Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cultural competency…

Last Monday, I had the privilege of helping leaders throughout our community address an important issue: Cross-cultural competency and skill building.

Here’s the full story. For the past several years, I’ve joined several local leaders in exploring ways to help close or eliminate the achievement gap in our schools. Surely, you’ve heard that while MN schools typically rank among the nation’s finest, we also have the highest average gap in student achievement between white students and students of color. That’s true for our local district, the Wayzata Public Schools. Their students, generally, score amongst the best in state! Students of color, though, especially Latinos and African-Americans, consistently perform below their peers. That gap also exists for students from low-income families, regardless of ethnic background. Kids in these groups tend to struggle more than others, and more than they should.

So how do you solve that distressing phenomenon? I mean, success shouldn’t derive from the lottery of skin color or parental income, right? But that’s what we’re seeing, and that portends tough long-term consequences for the whole community.

Well, one response that’s worked elsewhere is called “Collective Impact.” The plan is to get leaders from all the sectors in a local community who impact or are affected by this issue (e.g. school districts, businesses, social services, YMCAs, churches, governments…) to craft a common agenda for solutions. That agenda should include measurable goals that research says leads to student success (e.g. all kids enter Kindergarten ready to learn, all achieve math proficiency by eighth grade), which is constantly monitored. Then, we create common initiatives that move kids toward those goals, avoiding isolation, duplicating of efforts and avoidance of sharing best practices.

That’s a thick, tricky, big idea. But if it works, we’re imaging no less than our entire community working collectively for all kids to achieve their greatest expectations. Thus, the initiative is called…Great Expectations! I’m the steering team’s “faith community” voice. And because the achievement gap is our focus, we figured that helping community leaders build more diversity/cross-cultural skills would be worth the effort.

I even helped pay for it. Remember that fellowship I got from Collegeville two years back? It included $1,000 to use toward a project that impacted our community, as long as the project aligned with the work of my church. Well, consider Great Expectations theologically. We’re gathering different people around one table, not to conform, but to unify in common hope for a better future. How perfectly Disciples is that?! To get this workshop going, then, I put my fellowship money into the pot (technically, Plymouth Creek paid $1,000 and Collegeville will reimburse us, which the Board approved, though I just told attendees it was Plymouth Creek sponsoring the training!). And after seeing the wonderful engagement of our community, I’m glad I did it.

After all, I’ve become much more sensitive to diversity issues since November, when an African-American boy from difficult circumstances came to live in my home. In school, at church and elsewhere, he’s been both supported and rejected because of who he is. Some are super quick to love him up, cheer for him, help him achieve. Thank you! Others lack the cultural bridge building skill to understand where he’s coming from, and so have yelled at him inappropriately, judged him as less capable or bad, even told me he won’t amount to much.

We Disciples know those latter responses are neither right nor holy treatments of a neighbor, whether they look or sound like you, or not. We believe in the freedom of all God’s children to become the unique, blessed soul God created her/him to be. Which means we must first learn about others’ differences or commonalities before presuming to judge, to shame, to dismiss. Essentially, that’s what we discussed on Monday- nurturing the skills to hear and appreciate diverse neighbors’ backgrounds.

So, again, given our faith tradition, it was worth the time and money! And the prayers I hope you’ll join me in lifting, that all kids and families struggling today will get needed support to reach their great expectations. And that we’ll all recommit to being better neighbors, those who listen, care and respond.

Grace and Peace,
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