The Importance of Cultural Competence
Today, we're talking about cultural competence and its importance in youth lives. We'll be outlining cultural competence in various fields, sharing our personal experiences, and sharing some information about how young people can become empowered to pursue this subject.
Disclaimer: the information shared here reflects the opinions of the host and interviewee and do not reflect the views of the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.
Celeste: Hello everyone. Thank you for joining us today on Youth Engaged 4 Change Radio, where we seek to empower and inform youth listeners just like you. My name is Celeste and today I'll be your host. I'm joined by Ramya Sarabhi, who is a graduate student studying public health and a fellow Youth Engaged 4 Change editorial board member. Today, we're talking about cultural competence and its importance in youth lives. We'll be outlining cultural competence in various fields, sharing our personal experiences, and give you guys some information about how young people can become empowered to pursue this subject.
We're so excited to be sharing what we learned but want to disclose to our audience that we are not experts on this topic. Rather, we are just students who want to share how learning about cultural competence has positively impacted our lives and want to provide you guys with some resources. Ramya, I'm so excited to have you with us today for this conversation. Why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself real quick.
Ramya: Yes. Hello. Thank you so much for having me to here today. A little bit about myself: my name is Ramya Surabi. I'm currently a graduate student studying public health, as previously mentioned. I'm currently based in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago and it's actually where I grew up. And I come from a traditionally Hindu upbringing, so I'm very excited to be here today, sharing about my traditional/non-traditional upbringing and also some of the experiences that led me to what I'm passionate about, which is cultural competence. Celeste, I'm curious to know or also, could you please introduce yourself to our listeners.
Celeste: As you already know my name Celeste. I go by she/her pronouns and I grew up in a small town in Michigan where I bounced around from being homeschooled to online school to public school. I grew up in a very predominantly white Christian area, and wasn't introduced to diversity studies until high school. We'll get into that a bit later. First, I want to set the scene for today's conversation. And Ramya, you have such an interesting and meaningful background when it comes to this topic. Do you mind sharing that with us?
Ramya: Yeah, so to begin with, as previously mentioned, I come from a traditional Hindu upbringing and one thing about not only our culture, but also our families, but my family specifically, is that we all love music and we all love singing. Every Sunday, I remember my family would gather around and we'd all listen to music and also sing and fill the air with song. And there was always someone a little bit off pitch and that was me. Hoping that one day I would sing in tune, my parents signed me up for some Indian classical music lessons, which is referred to as Carnatic music lessons at our local Hindu temple. Sunday mornings were spent tapping beats and singing scales and the temple soon became a second home for me. Every Sunday, I would walk through the same hallways wearing the same traditional Indian clothes, saw the same faces, and sat in the same room for more than three years.
And then after those four years of lessons, I learned how to count beats, learned how to sing scales, and to my parents' satisfaction, I learned how to sing in tune. Thank God. But still wasn't enough for me. I wanted to learn more, which is why I joined a Christian choral group called Spirito Singers. At first joining Spirito Singers seemed like an odd choice. After all, I'm Hindu. I'm not Christian. I stood out. I remember feeling really nervous walking into the first rehearsal, but apart from our religions and beliefs, we all shared a common purpose: our love for music. Every Sunday I would go to a different kind of temple and would sing across different churches in that Christian choral organization. I'm so grateful for that experience, because it allowed me to see and view different cultures and religious practices at such a young age.
And I really treasured those memories and those times, and those 7:00 AM wake up calls because not only it gave me a time to see those different cultures and different religious practices and how people practice different faiths, but then additionally, during those break time or during those early morning calls, all the girls and also all the group members, we'd always talk and discuss our different cultural backgrounds and ask each other questions about our different holidays, different, different foods and stuff like that. I'm very grateful to be here and sharing my experience of what drew me and led me into being very passionate about cultural competence. And I also noticed, Celeste, I'm curious you mentioned about your upbringing a little bit earlier, so I'm curious to know how that influenced your view on cultural competence.
