Online Exclusive: Building Cultural Competency

Fall 2018

By Courtney Rollins

An integral aspect of The Park School of Baltimore’s stated objectives is to “prepare students to participate in the public life of a multifaceted and interconnected democratic society.” To accomplish this, we believe that we need to equip our community members with the tools and language to effectively analyze and address issues related to social justice and equity. Although our school does not have a foolproof approach to helping our community members develop social justice literacy and cultural competency, we remain committed to engaging in the necessary work.
Recently, we implemented the Affinity, Alliance, and Advocacy (AAA) Program in our middle school. This program uses identity-based affinity groups to help students achieve a richer understanding of the world through the development of cultural competency.
To effectively develop cultural competency, we need to provide opportunities for our students to think deeply about the intersections of identity, culture, equity, and inclusion. The AAA program uses affinity group spaces and cross-group experiences to help students explore identity and culture as a means to encourage allyship and self-advocacy within our community.

Planning the AAA Program

To frame our thinking and vision for the program, we asked ourselves the following questions: What experience do we hope our students will receive as a result of the AAA program? And what are the developmentally appropriate approaches to exploring identity and culture as they relate to equity and inclusion?
We agreed that we wanted our middle school community to be exposed to broader perspectives than their own, gain awareness of their cultural selves and the cultural identities of others, deepen their sense of belonging and community, practice empathy, and become equipped and empowered with language and tools to navigate any possible discomfort that may arise when addressing difficult aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We pulled terms from each of these objectives to form a fitting acronym and reminder that our program seeks a PACED development of cultural competence. We hope that as the program grows, so will our students’ capacity to engage in and influence the world in critical, compassionate, and socially just ways.
Prior to our launch, I spent the Spring and Summer of 2017 gathering resources, researching best practices, and creating a curriculum guide for the program. The guide is designed to assist AAA facilitators with ideas for group activities and to provide resources and a common framework for the program. The guide was developed as a living document, and it is continually revised to best support the program’s needs.

Launching the AAA Program

Early in the fall of the ensuing 2017–2018 school year, we introduced the program to our students through a series of interactive assemblies, where we explored the definitions and purposes of the affinity groups and discussed identity. Faculty volunteers modeled what AAA program discussions and activities could look like.
We also held small-group follow-up discussions and sent letters to parents outlining the objectives and format of the new program. Through the parent association, we gave presentations and held information sessions to further inform families of the ins and outs of the program.
Shortly after the assemblies and small-group discussions, students—with the help of advisers—completed an AAA selection survey, which asked them to select several aspects of their identity that they would like to explore further from the provided categories of family structure, gender, race/ethnicity, religion/faith/belief, and sexual orientation. We based several categories on affinity groups that already existed in the middle school prior to the AAA program. We also expanded selections to include the diversity represented in our student body. All students were placed in one of their selected categories.
Middle School faculty members who self-identified with a student affinity group became facilitators of that group. Facilitator training was offered during designated faculty meetings, and each Tuesday my office held a planning and preparation session. Selected faculty facilitated six affinity group sessions during the remainder of the fall semester. After the last session, students provided feedback and completed a program evaluation.
The student evaluations generated a wide range of feedback. For many of our students, this was the first time they had been asked to reflect on their social and cultural identity in meaningful and sustained ways. When asked to complete the sentence “Things I enjoyed or appreciated about my AAA group experience” on the program evaluation, students responded in the following ways:
  • I liked the idea that I could open up to other people in my school about my religion.
  • I felt as though I could talk about my identity in a safe place where no one will judge me for who I am.
  • Learning about aspects of power and empowerment...also, in my AAA group we did an art project that was very interesting.
  • I was able to talk to people that I don't usually talk to during school, and I learned that me and the other people there have at least one thing in common.
  • I enjoyed getting to talk to other students who share an identity with me, and I enjoyed getting to know my teacher and peers better.
The next stage of the AAA program began in the 2018 Spring semester. Based on student and faculty feedback, students were given the opportunity to join a new group, continue with their original group, or suggest a new identity-based affinity group to explore. We also created mixed discussion groups for students who felt more comfortable exploring themes related to identity and equity in more general terms.
As a result of the student surveys, three AAA group “strands” emerged based on race and ethnicity, spiritual belief and religious diversity, and gender and sexual diversity. Groups gathered within each strand. For example, the race and ethnicity strand consisted of a black student affinity group, an Asian student affinity group, an affinity group for exploring whiteness, and a mixed race and ethnicity discussion group. We wanted the affinity groups to provide support for underrepresented populations, while also providing a productive space for students from majority populations to gather and reflect on their identity.
Strand facilitators worked together to create sessions for cross-group experiences. Our sessions during this iteration of the program focused on understanding what it means to be an ally across identity lines. “Allyship starts with identity,” as the article “Anatomy of an Ally” from the website Teaching Tolerance aptly states.

