“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
– Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 2000
As I reflect on my cultural proficiency journey, I think back to a time when I was at a spiritual retreat. It was during this retreat that the book from where this quote came from, was suggested and ultimately given to me by a person of faith. This was a time of great personal reflection, conflict, doubt, and discovery. Here I was in my second career, past the midpoint of my life, at a crossroads, asking myself “what is my life’s purpose?” From that point on, I decided to approach my equity work as a vocation.
Life Experiences Shape Our Lens – An Inside Out Approach
Raised in the border town of Calexico, California, I never thought that some 40 years later, I would be looking back on my life experiences as a means of seeking to understand what influenced how I viewed the world and myself. Living on the southern border of the United States, I remember being caught between two nations and two cultures. My cultural proficiency journey began with an inside-out approach (Lindsey, Robins, and Terrell, 2009).
Reshaping my Lens – Introduction to Cultural Proficiency
I arrived at Soledad High School, as the Naval Science Instructor of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) program. I accepted this position, even though the unit at Soledad High School was on the verge of being eliminated. I set out to transform the program by making it relevant to our student needs and respond to the local culture. Within three years, the Soledad High School NJROTC had become a model program earning distinction at the national level.
While I was teaching at Soledad High School, Dr. Roberto Nunez, my principal and mentor, encouraged me to go into administration. He recommended an administrative credential program with an emphasis on social justice from John F. Kennedy University. When I finally decided to pursue my administrative credential, the first thing Dr. Nunez did was give me his personal copy of the first edition of Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders by Randall B. Lindsey, Kikanza Nuri Robins, and Raymond D. Terrell. This book changed my perspective about the impact of culture, both within oneself and the educational institution. This concept has awakened my passion for social justice in the form of inclusion, diversity, equity and access for all students. Dr. Nunez and I have come to affectionately refer to this first edition as the “Original Black Book.” My cultural proficiency journey of reshaping my lens had officially begun.
My Introduction to Social Justice – Ethical Tension
John F. Kennedy University’s Administrative credential program was my first step into the world of Social Justice. My professor, Dr. Arlando Smith, challenged my institutionalized thinking of blindly trusting our educational system. I saw it as an institution anchored in the concept of meritocracy and the “pull yourself by your bootstraps” belief system. I recall many deep conversations and discussions about the need for social justice as a means of reforming education. For the first time, I breached my resistance to change and confronted my reluctance to acknowledge the existence of systemic oppression and institutional racism. This was my first personal encounter with the second tool of cultural proficiency known as the Barriers (Lindsey, Robins, and Terrel, 2009).
A Moral and Ethical Imperative – No Turning Back
Having been introduced to the Tools of Cultural Proficiency and social justice, I was moved to action by what I felt was an awareness of finally recognizing and understanding that the same educational system that had failed many of my classmates, continued to fail students like me. I was filled with a sense of urgency and felt compelled to begin the difficult work of trying to put theory into practice as a K-12 administrator. I am reminded of a verse in the song Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix:
“there are many here among us that feel life is but a joke, but you and I,
we’ve been through that and this is not our fate. So, let us stop talking
falsely now the hour is getting late.”
The time had come to move the leadership teams and organizations I belonged to, from the left to the right side of the Continuum. What made this difficult was, as I was trying to go deeper in my understanding of the concept and tools of cultural proficiency, for the most part, I found myself going it alone.
Theory into Practice – No Longer Alone
I’ll never forget the day that a close friend and courageous Principal from another district came to ask me to join his leadership team as Assistant Principal. My response to him was that I would consider joining him under three conditions. First, we incorporate cultural competence and the tools as a means of moving the school forward. Secondly, he would allow me to tell him what he needed to hear not what he wanted to hear. This concept is one I learned from my time as a Senior Enlisted Advisor in the military. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when we came to our “fork in the road” that we would stand firm in taking the road that supported students. Little did I know that I was about to embark on the challenge of a lifetime that would forever change my personal and professional approach to life and education.
In this short space, I can’t adequately describe the magnitude of the impact our implementation of cultural proficiency had on our school, district, and community. With commitment and the lens of cultural proficiency, we changed the culture of a school known for its students’ low academic performance and other negative “press” to a school that today is the district’s school of choice for parents. We started as a lightning rod for change by confronting a powerful stakeholder, then moved to a spontaneous and powerful act of reconciliation at the Museum of Tolerance; we hosted the International Cultural Proficiency Institute; and finally, we visited local strawberry fields to meet parents at the margins and validated their importance to our school and community. We regularly have between 300-500 parents attend our Cafecito (parents gathering). Cultural Competency is a concept that has transcended cultures and transformed an entire school district and community. The five Essential Elements of Cultural Competence continue to serve as our compass to unpredictable and needed change.
Attending the Institute for Equity in Education sponsored by Just Communities was a pivotal event in my cultural proficiency journey. Key takeaways: seeing a student’s learning experience as looking through a window versus looking in a mirror and perhaps most profound was that as a culturally proficient educator, we should never contribute to Collusion. Defined as:
Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, policies, practices, etc., that perpetuate a system of oppression that are, intentional or unintentional, consciously or unconscious, by action, inaction, or silence and/or because a person, group, organization or society has internalized the false belief that the system is correct, fears repercussion, wants acceptance, chooses to stay unaware, or refuses to take action.
(Institute for Equity in Education, Just Communities, 2013)
It is important to note that our district’s investment in cultural proficiency has not only resulted in significant change at our High School, but our Elementary School District has also begun implementing cultural proficiency and has extended beyond the fence lines to the community and our local college. The concept of cultural proficiency has had a profound impact on city government in the way of a Grand Jury report and as part of the Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Safety.
A Journey not a Destination
from Transformational to Transformative
As I continue my cultural proficiency journey, my understanding and perspective of leadership has evolved from Transformational to Transformative. These leadership descriptors tend to be seen as interchangeable. What I have learned through my journey is that there is a significant and important difference. Shields (2010) explains “transformational leadership focuses on improving organizational qualities, dimensions, and effectiveness; and transformative educational leadership begins by challenging inappropriate uses of power and privilege that create or perpetuate inequity and justice (p. 564). Transformational leaders make schools as they are better and improves the status quo while ultimately maintaining it and reproducing it. Transformative leadership instead involves critiquing and disrupting the status quo and focusing on schools as they might be (Hewitt, Davis, and Lashley, 2014). When I’m asked what it requires to build capacity and long-term sustainability to move a school or district to the far right of the continuum towards becoming culturally proficient – I always say it requires Transformative leadership and a commitment to doing what is right for our students.
In closing, I want to impress upon you that now is not the time for half measures. It is imperative that each of us be courageous and speak truth to power. My hope is the Center for Culturally Proficient Educational Practice will afford many more to have similar experiences I’ve had without having to “go it alone.” I thank you for allowing me to share my personal reflections on my cultural proficiency journey and leave you with the following inspirational poem:
Our Deepest Fear
by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear
is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our
darkness that most frightens us. Your playing small does not
serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all
meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us;
it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously
give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated
from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
References Hewitt, K. K., Davis, A. W., & Lashley, C. (2014). Transformational and Transformative Leadership in a Research-Informed Leadership Preparation Program. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 9(3), 225-253. Lindsey, R. B., Robins, K. N., & Terrell, R. D. (2009). Cultural proficiency: a manual for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Shields, C. M. (2010). Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly,46(4), 558-589.