Celeste: Yeah. Not very similarly to your background. I grew up, again, in a small town, so we were playing soccer. I was homeschooled. It was the same people all the time. All very, very similar to I was, and it wasn't until high school when I was introduced to a completely different demographic. I went to a really diverse high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And in each of my classes, there were students from all over the world with amazing stories, and I slowly began to realize how much my cultural competence was lacking and how little diversity I had been exposed to. Out of high school, I moved back to a rural town, this time in Wisconsin, in pursuit of a really specific degree and ended up being put back in a very predominantly white area. And going from predominantly white to diverse back to predominantly white, there's a lot that I missed.
And it's a huge reason why I'm so passionate about this topic because I understand what it's like to be in a diverse area and learn about all these different people and all of their different beliefs and then have that all taken away again. I love learning so much and I love learning through conversation and I love learning through experience and trying new things and following certain creators. In a nutshell, I grew up, I wasn't exposed to very much and that little taste just set a fire in me. And I know not everybody grew up in a small town like I did and some people have a very different educational background, as I know you do Ramya.
Ramya: Yeah. For me, that's very different than how I grew up, because I can't imagine going from a rural background to then in such a diverse area and then going back to where there is very little or no cultural diversity. That's a very big culture shock and culture change. And for me, growing up, a lot of times within our educational institution, they would impose these quick culture or ethnic food days where it'd be either a day or a week dedicated to our students or the students in our area, faculty, staff, and also other community members to experience cultures. Whether that be through that world food days that we're being imposed or ethnic fair weeks where each week or each day of the week, there would be different events corresponding to different cultures and different historical and religious practices.
People were able to learn more about the history, the backgrounds, what the cultural practices that are there, but then additionally have those open and honest discussions where individuals are sharing meals and having that unique opportunity to understand different cultures, but then also learn more about their own culture itself and carry those experiences and memories with them later on. I really treasure and value that experience because I know not a lot of people have those ethnic fair days or those world food days, so I really treasure that experience because during that week was this wonderful opportunity for all students to ask questions and learn more about different cultures. But then additionally, share that moment and share that experience in a very positive manner that yielded positive outcomes and positive results.
I remember growing up that earlier on before experiencing those events and those different food days and world fairs, I just remember when I would open my food, people would either shimmy away in not really understand it or some people would ask questions about it. And that day, or that week was this universal time where everyone on campus or everyone that was in that institution was comfortable enough in asking those questions and having those discussions. Food was definitely a great motivator. And then also having those days was very grateful and such a wonderful experience.
Celeste: And I really believe that those hands on, in person, face to face experiences and interactions can really positively impact students, especially with how engaging it is and when it comes to those events and those celebrations, it's something that people look forward to.
Celeste: And it makes people excited about the topic, so I'm really glad to hear that you were able to experience that.
Ramya: Yeah. Celeste, I'm curious to know your experience of what it was like in high school because like I mentioned before, it was probably a big culture shock to transition from going to homeschool then to going to public school and then going back. I was curious to know what was it like for that transition of going to homeschool, high school, and then to college where there's a lot of diverse people and a lot of people from different backgrounds and different cultures. Curious to know what was that like? Was the transition easy? Was it difficult? Or did you experience culture shock, like I mentioned before? How was it?
Celeste: Yeah, so it did seem a lot like a culture shock going from being homeschooled and public schooled in a small town to going to high school in a city. And every day I was in classes with students from all around the world with all different kinds of backgrounds. I found myself wanting to ask so many what seemed to be stupid questions. What exactly is she wearing? Where is that country? What is that religion? There was so much that was new to me, and I didn't know how important these things were to my classmates and I was also missing so many major events going around in the world. The more I spoke and the more I interacted and the more I got to know my peers, I learned how important culture is and how important it is to be aware and to be competent and to respect culture.
I think it's a really big step in making relationships and also combating some of the harsh realities, like systemic racism and violence in our country. At some point I realized and it felt like I was part of the problem because I wasn't educated. And so I really made it a goal to continuously learn all the time, both on my own, from resources that we'll share later on and through conversations. This seems like a really great place to stop and define what exactly culture is and what exactly it means to be culturally competent. As defined by Health Resource and Services Administration, culture is the integrated patterns of human behavior that include language, thoughts, communication, actions, beliefs, values, and can correspond with racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups. How I think of that is who are you? How do you interact with people? How do you interact with their family? How do you celebrate? Grieve? Communicate? What are your values and beliefs? All these things that make us individual and unique and all these things that bring communities together.