Opportunities and Challenges

As with any new initiative, we encountered opportunities and challenges in preparing for, launching, and continuing the program. Following are six key things we learned about creating a program grounded in social justice and equity.
Stick to the mission and have full leadership support. Some members of our community initially expressed concern and trepidation about the program. It was important to hear and address these concerns and justify the program’s objectives based on the mission and philosophy of the school. Our school Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion provided additional rationale for our efforts.
Crucially, we had the full support of our leadership team. The head of the middle school, Josh Wolf, not only communicated with parents, made training a priority during faculty meetings, attended AAA planning committee sessions, but also was a facilitator for the Jewish affinity group.
Take the time to plan. Faculty members, the head of the middle school, and I began planning the AAA program in the fall of 2016 and launched the program a full year later. We relied on many resources, including the invaluable work of diversity practitioner Rosetta Lee, to inform our practice. As we move forward, we will continue to assess and revise the program.
Engage both faculty and students in determining groups. At the beginning of the program, we encountered several chicken or egg scenarios as we attempted to create the initial groups. Although we wanted students to select groups that they identified with, we needed to have faculty facilitators who not only self-identified with the group, but also felt competent in leading the discussions and activities. Prior to launching the program, we asked faculty and staff to identify groups they would want to lead.
We also didn’t want students and families to feel like they were choosing an aspect of their identity that was more important than any other. We asked students to select at least three groups, and they could tell us if they felt any groups were missing or identify groups they strongly wanted to explore. We also reminded students that they could change groups at any time throughout the program.
Figure out how this work fits in the schedule. Time is a highly coveted commodity. Our middle school schedule provides 35 minutes of designated community time that we used for the AAA sessions. However, many facilitators felt that the 35-minute time slots did not provide enough time for sustained conversations and activities. We attempted to address this issue during our Summer reflection and revision of the program. In order to have more time exploring cultural competency, we decided to integrate activities into the Middle School Health and Wellness Life Skills curriculum. This revision will now provide 50- to 70-minute time slots for the work. 
Provide faculty training. Consistent with being passionate and dedicated educators, our faculty felt the weight of preparing for and facilitating some of the AAA sessions. To support our facilitators, I held weekly AAA preparation and planning sessions, and faculty meetings were set aside for additional training and support. However, our faculty members already have a full load with their regular teaching duties. For future iterations, we plan to incorporate aspects of the program into our social studies curriculum and our health and wellness life skills curriculum.
Majority population groups might need more guidance. We noticed that many students participating in historically underrepresented identities, such as the Asian student affinity group or the LGBTQIA+ affinity group, seemed to thrive and greatly value their time together. However, for many students in historically majority populations, initial conversations seemed strained and awkward. For example, members of our all-boy affinity group and the affinity group for white students to explore whiteness had a difficult time understanding the purpose of their gatherings.
But we felt it was important for these students to examine the often unexamined assumed “normal” ways of being that are central to many of these identities. As we explored these assumptions, we tried to refrain from using guilt or shame to raise awareness regarding the privileges inherent in many aspects of these identities. Rather, we attempted to meet students where they were on their journey and help guide them to a healthy awareness of the interplay between power and identity.
We have not yet landed on the perfect approach to addressing social justice and equity; however, I am proud that we did not allow these challenges to paralyze our efforts. The road to cultural competency is a lifelong journey in which engaging in the process is the destination. We are excited to be co-explorers, along with our students, on this journey.
Courtney Rollins

Courtney Rollins is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The Park School of Baltimore in Maryland.