This month, I'm discussing one way I’ve noticed educators and institutions often get in our own way when it comes to developing inclusivity and intercultural competence.
A Cultural Tension
As many of you know, I lead a twelve-week intercultural training program for educators called Facilitating Intercultural Learning. Inevitably, a couple of weeks into the program, someone comments that one of the biggest take-aways for them so far is that developing intercultural competence is more complex than they’d originally thought. Most participants nod in agreement.
They’re beginning to understand that developing intercultural competence and creating inclusive classrooms, campuses, and communities entails much more than just acquiring knowledge or learning about other cultures. It’s an ongoing, developmental process, something they need to actively practice.
Furthermore, they’re realizing that this process requires intentionally slowing down and doing things differently, not necessarily doing more things. It involves paying attention to our emotions, physical sensations, and how we are making meaning of and engaging with the world. It’s about practicing curiosity, listening for understanding, shifting perspective, and adapting behavior.
A bit later in the program, we explore cultural value patterns—how we all have deeply-ingrained values, beliefs, and worldviews around things such as how we relate to time, beliefs around doing vs. being, and communication style. We discuss the fact that these are culturally and socially constructed, and how and why others may hold very different values, beliefs, and worldviews.
At this point, participants often note that what we’re trying to do with this work essentially runs counter to typical U.S. American cultural norms—particularly those present in organizational cultures.
That is, dominant cultural norms within many organizations in the United States tend to be more monochronic and achievement-oriented—valuing productivity, efficiency, and general “busy-ness.” These environments quietly and not so quietly reinforce the idea that doing is more valuable than being. That time is a precious commodity. Our value is tied to our productivity. Many of us have deeply internalized these values and simply taken them as truth.
Essentially, the question that often comes up next—in some form or another—is, “How do we create environments that are more inclusive of other ways of doing things within such a cultural context?”
The short answer is, you don’t. While culture influences us, we can also influence culture. We can internalize and reify the current cultural norms, or intentionally examine them and ask whether or not they are serving us.
If current cultural norms are hindering inclusion, we need to examine and consider how to shift or expand these norms—at both the personal and organizational levels.
As Peter Drucker says, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday's logic.”
Slowing Down & Acting with Intention
In the book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes:
“There is such urgency in the multitude of crises we face, it can make it hard to remember that in fact it is urgency thinking (urgent constant unsustainable growth) that got us to this point, and that our potential success lies in doing deep, slow, intentional work.”
There tends to be a belief that to be more inclusive, interculturally-competent educators and institutions, we need to do more. We are often reacting to something that happened, typically with a sense of urgency. Respond with a statement. Form a committee. Organize a training.
But what if our success in becoming more interculturally-competent and inclusive educators and institutions lies not reacting urgently or doing more, but, as adrienne maree brown says, in “doing deep, slow, intentional work”?
I’ve been intentionally trying to make this shift for the past few years. It’s why I now spend less time doing one-off trainings, and have focused on developing and iterating the Facilitating Intercultural Learning program. Working with educators through public and private cohorts of Facilitating Intercultural Learning for three months or more provides space for us to go deeper and for participants to integrate what they’re learning into their lives, both personally and professionally.
Doing Things Differently
In the four years I’ve been facilitating this program, I’ve found that educators typically join looking to gain a toolkit and skillset they can draw upon to design curriculum and facilitate intercultural learning. And they do get that.
But what I love most is when participants start to understand the importance of focusing on their own intercultural development, and see the many ways it’s applicable beyond what they had originally anticipated. They begin to see the world and how they engage with it with new eyes, and to literally do things differently. I refer to this as developing an intercultural practice.
For example, Neil Ward, Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Drake University, said participating in Facilitating Intercultural Learning “changed how I interact with my students, colleagues, and view new curriculum/administrative proposals.”
Matthew Walters, International Center Director at Cal Poly Pomona, said that in addition to gaining the outcomes he expected—being able to better support faculty engaged in study abroad and COIL exchanges—“unexpectedly, the experience helped me to become a much better manager with my team.”
Other participants have commented that the program and developing an intercultural practice helps them be a better partner or parent.
For Further Reflection
I suggest that instead of doing more, we focus on doing things differently. What if we prioritize people over productivity? Emphasize inclusion over efficiency?
What if we shift our focus from doing-all-the-things to building relationships, trust, and understanding within our institutions and organizations? What if we listen with curiosity and for understanding, rather than listening to respond or defend our position? What might be the outcome?
What if we focus on playing the long game? If we view developing intercultural competence—of faculty, staff, and students—not as a task to check off our list, but as core to our mission and to supporting a viable, sustainable future?
And what would it look like if this work were no longer on the periphery of our institutions—the job of a few particular offices or individuals—but central to who we are and how we educate? What might happen as a result?
Join the Conversation!
Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.