Culturally Competent Engagement: A Mindful Approach
How to expand cultural competence in a multicultural world.
Posted October 18, 2020
Book review of Culturally Competent Engagement: A Mindful Approach by Edward J. Brantmeier and Noorie K. Brantmeier (Information Age Publishing, Inc, 2020).
Cultural competence is a journey, not a destination. No one reaches an endpoint in cultural awareness just as we don’t in any type of personal growth. However, you may have expectations of yourself to already be considered culturally competent or possibly feel you have no idea where to begin. Wherever you are on the spectrum, this book can be a guide—a place to start or a place to grow in cultural competence. This book bridges not only cultural gaps, but one too often felt among various disciplines of education, sociology, psychology, biology, and others by implicitly recognizing that making systemic changes means inclusion of ideas and practice in multi-disciplinary integration.
The S.O.S. approach that the authors have coined stands for Self-Others-Systems, aligning with the idea that all work starts with the individual. Looking inward or doing our own work is where it begins. Second, connecting with others, diverse others, is not just a trending topic, but “an essential skill, necessary for survival and thriving of all" (p xii). The third key strand woven into this approach is a systems view to facilitate necessary systemic shifts to move us all toward wholeness (Capra, 1996). “Moving toward increasingly complex levels of knowing, being, and doing…” the book promises—and delivers—to build insights and skills throughout five chapters with specific examples and learning exercises (p 13).
The early chapters help us define who the “other” is without losing sight of culture being dynamic and ever-changing process constantly influenced by the elements. It reminds us to let go of perfection and keep moving forward. This is further punctuated and expanded by utilizing a systems lens in later chapters. “Systems understanding requires seeing the interdependent nature of reality—how all things are interrelated and connected, but it also illuminates how difference and division are used by some individuals and groups of people to create dependence and sophisticated exploitation." The learning exercise in Chapter 4 guides the reader to map social identities and experience the intersection of marginalizing variables that can lead to a matrix of domination (a term coined by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought).
Husband and wife professor duo, Drs. Ed and Noorie Brantmeier, lead by example by identifying themselves in light of privilege and oppression in the context of their multicultural family of Indigenous, Latina, Black, and white descent from varying socio-economic backgrounds. The risk of self-disclosure pays off because the sincere, humble, and matter-of-fact offerings help the reader connect with ideas through personal examples. These examples follow straightforward and well-referenced cultural concepts and definitions.
Chapter 1 defines cultural competence as an "attitude and approach of self-awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and an awareness of oneself as a cultural being" (p. 2). The authors ease the tension and potential for misunderstanding by clarifying other important concepts such as empathy which is not feeling sorry for someone, but rather feeling with someone. Privilege isn’t a feeling, and not feeling privilege does not mean you don’t have it. It’s not a disease or a choice, it is just woven into the fabric of institutional policy and practice and social structures. And it is our work to recognize those places where minorities may have to establish credibility beyond that of the majority to have access to the benefits of certain social settings.
This book deeply recognizes that the premise of the question “Who am I?” can only be answered when I observe myself in relationship to self, others, and within nested and overlapping systems. Each chapter exercises offer integrated and mindful reflections balanced with challenges for the reader. (Free guided reflection audio downloads that accompany the learning exercises are available here.) I especially enjoyed the Personal Symbol Exploration in Chapter 2 that yields a window into how we view ourselves. It might also be utilized as an ice-breaker for groups ready to do the work of cultural competence. Chapter 3 introduces Appreciative Inquiry as a tool to foster cultural humility and a map of how to invite the whole story from another by asking powerful, positive, open-ended questions. “These [questions] help us check our assumptions and habituated thought patterns when examining complex and enduring problems in multicultural environments” (p.59). This warm-hearted, accepting, honest approach has the power to re-humanize us and provides us with more language to do the work.
Barely 90 pages, this book covers a lot of ground quickly. If you doubt you will be challenged by simple exercises in Chapter 1, keep reading. It covers pitfalls and gentle warnings, as the tapestry of culture itself is an ever-changing dynamic process. “Culture can be a tricky bit—constantly informing thought, action, value, and meaning. We produce and co-produce the cultures we inhabit and it is a shifting landscape—meaning that, just like nature, what appears to be constant has undergirding rhythms of change…”(p 84). We don’t have to know everything, but we can all learn to show up to any moment, conversation, with more awareness of the context we are all living in.
In their daily work, the authors teach and help transform groups toward healthy cultural engagement in and out of their classrooms at James Madison University and Seven Sisters Community Development Group, LLC. Ed and Noorie both have extensive lived experience in diverse cultures that supports their academic research and the writing of this book. Although geared for instructors, practitioners, and other leaders, one can join this as a self-guided tour with any level of willingness and openness to personal growth and integration.
I recommend not only reading this book, but fully participating in the work wherever you are on the journey of cultural competence. A quote used several times intentionally throughout the book is from Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal educator and activist, “If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound in mine, then let us walk together.”
Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life: A New Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books.