In 2011, when the Public Participation Guidelines were written, the current thinking around diversity and inclusion focused on a concept called “cultural competency”—in fact, the Guidelines are subtitled “A Framework for Culturally Competent Outreach.” In the Guidelines, the student defined cultural competence as “the ability of organizations and staff to interact effectively with people, families, and communities of all cultures. A key component of this ability is not assuming to already know how others would like to be treated.” This definition first acknowledges that “the public” or “the constituents” of an organization, especially a government, are not all one big homogenous group with the same interests, values, and needs. It also sneaks in concepts of cultural humility, encouraging us to recognize that our assumptions are flawed; as well as the concept of the Platinum Rule, which turns the self-first focus of the Golden Rule towards the other by acknowledging that another may wish to be treated differently than you.
Centering their framework around such concepts of equity even less than a decade ago was a big deal as few cities still today have adopted such an approach. However, since then there has also become an increased awareness of the potentially problematic nature of “cultural competency.” The problem derives from the word competency, which can be defined as having the skills and knowledge necessary to do something successfully. In other words, it suggests that if you take enough classes and do enough studying, you will reach a completion point (a passed test, if you will) where you are now culturally competent. We are increasingly understanding today that more important than competency is humility, the recognition that we need to always be curious, that we can never know or “get” what it is like to be someone else, and that our assumptions of the world need to be open to being challenged if we truly wish to become an inclusive society.
As Lorna and I create a training for all City departments, we have come back many times to the issue of having Guidelines framed, or at least, titled with something we now recognize as potentially problematic. However, we can also see that the definition used in the Guidelines was already ahead of its time by including the last line around assumptions. Thus we’ve decided to leave the Guidelines as they are, but to start the training by acknowledging a new “name” for this approach of equity, which is cultural responsiveness. Cultural responsiveness is defined as the ability to learn from and relate respectfully with people from your own culture as well as other cultures. This definition, more so than the final destination competency, demonstrates how inclusion in a never-ending journey of learning. Prominent in K-12 pedagogy currently, cultural responsiveness is also about designing programs and curriculum that is responsive and inclusive to the cultures in the room, which is equally relevant to public outreach in diverse communities.