smiley was named to TIME’s list of 100 “Most Influential People in the World.” Tavis clarifies,

We give you the facts. I told you information is power - knowledge is power. We can't be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don't have the facts.

The fact is that yoga is spiritual, not religious. Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice or discipline that aims to transform body and mind. The term yoga is derived from the literal meaning of "yoking together" a span of horses or oxen, but came to be applied to the "yoking" of mind and body. I practice yoga to balance my life with work, to breath with movements, to connect my thoughts with my soul.  

Do you know the truth about yoga, about vampires, about other cultures’ food, language, traditions, and celebrations that are different from you own?  Are you afraid/ignorant of these differences? Or do you want to know more and become a lifelong learner. Knowledge is power. Don’t sit on your hands. Acknowledge you need more knowledge. Click on the Cultural Competence Self-Assessment to find what you know and what you don’t know.

In yoga, the gesture Namaste  (nah-məs-tay) represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra (or, as Westerners might understand it, soul). The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.

I write this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. Learning to Acknowledge is an exercise on the third level of building capacity for cultural competence.  The first level is Assessment. The second level is Awareness. More specifically I define the third level of capacity building as:

Acknowledgement: Understanding that, to achieve cultural competence, each one of us must acknowledge the need to be lifelong learners. No one can become complacent.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #2: COLORblind vs colorBLIND

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Cultural Awareness, and the need to build capacity for cultural competence, has been on the news a lot lately. When I invited Sandra to begin her monthly guest posts this fall on that very topic, neither of us had any idea how much the issues around cultural competence would take over the news cycle. As we worked to edit this post, we discovered that we were both learning new things - about each other and about the topic at hand. We found that struggling and wrestling with the best language to communicate issues of awareness led us to a greater level of transparency and authenticity as we discussed the various issues this post brings up. It certainly reinforces (for us, at least) the need for all of us to be lifelong learners as we build our capacity and move from assessment through awareness and toward advocacy - which just so happens to be the topic of one of Sandra's forthcoming posts. 

But enough from me: let's hear from Sandra on the topic of COLORblindness vs. colorBLINDness. I hope her words will draw you in and encourage you to discuss this very timely topic with us!

+Matt Thomas



Isn’t this a cute picture of me and a young Chinese boy? It was taken in 2013 when I visited The Great Wall as part of my lifelong adventures to experience the 7 Wonders of the World. His parents thrust him upon me, and pantomimed, “Can he take a picture with you?” I said, “Yes.”  He was not the first or last parent, teen, grandmother to stop me on the street to make this identical request, even though I was with a large group of fellow white travelers.  Why?  

ColorBLINDness. All they saw was my color and they wanted to make sure they got a picture with the black lady. This explanation was from my Chinese tour guide.

Have you ever said or been with someone who said, “I don’t see a person’s color. We all bleed red. There’s no difference.” If this statement was made, the person suffers from the disease (dis – ease, as in not being at ease) of COLORblindness.  The COLOR is clear, not hue. On the other end of the color spectrum, have you ever said or been with someone who said, “When I walk down the street and see someone that’s… get your colored crayons out… black, brown, red, or yellow ,… I get nervous.”  Or on the other end of the color spectrum, have you ever been in a situation where you said, “When I’m in a business meeting or on the golf course (where a lot of business happens) and I am not the we-are-all-one-color, flesh tone crayon color that is soft pink… I get nervous.” If these later statements were made, the person suffers from the disease (dis - ease, as in not being at ease) of colorBLINDness. 

There is a big difference between being colorBLIND and being COLORblind. While both are highly contagious illnesses, especially in a group setting, AND both are lethal to Building Capacity for Cultural Competence, both have the potential to be terminal. BUT, there is hope. There is light to improve vision.

The_Second_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceWhat’s the difference in these illnesses? You ask good questions. I’m glad you want to know more. I hope you want to know because you want to “see” better. COLORblindness is when one does not acknowledge, recognize and/or respect that a person’s culture is valid and relevant. Their culture doesn’t matter just as long as they “blend in” with the majority culture.  BUT, COLOR matters. On the other hand, colorBLINDness is when ALL you see is color. A person’s color is so bright that COLOR is all you see. You are BLIND to all other characteristics, talents, education, and potential of that person besides their color. This colorBLINDness is especially evident to some when the person is colored black and male (Ferguson, MO; Cleveland, OH; New York City, NY). Yet, this colorBLINDness is not so evident to others (the ranks are increasing with more community conversations and diversity training). I once was blind, but now I see.

