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2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Beyond Cultural Diversity: Moving Along the Road to Delivering Culturally Competent Services

Frank Delano
Institute for Child Care Professionalization and Training
Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services
New York, NY

Kari Larsen
Visiting Nurse Service of New York
Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services
New York, NY

With the current workforce crisis impacting virtually every area of our society it is more imperative than ever that human service organizations not become content with just being diverse, but place a high priority on that crucial, and continuing, journey toward providing culturally competent services. With so many emerging pressures around the workforce crisis it might become very tempting for an agency to look at their "numbers" or their "improved snapshot" and place the process of cultural competence lower down their list of priorities. Agencies must be willing to accept that the road to delivering culturally competent services is intricately linked to developing a culturally competent staff. That road entails a constant process of self-evaluation and self-reflection by staff members and agency executives regarding their journey toward cultural competence. It also entails the emergence of an organizational "culture" that reflects true cultural competence and not merely cultural diversity. For most agencies the journey has distinct periods. The road to cultural competence may start from a desire to have "equality" in terms of opportunity for all those in the agency. It may then move on to the realization that a more diverse workforce will bring many benefits including increased credibility in the community, higher staff morale, and a richness of ideas that are added by the developing diversity. However, the most crucial part of the journey to cultural competence, and often the most difficult, is being truly able to intimately connect the process to agency services.

On Color and Ethnicity

When people are asked to introduce themselves and identify their cultural background, the vast majority simply refer to their ethnicity. There is much variety and richness in their answers, as people refer to "Italian," "Italian-American," "African-American," "Black," "West Indian," "Korean," and the like. But culture is more than just ethnicity. It refers to family make-up, description of our childhood communities, the traditions we adhere to, tastes in music and literature, food preferences, and much more. Yet people tend to revert easily to using "color" as the primary determining factor. Agencies must remind themselves constantly of the tendency to see "diversity" or "culture" as their interpretation of color and work to build a more comprehensive view.

Assumptions About Cultural Diversity

For an agency to truly be able to approach cultural competence, it must create an atmosphere in which the following assumptions are addressed and debated:
  • "The United States is a meritocracy." Are we really a society, or an agency, where people achieve on merit?

  • "Americans don't have a culture." We hold out the offer "give us your tired, your hungry, and your poor" but then we find many immigrants in situations where they are in dire need of our social programs. We need to address the merits of being a culture that, by mission, is a conglomeration of cultures, and examine the extent to which we truly welcome people with differences in culture.

  • "If it is different, it is wrong." Just where is that line in the agency that divides expression of new ideas and cultural viewpoints and an invasion of the agency organizational hierarchy and protocols?

  • "One should be extra careful when talking about cultural diversity." The agency intent on approaching cultural competence must create the mood that a "mistake" that is politically incorrect is OK and can be recouped through open process. Golden opportunities to grow are missed if this issue is not faced.

  • "One should never admit to being prejudiced." Acknowledging that we all have prejudices is one thing. Identifying them is much riskier; yet much richer in learning and growing into cultural competence.

The "Right Attitude"

In her works Monica McGoldrick professes that the biggest problems in doing our work are issues in the social structure that make it difficult to improve our ability to overcome our ignorance. She identifies these issues as Culture, Race, Class and Gender. McGoldrick feels the only way these issues can be adequately addressed is through an attitude of collaboration, and the only way we can have a truly effective collaboration is by first going inside ourselves and acknowledging our mistakes, prejudices, biases, stereotypes, and core beliefs. We need to look at how these make us who we are. To approach cultural competence we need to be willing to risk sharing these with issues with others in our attempt to grow in a spirit of collaboration.


"Are all stereotypes bad?" It is easy to accept "yes" as an answer and move on. But we cannot decide that until we get a working definition of a stereotype. How is a stereotype different from a characteristic of our lives? This is among the most crucial questions to answer when approaching cultural competence. We define a stereotype as a belief about a group, or person associated with that group, that is not backed by empirical data. We then can conclude, with that definition, that all stereotypes are bad. Why the fuss? If that definition is not used, with the agency teasing it out by creating an atmosphere to talk about stereotypes-even the most offensive ones-then large amounts of data that might be extremely helpful in our quest to learn enough about the characteristics of people to achieve the desired level of cultural competence might never be available to us. How do we uncover the "data"? We can create an atmosphere where it is OK to ask and to talk openly about it. Failure to take those risks leaves us patting ourselves on our back about our "snapshot."

Barriers to Cultural Competence

Not risking the discussion about differentiating stereotypes from characteristics is only one manifestation of a barrier to cultural competence. Cultural competence can also be inhibited by language differences, overt discrimination, fear of being seen or judged as politically incorrect, stress, and different perceptions of things like personal space, eye contact, body smell, and body gestures.

The Road to Cultural Competence

The road to cultural competence is just that, a road. To succeed in this quest it is necessary for an agency, or a person, to accept it is a constant process of self-reflection and openness to learn. Along that road it is necessary to:
  • Respect individuals and differences of other cultures. Truly respecting means not just acknowledging the differences but appreciating them and being willing to integrate some of them into your own culture.

  • Have a thirst to learn. It is necessary to view people's diversity as a primary source of learning about them, ourselves, the services we provide, and life.

  • Have a willingness to deal with ambiguity. Although we are in a profession that clings to the historical value of "process," we are living in an era of concrete "compliance." Agencies have to "comply" where necessary, but not lose the ability to be comfortable with the ambiguity cultural differences bring.

  • Be willing to risk challenging the difference between stereotypes and valid characteristics of an individual's life.

  • Have a sincere desire to understand and integrate cultural differences. Cultural competence cannot be faked, nor is it politically correct or just pride in numbers achieved. It requires a sincere effort, not just a necessary one.

  • The motivation for cultural diversity must be rooted in the mission of the agency; that is to deliver the best possible service to the clients being served. Those services cannot be "best" without an organizational culture and a staff motivated to be as culturally competent as possible.


With the current workforce crisis agencies must be careful not to push the journey along the road to cultural competence down their list of high profile priorities. Assertively moving on the path of linking diversity to culturally competent client services will create an organizational culture that will help recruit and retain a more diverse and highly motivated staff better able to deliver high quality services.


Ely, R., & Thomas, D. (2000). Cultural diversity at work: The moderating effect of work group perspectives on diversity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School/Columbia University.

Hogan-Garcia, M. (1999). The four skills of cultural diversity. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

McGoldrick, M. (1998). Revisioning family therapy: Race, culture, and gender in clinical practice . New York: Guilford Press.

Contact Information

Frank Delano, CSW, & Kari Larsen, CSW
Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services
Institute for Child Care Professionalization and Training
226 Linda Avenue
Hawthorne, New York 10532
Phone: 914.773.7316
E-mail: Frank Delano --
Kari Larsen --

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