Guilderland schools are on a journey to improve cultural competence

— Still frame from May 23, 2023 Guilderland School Board meeting

Matthew Pinchinat said of cultural blindness, “I think for many adults, that was the way that you were taught to be polite.”

GUILDERLAND — Over the past year, each of Guilderland’s seven schools has worked to develop an equity action plan.

Those plans were presented to the school board on May 23 by Matthew Pinchinat, the district’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, known as DEI. He was hired in 2021 to fill the newly created post.

Pinchinat went over each building’s action plan, which are detailed in the May 23 agenda packet. Common threads include using data, both quantitative and qualitative, to make decisions; engaging people throughout each building to monitor progress; and increasing accessibility, whether physical or through welcoming initiatives like signs that are understandable across languages and cultures.

Pinchinat also stressed the ongoing importance of training for staff and of collaborating with other districts for a regional approach.

While he said “they might just sound like buzzwords to you,” Pinchinat went over five widely used core elements of cultural competence: assessing cultural knowledge, valuing diversity, managing the dynamics of difference, adapting to diversity, and then institutionalizing cultural knowledge.

Focus groups were set up at each school so that students, teachers, staff, parents, and community members could weigh in and be heard, Pinchinat said.

“Equity learning walks” were also conducted at each building — five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — so that participants had a chance to consider how the building looked to others.

According to the State Education Department, the Guilderland school district has 199 African-American students, or 4 percent; 223 Hispanic students, or 5 percent; 694 Asian students, or 14 percent; 13 Native American students, or 0 percent; 178 multi-racial students, or 4 percent; and 3,504 white students, or 73 percent.


“Primary tool”

Pinchinat presented a chart detailing a “cultural proficiency continuum,” which he said was the “primary tool” used by the district schools to “measure our cultural competence.”

The continuum appears to be largely based on the research published in a 1989 monograph by Terry L. Cross, Barbara J. Bazron, Karl W. Dennis, and Mareasa R. Isaacs, “Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care,” working with the National Institute on Mental Health and the U.S. Department of Justice on effective services for minority children who are severely emotionally disturbed.

The monograph focused on African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans in developing a framework and practical ideas to have states and communities and their various agencies provide better services.

The researchers developed a continuum for responding to cultural differences that had at its worst end cultural destructiveness, followed by incapacity, and blindness, leading to, at its better end, pre-competence, competence, and finally proficiency.

The authors of the 1989 monograph gave examples of “cultural destructiveness” such as the Exclusion Laws of 1885-1965 that prohibited Asians from bringing spouses to this country or the cultural genocide attempting to destroy the Native American culture by the very services set up to “help” them.

Pinchinat, in the school setting, described “cultural destructiveness” as “blatant racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, where it is like, just undoubtedly, you are seeing the difference and you’re trying to get rid of it. And you are clearly articulating that there are problems with someone existing for who and how they are … Unfortunately the truth is that there are elements where this exists in pockets.”

The chart presented by Pinchinat had a quotation to describe an attitude representative of each step along the continuum:

— 1. Cultural destructiveness: “See the difference; stomp it out”;

— 2. Cultural incapacity: “See the difference; make it wrong”;

— 3. Cultural blindness: “See the difference; act like you don’t”;

— 4. Cultural pre-competence: “See the difference; respond to it inappropriately”;

— 5. Cultural competence: “See the difference; accept it and respect it”;

— 6. Cultural proficiency: “See the difference; respond positively as an advocate for equity and inclusion.”

Pinchinat gave as an example of “cultural incapacity” holding a classroom Christmas party. The monograph authors gave an example of agencies that had policies of segregation.

The monograph authors, describing cultural blindness, cited examples of agencies that express a philosophy of being unbiased, functioning with the belief that color or culture make no difference and that all people are the same.

“This view reflects a well intended liberal philosophy; however, the consequences of such a belief are to make services so ethnocentric as to render them virtually useless to all but the most assimilated people of color,” they wrote 34 years ago. “Such services ignore cultural strengths, encourage assimilation, and blame the victim for their problems.”

Similarly, Pinchinat said of cultural blindness, “I think for many adults, that was the way that you were taught to be polite …. I am a Black man; I’m a person of color. Some things like that you can see. There’s also parts of my identity that aren’t visible, such as me being a Latino male …. 

“The reason why cultural blindness is an issue,” he went on, “is we limit the understanding that we have of people’s stories and the way they are impacted by different decisions that we make.”

The monograph authors said they chose the term cultural pre-competence “because it implies movement.” 

“Pre-competent agencies are characterized by the desire to deliver quality services and a commitment to civil rights,” they wrote. “They respond to minority communities’ cry for improved services by asking, ‘What can we do?’ 

“One danger at this level is a false sense of accomplishment or of failure that prevents the agency from moving forward along the continuum.” Another danger, they wrote, is tokenism.

Pinchinat said of pre-competence: “This is where we’re trying; we’re making an effort … it’s not a bad place to be.”

He went on, “At the bare minimum, you’re willing to be OK with discomfort; you’re willing to commit to being a learner.”

The monograph authors wrote that culturally competent agencies “view minority groups as distinctly different from one another and as having numerous subgroups, each with important cultural characteristics” and “further, culturally competent agencies understand the interplay between policy and practice, and are committed to policies that enhance services to diverse clientele.”

Pinchinat said of cultural competence, “The questions have taken the next level. It’s not necessarily about a specific day and saying, ‘Hey, well, we have Juneteenth. That means that there’s no longer any racism.’

“It’s not like we’re looking at things from that lens. But we’re willing to say, ‘OK, we’ve done this, what comes next, which leads us right into cultural proficiency — where we see the difference, we respond positively, and we advocate for it, with equity and inclusion.”

The researchers who developed the continuum wrote that cultural proficiency “is characterized by holding culture in high esteem.”

They write, “Attitudes, policies, and practices are three major arenas wherein development can and must occur if agencies are to move toward cultural competence. Attitudes change to become less ethnocentric and biased. Policies change to become more flexible and culturally impartial. Practices become more congruent with the culture of the client from initial contact through termination ….

“Every level of an agency (board members, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and consumers) can and must participate in the process.”

At the close of Pinchinat’s presentation, school board member Nathan Sabourin asked, “Probably most importantly, where’s the board going to be involved? Because, in the sense of, we need to be trained as well … We don’t want to sit on high and pass judgment.”

More Guilderland News

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