Competence implies having the capacity to function effectively as an individual. I think of this as awareness and acting on that awareness, understanding a situation and acting accordingly.
So, if we put the two together, cultural competence means understanding the people around you, understanding differences, and acting accordingly. An example would be understanding that your friend might not celebrate the same holidays as you, taking the time to learn about their holidays and not getting upset that maybe you didn't get a Christmas present because that's just not what they celebrate. You have to take the time to understand beliefs and customs, respect that, and be open to learning more.
Ramya: Yeah. I'm glad that you mentioned that because I remember a lot of the times growing up, I was always asked questions of oh, what holiday do you celebrate? Do you celebrate Christmas? Are you Middle Eastern? Are you mixed? And stuff like that. And I always remember, at such a young age, being confronted with those questions, but then it's something that's always being brought up or always being discussed, so having the competence to respond confidently and share your own culture and your own background and what you value, trying to represent your culture through your eyes or through your own experiences that you have been through. I just remember being asked those questions and then, at such a young age, having to confidently and competently respond to that other person, explain this is why this holiday exists for us. This is the background. This is the story behind it. And this is why I feel this topic is so important when dealing with these situations because culture identity never leaves you.
It's important that we're able to discuss different cultures and different backgrounds and beliefs, but then also find those shared unique qualities, but then understand that each culture is different and being able to respect each culture in that sort of environment. And we're seeing a lot of cultural competence resurgence because now a lot of communities and a lot of areas I've been noticing that it's coming now to be a positive experience in open discussions. It's really important that those discussions are being had and they're being held, but they're in a respectful manner where people are open and honest about asking those questions and people feel comfortable in discussing their thoughts and concerns. I think it's important. And it just reminded me at that time where I was constantly being asked those questions.
Celeste: Yeah. And so just to recap, having conversations, and sometimes it can be really hard to confront someone who has a different belief than you, but being able to confront them in a respectful way and also on the flip side, being able to respond if you are confronted too, but why is it important to care and to ask in the first place? Why is it important to young people in particular? We live in such a diverse country and many people don't seem to understand that diversity doesn't only stem from race. It also stems from income, identity, physical or mental ability, religion, and so much more, and it all affects us differently. For example, I grew up in a very Christian, white culture while others may have grown up in a household where religion isn't prominent. Understanding that each person has a unique perspective and worldview can really enhance relationships and connections.
It really decreases a lot of conflict between people when you are able to understand and respect each other's beliefs and choices. A catalyst for my motivation to study all of this was when I was doing research into my desired career, which is working with moms and babies. I realized that there was an extreme racial disparity in healthcare, and I was trying to figure out what can I do to solve this?
It came down to a lot of people just don't understand culture and therefore can't treat individuals properly. Not only is there systemic racism in our healthcare system, but providers aren't trained on various customs, practices, diets, preferences, and there's also the language barriers. There's been a lot of just barriers up, and I really think that we're the generation to bring that change. That's just one example of why cultural competency is so important in healthcare because you want to be able to treat individuals with the best possible care you can, but there are other fields where cultural competence is really important, like public health, isn't that right?
Ramya: Yes. It's not only within the field of public health. I know we're both students studying public health and very interested in that topic and in that field, but discussion is key within any field and with any aspect of an individual's life. You have to be able to feel open to ask those questions and remove those barriers of communication. As a student, I've been noticing a lot, as you mentioned before, there's a lot of interest in this topic when it comes to the field of medicine and public health, but it can apply to any field and in any genre of social interaction when we talk about cultural competence, because it's important that we're able to respect one's view and one's background, but also value what makes us unique, but then also the universal qualities that are shared within each individual that comes from each different background.
Creating those open and honest environments to remove those barriers of communication and the ability to create those environments where people feel comfortable enough to talk and discuss and ask these questions is so key and so vital, which is why I value discussions and communication. Because if there is no communication, then there's no ability to resolve the issue, there's no ability to move forward and proceed in a positive manner, or there's just no way to move forward. Having these discussions is key and it's always the first step for me and what I view as a student is having those open communications, setting up the environment where it's open and honest, and removing those barriers of miscommunication and stuff like that.
