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Cultural Competence - What Does It Look Like in Practice?

Young Wings Program; Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Bayfield, Wisconsin

Cultural Competence - many of us know the term, we all strive for it, and a few of us have even studied it. But what does it look like in practice? How does one become culturally competent?

Dawn Nixon, Director of the Young Wings: the Red Cliff Birth to Six Mental Health Program and Rob Goslin, Red Cliff Early Head Start Fatherhood Coordinator, charted a culturally competent course when introducing the prevention and intervention components of their Targeted Capacity Expansion grant to the Red Cliff Tribe's Early Childhood Center.

Dawn began to navigate her way by assessing the unique needs of this Native American community. Although pediatric mental health services were needed, the existent barriers of rural isolation, transportation difficulties, and a lack of culturally sensitive service providers in the broader community prevented families from receiving care. One way to overcome these barriers was to bring mental health services on-site to Red Cliff.

In January of 2001, a five-person team from Red Cliff attended a community-level Touchpoints training at the Brazelton Center in Boston. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's Touchpoints Model aims to build alliances between parents and providers around key points in the development of young children. In what they both describe as a poignant week, Rob, Dawn, and the other team members recognized that the Touchpoints Model mirrored the traditional values of the Red Cliff Anishinabe tribal community. Dr. Brazelton and his Touchpoints faculty were also struck by the reflection of values, and later traveled to Red Cliff to increase their own understanding of how Touchpoints worked within a tribal community. Following the training in Boston, the Red Cliff Touchpoints team returned to train over 80 tribal service providers. Dawn realized an appropriate model for the delivery of pediatric mental health services on the reservation had been found, and Young Wings (Oshki Ningwiiganan) was born.

Dawn, as a non-native, sought the guidance of a cultural mentor - a role filled by Rob Goslin. Rob helped Dawn integrate into the community and more deeply understand the community's values and "way of being". Because of the trusting relationship with Rob and the Red Cliff Early Childhood Center administrative staff, Dawn became someone tribal families felt comfortable working with. It was the establishment of these relationships that allowed the Young Wings program to be effective.

Dawn and Rob offer the following advice for those seeking to map a course for cultural competence:

  • Research the history of the culture. Seek to understand, within the framework of that history, the ongoing dynamics with the mainstream society.
  • Take care not to make assumptions. Look to find the cultural and spiritual strengths of the community.
  • Form relationships with key members of the cultural group - individuals who can lead you through the learning process and provide ongoing consultation.
  • Seek ways to participate with the community during both celebrations and tragedies.
  • Be willing to feel awkward, to not be the 'expert', to be a student. Come with a sense of humility and a true desire to learn and understand.

To paraphrase Rob and Dawn:
You can learn to be culturally sensitive but that alone will not solve the existent problems. You need to blend proven prevention/intervention models into the cultural fabric - in essence, weave a new kind of fabric, one where the warp is made of traditional values and teachings and the weft is made of "western" knowledge and understanding.