The Foundations of Cultural Competency

We’re all Different

It is natural for human beings to surround themselves with people who are like them.

This statement is fundamental to understanding the importance of and inherent challenges in community engagement. To engage with a community and achieve the best outcomes for everyone, we must lay a foundation of cultural understanding and maintain an awareness of our own personal biases.

What is Culture

To develop cultural understanding of the personal biases at play, it is important to travel the path to cultural competency and proficiency; professionals need to understand what culture is and why is it so important in any engagement. Culture can be interpreted in many ways, but as defined by Samover and Porter, culture is “the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” In short, there are many elements of our daily life that define our culture. Some aspects of culture can be seen on the surface, others are hidden and take time to be revealed. Whether hidden or apparent, these aspects of culture manifest in tangible roles, material objects, generational thinking, and so much more.

Once the uniqueness of a person and the cultural context within which they live their life is discovered, a world of information becomes available and the community engagement process can begin.

Below the surface of any individual is a complex network of ideas and experiences that make up who they are. The iceberg metaphor helps to visualize this. The majority of an individual’s or community’s characteristics lies beneath the surface and plays a huge role in inter-personal interaction. Observation and investigation are required tools to see past surface-level elements of a person or community; we need to go beyond the initial pieces of information that we receive. Once the uniqueness of a person and the cultural context within which they live their life is discovered, a world of information becomes available and the community engagement process can begin. This knowledge enables us to see the world through another lens.

Spectrum of Cultural Competency

People’s exposure to and level of understanding of another’s culture can best be viewed on a spectrum. Cultural destructiveness, blindness, competence, and proficiency act as softly defined benchmarks for an individual’s level of cultural understanding.

To be culturally destructive means to have attitudes, policies, or practices that are harmful to a culture or its people. Blatant ignorance and racism fall into this category and examples of it are abundant in this era of combative rhetoric and action. This benchmark involves a total rejection of another’s reality because it is different from one’s own. This is the basis for failure and can have serious relational repercussions in an engagement effort.

Cultural blindness is the state of ignoring or refusing to acknowledge existing biases that function within social structures. When one hears the phrase “I don’t see color”, it exemplifies an individual’s blindness to a problem that does indeed exist, though it occurs outside the individual’s circle of understanding.

Being culturally competent means that one may have the capacity to be an effective communicator by understanding and considering another’s cultural needs, beliefs, and behaviors. This should be the minimum goal in all our work and, indeed, in everyone’s personal lives.

Culturally proficient individuals hold culture in high esteem and are comfortable with navigating day-to-day interactions. One’s ability to value others for who they are is key to respecting each other and to continue the learning process of life. This requires a willingness to look beyond themselves and to find truth in a reality that is not solely their own. The result is not only more effective and meaningful community engagement, but it can also bring personal rewards beyond what they might have been able to understand before they reached that point.

A Case Study

In the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, development project managers had to face and understand a community’s difficult past to be able to effectively communicate about current work. In the 1960s, Interstate 94 was constructed, with the highway alignment going straight through Rondo, a community made up of 85% African Americans. Over 600 families and scores of businesses and institutions were displaced. This tumultuous event gave rise to anger and mistrust towards state and federal government and thrust a community into a reality starkly different from those in neighboring communities.

It was here that community engagement professionals had to realize the quintessential role that culture and history plays in the community’s development. The actions taken by officials who, without any input from the community, made the decision to place I-94 through the heart of Rondo highlights the importance that community engagement plays in due process. The pain of losing a business, a home, or a united community is an element of the stories that the residents might tell. However, these stories are complex, and are most often found below the surface. It takes effort to uncover and understand them. These stories provide context for the interaction one should anticipate when engaging with a community. Only by beginning from a foundation of understanding, listening, and learning can a current project begin the process of meaningful engagement that best serves the community.

This is part 1 in a 3 part series examining the role that cultural competency plays in the community engagement process. To read part 2 of 3, click here. 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.