Celeste: Definitely, and I notice we're reiterating again and again and again that communication and making a safe space is so important, which brings us into the idea of cultural respect. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes the concept of being respectful as being respectful and responsive to beliefs, practices, and cultural and/or linguistic needs. Not only are we taking in beliefs, but we're also taking in people's needs as a culture, as a group, as a community. Respect is so important when it comes to bringing communities of people together who may not have the same beliefs and practices, but want to learn and want to get along and want to grow with each other.
It's playing around with the idea of receiving information, understanding it, acting on it, and understanding that people may not want certain procedures or medications. They may want a female doctor. If we're looking into cultural competence in other fields, maybe if you're in communications, some cultures are a lot more straightforward than others. Some cultures have certain customs and greetings. If you are in a service industry, being patient with any language barriers and understanding preferences, and if you're receiving people at a restaurant. There are so many variables in so many different areas, and having that respect and understanding goes a really long way to creating that peace.
Ramya: As students, it's vital that we engage with our peers, both in a meaningful and genuine way. This reminds me of something that you brought up earlier or that we discussed earlier. I'm curious to know what was it like for you Celeste, on that topic, because this is what really interests me of seeing that background and hearing about your story is because there's such a big transition in each stage of your life that I'm noticing. What was the transition going from homeschool to high school then college and what sparked your interest of why it was so interesting, the cultural competence, that topic?
Celeste: Yeah. I mentioned before a big motivator for me was looking into my career and what I wanted to do and how cultural competence wove into that. Something that has kept me interested, so I no longer am in that beautiful, wonderful high school. I'm back in a rural community, but something that is really kept me interested in this is it truly does make me so happy having those conversations. Oh, I miss it so much. I miss hearing my friend switch from one language to another when she answers the phone, or learning about the foods that my friend would bring to school and I miss hearing about their holidays and their interactions. It brings me so much joy to learn about how big our world is and how beautiful and rich all of these people are. It never really felt like a chore to me.
Once I started and with that first project that I did on Romania, all the way to my most recent project on the evolution of midwives in the US and how that was impacted by culture, they were all something that gives me so much joy to learn about. It was never a chore. I feel like it's so enriching and so beautiful. And I feel like I'm able to understand the things that are going on a little bit better. I'm more aware of what's going on in our world, and I'm more aware of how I personally can help and how I can contribute in my passions and what my talents can do to move us forward in the future with this topic. Like we said, cultural competence, it's woven into everything because everybody has a culture and everybody has their beliefs. It's woven into everything.
We've already talked about the communication. We've talked about the questions. It's all bringing us together as a community and learning about one another. I'm smiling so hard. I'm so excited to be sharing that and to be sharing these resources is because I believe it also is doing good. I really believe that these small steps in educating ourselves can make such a huge impact, even when it doesn't seem like it. So we've already talked about how important communication is and interactions and getting that ball rolling and getting engaged and working with and getting involved in your community. Ramya, you have such an interesting analogy when it comes to starting those conversations and giving yourself that first push.
Ramya: Yes. I think that starting conversation is definitely the first step, but often when we talk about cultural competence, it's often met with individuals having a bad experience or having negative connotations being brought up with discussing different cultures, because they're either afraid of how they're going to be perceived in the conversation, or they're just afraid of that uncomfortableness and unpleasantness that they might experience when asking these questions to someone who is different from them or someone that has a different culture or a different background. And this is what I like to refer to as something as like a pop the bubble and run syndrome, where once an individual confronts something that they're afraid to, they pop the bubble of their world around them and their worldview, and suddenly they're confronted with all these different questions and different concerns either within themselves or within the other person.
Then they run away from this situation because they're afraid of confronting some of the questions that they have, but then also they're running away from that uncomfortableness and the unpleasantness of the situation. This is why it's so important that we have these discussions and why I'm so grateful to be here today because culture can be such a positive and can yield such positive experiences and also can be so beneficial to learn not only about ourselves, but then also the world around us. In my experience, in my background, if I hadn't found something that I was really passionate about, I wouldn't have popped the bubble of the world around me and be engaged in these conversations with different people that had different cultures or different backgrounds or different beliefs.
