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Author Interview: 'Cultural Competence Now'

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Vernita Mayfield agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises to Help Educators Understand and Challenge Bias, Racism, and Privilege.

Vernita Mayfield, a former school administrator and state educational consultant, currently consults with schools and other nonprofit agencies on cultural competence and culturally responsive practices in the workplace.

LF: Can you define "cultural competence"?  Is it different from culturally responsive teaching?

Vernita Mayfield:

Culturally responsive teaching is pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning.  While this is vital to the success of all students, it is possible to incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices while simultaneously perpetuating oppressive practices that limit students' opportunities, choices, and positive identity development.  You can be an excellent instructor of culturally responsive teaching practices and still limit opportunities and access for other educators of color. You can integrate culturally responsive teaching practices in your lessons and yet taunt, tease, or mock the racialized experiences of culturally and linguistically different people.  Culturally responsive teaching is vital, but it doesn't help educators challenge the historical narratives about racial or intellectual inferiority of historically marginalized populations or seek to dismantle the inequitable practices, policies, and procedures in schools that sustain drastically unfair socioeconomic outcomes for people of color.  Cultural competency does.

I define cultural competence as the ability to utilize critical-thinking skills to interpret how cultural values and beliefs influence conscious and unconscious behavior; the understanding of how inequity can and has been perpetuated through socialized behaviors; and the knowledge, determined disposition, and skills to disrupt inequitable practices to achieve greater personal and professional success for yourself and others.  To exercise cultural competency, one actively and consistently engages in understanding the influence of one's culture in both teaching and learning; analyzing the influence of our complex past on current socioeconomic and academic outcomes; recognizing and interrogating policies, procedures, and programs that perpetuate systems of inequity; and advocating and leading for a future that is inclusive, accepting and fair.

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LF: You write that it's important for teachers to be "culturally competent" even if they don't teach in racially diverse schools. Can you explain why?

Vernita Mayfield:

I think I said this best in Chapter One so I'll quote myself: "Teaching is not a spectator sport where we can afford to have educators stand at the sidelines observing a game that clearly favors some and disadvantages others, but who fail to get involved because it is not their team. All the students on the field are playing for their future and yours. They are the future voters and community members who will determine what resources are provided for your retirement, which people immigrate to your community, how crime will be managed and how educators will be compensated.  In short, they will make fundamental decisions about your quality of life.  To underestimate or mismanage your responsibility as an educator is shortsighted at best and foolhardy at worst."  Being an advocate, ally, and leader of equitable opportunity and access for all students is more than an obvious moral imperative.  It's best for all students and it's smart for your future. 

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LF: You divide your strategies into four sections: Awaken and Assess, Apply and Act, Analyze and Align, and Advocate and Lead. Can you talk about your thinking about these divisions and give an example of what should be done in each stage? 

Vernita Mayfield:

The cultural-competency continuum is a framework for measuring your personal growth in the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that demonstrate cultural competency.  Using this document one can track the frequency with which they are engaging in activities such as affirming and respecting cultures other than their own or making all cultural groups feel welcomed. They can also assess and reflect on their understanding of topics such as the various kinds of racism or how privilege has affected them.

The first growth step, Awaken and Assess, focuses on individual growth and understanding.  It is a growth period in which an individual awakens to how they have been socialized through their culture on race, power, and privilege.  They learn to recognize and assess how their beliefs and values about race, power, and privilege influence their everyday decisions and behaviors.  To gain this kind of critical consciousness, they examine the historical context and oppressive nature of race, power, and privilege in society.  The learner traces the historical influence of systemic oppression on current structural, institutional, and cultural narratives, ideologies, policies, practices, procedures, outcomes, and behaviors.  These connections are seldom made by those who have been the least affected by them.  The activities, exercises, and readings in this section of the book help learners through this psychologically transforming awakening.

The second growth step, Apply and Act, builds on the knowledge gained thus far, and individuals apply cultural competency in the classroom setting.  During this growth period, educators actively work to examine and dismantle inequitable practices by engaging in activities such as disaggregating student data by race or language proficiency, integrating culturally responsive teaching practices, managing cross-cultural conflicts should they arise, and consistently interrogating the bias and assumptions reflected in their behavior and language.

As educators Analyze and Align in the third growth period, they widen the scope of their equity lens to include the larger school community and various stakeholders.  For example, activities, exercises, and readings support readers' ability to analyze the long-term influence of inequity on their own quality of life outcomes; align budget resources with measurable equity goals and targets; grow in their understanding of the potential legal implications of failing to create an equitable and inclusive environment; and provide strategies to redress biased hiring practices and foster a more inclusive and inviting environment for all staff.

During Advocate and Lead, educators exercise cultural competency to assume leadership roles as equity advocates.  They actively and publicly advocate for dismantling inequity and provide leadership for others who choose to do so as well.  Some activities include strategies for ensuring historically marginalized voices are elevated; knowing how to effectively confront racist language or behavior when observed; practicing how to facilitate a cultural-competency training with colleagues and other stakeholders; and using the best language to openly reject privileges that bring advantage to some and gross disadvantages to others.   

LF: What are your recommendations for how teachers can deal with resistance from their colleagues or administrators if they suggest the strategies in your book?

Vernita Mayfield:

  • Start with yourself, your biases, and your practices. Dismantle inequitable practices, policies, and procedures within your sphere of influence.
  • Use your voice, privilege, and power to challenge inequities, inconsistencies, and disproportional treatment when and where they occur.
  • If you value fairness, inclusivity, and equity, live your values out loud—unabashed and without apology.
  • Continue as an equity advocate and leader despite opposition. This work is not quick or easy, and there is no fail-safe formula.
  • Exercise self-care. Take time for your emotional, psychological, and mental well-being.  Sometimes Equity Warriors take a hit, and it can hurt.  Take care of yourself in the aftermath, but please, for the sake of students, don't give up.  

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LF: Is there anything you'd like to share that I haven't asked you about?

Vernita Mayfield:

This book provides a structure to begin meaningful conversations about race, culture, bias, privilege, and power, given the limited time constraints of an ordinary learning institution.  Most of the activities are done in collaborative learning teams, require 30 minutes or less, and help build a reasonably fundamental understanding of the influence of race and culture in educational institutions over the course of a year.  It also provides a structure to identify, examine, challenge, and dismantle the practices, policies, and procedures in schools that advantage some and disadvantage others. There is no group of people better situated to dismantle the vestiges of racism and craft a more inclusive society than educators.  And we can do it in this century.  Let's not blow it.  

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LF: Thanks, Vernita!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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