Implementing Lessons from Cultural Competency

This is part 3 in a 3-part series examining the role that cultural competency plays in the community engagement process. You can go back and read part 1 and part 2.

In community engagement, the chance of experiencing conflict is all but certain. It’s how we view and react to that conflict that makes all the difference. Some describe it as an art, but it takes practice to master the ability to reframe your thinking, especially regarding conflict.

At the heart of the matter is the ability to sustain existing conflict in all its richness. Yes, sustain, even lean into it. But, it’s also important to help people look at the conflict with an open mind and with hope. This is where we can find answers.

Acknowledge. The ability to reframe conflict can be broken down into individual elements. Understanding each of these elements helps us become proficient in reframing conflict. First, acknowledge that all groups are affected by project issues. No person’s feelings are more, or less, valuable than another’s. It’s important to find ways to redirect your energy and language so that all parties feel heard and not threatened.

Listen and Learn. Once existing social structures are acknowledged and because these structures do indeed affect the engagement process, there needs to be a path to reconciliation for the negative deeds of the past and present. In order to peel back layers of emotion and find the underlying conflict, you must listen intentionally. This is especially important when public meetings can put you in a crunch for time. Good listening skills take practice and effort, so think about how your ability to listen will impact your project and adjust accordingly.

Share a Vision. When reconciliation for negative histories starts to take place, having a shared vision helps to advance the engagement process. Finding common goals and using them to work efficiently and effectively together increases likelihood of success.

In community engagement, the chance of experiencing conflict is all but certain. It’s how we view and react to that conflict that makes all the difference.

Institutional Commitment. Throughout any project’s community engagement duration, dedicated and structured processes must be sustained. People can experience burnout and efforts can wane in their strength if the health of the project engagement is not monitored. Community engagement professionals should ask how they can continue to engage their audience after a project is complete and how they can sustain relationships outside of a project’s specific scope. This allows them to increase the fruitfulness of the energy they’ve invested in each other. Unfortunately, project teams often look at each of these efforts as a check-the-box initiative for an isolated project. If there is not institutional commitment to longer-term change, it will not occur. Proactively dedicate time and energy to understanding and sustaining these relationships well and make use of the tools at your disposal to facilitate and enable change.

Toolkit. It’s often helpful to build a toolkit that can give you communication options and flexibility where and when you need them. A toolkit should provide background details that assist in mutual understanding of a community. Community histories, cultural maps and zone profiles are all tools that can enhance engagement conversations and may even provide unexpected discoveries to all involved in the process. Below are examples of each.

Community Histories

The Saint Paul African American Historic and Cultural Context was developed to serve as a foundation for identifying and preserving key sites of historic significance for Saint Paul’s African American community, as well as associated memories and stories. The context provides a history of significant time periods; identifies threats to resources; includes historical photographs of significant historical figures or events; and describes additional research needs.

A community workshop provided additional recommendations for the Context. In addition to ensuring that places, people, and themes of importance were addressed, workshop participants steered recommendations to include preserving and protecting community resources; collaborating and building community; educating, interpreting, and creating; influencing policy; remedying losses; building local economies; and cultivating leadership and accountability.

Cultural Maps

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is Rethinking I-94 by evaluating transportation needs along the interstate corridor between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul to inform ongoing reconstruction work. The initial planning of the I-94 highway corridor in the 1960s lacked public input, creating contention and distrust that persists today. The overviews provide historical and cultural background about key groups of stakeholders along the I-94 corridor, as well as information about broader cultural characteristics of the different groups and their history of engagement on transportation and planning issues in the Twin Cities. The information helped the Rethinking I-94 project team in designing an engagement strategy for this historically, socially, and geographically complex corridor and has provided MnDOT staff with information to inform their ongoing engagement efforts.

Zone Profiles

In further support of the Rethinking I-94 effort, zone profiles were created to segment the corridor into six zones based on anticipated future design and construction projects. The zone profiles provide information including demographics, survey responses, community organizations and events, local media outlets and elected officials. The profiles are assisting MnDOT employees to understand who lives along the I-94 corridor, how they use I-94, and how and where to engage with people. The profiles are a starting point for developing community engagement plans and will inform more culturally relevant future engagement.

For more information or inquiries regarding community engagement, contact us at

Anne Ketz, RPA, CIP

Anne’s career in cultural resources management and planning extends over 30 years and three continents. Originally from the United Kingdom, now living in the United States, Anne has witnessed the fields of interpretive planning and resources management change significantly and has been instrumental in its establishment as a vital part of community planning. In her free-time, Anne enjoys traveling to special historic and cultural places around the world.

Ashlyn Crawford

As a community engagement specialist, Ashlyn designs innovative ways to create meaningful relationships and gather valuable stakeholder input. She is a strong facilitator with a range of tools for dialogue and collaboration with diverse communities. Ashlyn’s education in legal studies and intercultural communication helps her develop integrative and culturally-competent solutions for community projects across the country.