Apart from starting the conversations and that being that first step, I would encourage that young people—based on my own experience, this is completely based on my own experience—is to find something that they're passionate about and then let that passion lead them to meeting new people from different backgrounds and different cultures. In turn, you might make some really awesome friends and have some really awesome experiences with different people from different backgrounds and learning about those different cultures. If it hadn't been for my passion for singing, then I wouldn't have never gone out to that Christian choral group and be the only Hindu girl that was in the group and learn more about these different cultures and different backgrounds. Developing a passion and then meeting people that share those same passions and same hobbies and those same values, but then also having that opportunity to have those open discussions and meet people and peers like yourself that are interested in those shared topics, but then starting those conversations and seeing what is universal, but then also what makes you yourself unique, and in that you can inspire so many other people, or you can inspire yourself too, to continue to engage in cultural competence and engage in other cultures and engage in other people around you.
Because once you pop that bubble and step outside of your own community and your own values, you're able to learn so much more about yourself, but then also the world around you. This leads to a domino effect that can impact so many people and that can yield so many positive experiences. If it hadn't been for what my experiences were earlier, then I wouldn't be the person I am here today, talking with you about why it's so important, and I wouldn't have the values that I have now and that experience shaped and impacted me so deeply. I'm so glad to be here.
Celeste: And that reminds me of something that I found during my research. And it's a quote saying:
"Cultural competence is a developmental process rather than a one-time static achievement."
We've been talking about experiences that span years in our entire background and how it's a constantly moving and flowing process. There are so many great resources out there that you can check out on your journey to becoming more culturally competent. Some of the federal resources that you can look into, they're free to use, free to access, is youth.gov, of course, the US Health Resources and Services Administration, SAMHSA, which is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Department of Education or ed.gov. And then there's also the CDC that has some great info in there for you, as well. In addition to these learning resources, you can watch various foreign movies, shows, or documentaries, follow diverse creators on social media or YouTube, and you can also explore news outlets that may have more coverage of cultural groups or communities.
Another great way of learning is travel, but if you're unable to travel and go in person to different countries, you can visit your local museum or cultural center and get that idea of different artwork and different pottery and just what people create as a community. For college students, an elective course on culture or language can be a great way of immersing yourself if you like to learn in an academic sense like I do. And of course, as we've already really, really pushed this: the interactions and the conversations that you have with your community and peers is so extremely valuable.
And you can even take it one step further, engage your community and your school. You can go to your teachers or counselors and begin organizing clubs, seminar programs, like Ramya had mentioned earlier, the cultural food weeks and those kinds of things are things that you can set up as an individual, as a group of friends, that you can initiate at your school and celebrate and learn and open that conversation in your community.
Like I said, it's not a journey you have to take alone if you don't want to take it alone. You can enjoy it with your friends, with your teachers and community members, and your family. I've definitely brought a lot of fun facts home to my family. There's just so many ways that you can learn, so I really encourage you guys to find your style and find your passion and let that lead you into learning about culture.
I think we're going to wrap it up there. Ramya, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your stories and experiences.
Ramya: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so grateful for this opportunity and also grateful for this experience because it's such an important topic. As peers, as students, I'm constantly learning more about different cultures, individuals from different backgrounds and seeing what makes them unique, but then also some of the universal qualities that are shared. And this topic is so vital for anyone, in any field, to engage with any individual on a personal level too. Having this opportunity to not only speak with you about my own experience and my own background, because not a lot of people ask about what was it like growing up and stuff like that, so I'm very grateful to have been here today to talk with you about this topic, but then additionally, encouraging young people as well, to engage in this topic in a meaningful way that really impacts and influences their own lives, and also that can encourage these discussions to be had later. If you guys want to go on to, I think, Celeste, you mentioned about YE4C. There's so much content that's there.
Celeste: Of course. Yeah. You guys can follow YE4C radio for more content that's by young people, for young people, and you can also follow us on social media or visit our website at engaged.youth.gov for more content.
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