Have either of these diseases, COLORblindness or  colorBLINDness  affected relationships in your personal  life, knowledge of diverse communities, business process procedures,  hiring practices, resources and linkages, and reaching out to culturally diverse communities? Or is this disease just one you see from afar on CNN and consider it to be not an imminent threat to you, because someone else has been raising awareness about this cause? What is the light to improve vision?  You asked another good question. Improved vision starts with sustained conversations and moves to the top of the pyramid to Advocacy (seventh level).  I once was blind, but now I see.

I write this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence pyramid model. Learning how to be Aware is an exercise on the second level of building capacity for cultural competence. The first level is Assessment. More specifically I define the second level of capacity building as:

AWARENESS: Being aware of how cultural “blindness” and bias contribute to racism, prejudice, and discrimination and how cultural “vision” and focus contribute to add value, promote respect and foster relevance.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right! 


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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Introducing the Building Capacity for Cultural Competence Model

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Today, I would like to introduce one of our Design Group International Preferred Providers, Sandra Quick, as a guest blogger. Sandra serves clients through Joy Unspeakable, LLC, helping people restore broken relationships and preseve healthy ones. I have known Sandra since 2008, when she worked with an organization I led that was confounded by deep conflict. Her insights gave us clarity as to how to move forward. Later, Sandra and I both served the American Baptist Churches of Ohio

This post introduces us to Sandra's Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model - the core set of ideas behind Sandra's services to organizations, educational institutions, corporations, and churches. In it, she tells a personal story that illustrates the importance of the first step toward in the model: Assessment. In future posts, Sandra will build upon this foundation to further develop your capacity for cultural competence.

Read on!

+Matt Thomas



Let’s talk hair. Let’s talk about black people’s hair. I wear a unique natural hair style.  After looking me up and down, a 20 something white guy crooned, “Your hair. It’s edgy, it’s retro.  I like it!” One older black gentleman reminisced, “It reminds me of my college ten inch ‘fro.” People, black and white, want to touch my exceptional hair. I was sitting in a business meeting around a conference table, and felt something touch the back of my hair.  Without looking, I swatted what I thought was a fly, only to collide the hand of the white woman who was sitting next to me. SHE pulled back away from ME and said, “You could feel that!” I thought to myself, that’s your response? “You could feel that!” Not something apologetic like, “Oh, I’m so sorry to have violated your personal space and person.” I moved my chair.  My daughter, who has very long, straight (relaxed) black people’s hair, wears it in a ponytail for convenience sake.  One of her white co-workers asked while touching her hair, “Now how much of this is your REAL hair?” The look my daughter gave her was cue enough that a retraction was in order. None came.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were curious about a black person’s hair, but didn’t know how to approach the subject? You didn’t want to offend, but you wondered if you would get another chance to ask your questions about their hair. You heard that you should never, ever describe black people’s hair as “nappy” or “wooly” or “kinky” even though you heard blacks refer to their hair using these terms. I am often asked, "Is your hair natural, flat-ironed, blown out, locked, tinted, twisted, braided and/or relaxed?"

The_First_Level_of_Cultural_Competence-1Here’s the answer to your question on how to approach the subject of black people’s hair. Ask permission to ask permission with a compliment to break the ice.  You can use language such as, “I really like the way your hair looks. I’ve always been curious but never had the chance to ask, may I ask you about your hair?” If permission is granted, because you may get permission and you may not, you can proceed with follow up questions such as, “How did you get your hair like that?”  If you’re bold enough, “Can I touch your hair?”

If you are a transracial adoptive parent or a parent of a biracial child and you’re pulling your vanilla hair out trying to manage and style your child’s chocolate hair, there’s help.  Chocolate Hair Vanilla Care: A Parent's Guide to Beginning Natural Hair Styling covers basic hairstyles and techniques, from learning to part naturally curly hair to styling cornrows and twists. Check out the website by the same name.

I wrote this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. Learning how to have the “black person hair talk” is an exercise on the first level of building capacity for cultural competence. More specifically I define the first level of capacity building as:

ASSESSMENT - Understanding that cultures are social constructs of humankind, each with its own adaptive strategies for a life of meaning and worth; that cultures are dynamic and continually changing, permitting continued successful adaptation to changing life circumstances.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right! 

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment, capacity building