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by on September 4, 2013

Ms. Yvonne Pitts
Graduate Hall Director for Fraternity and Sorority Life
Columbia University

A lot has happened over the summer that has caused a lot of controversy and tensed race relations in America: the Zimmerman verdict, the release of  films Fruitvale Station and The Butler , Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, etc. Words and messages of intolerance and ignorance, as well as messages of black feminism and social justice blanketed my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. These words raced through my feeds as if they were in competition with each other—this wasn’t a debate, this was a virtual war.

I remember being at a Justice for Trayvon rally this summer and thinking, “What can I do as an educator?” Sure, I could continue to participate in rallies and protests, state my views on my social media sites, and have intellectual debates and conversations with colleagues about that state of the black community. And as much as I love a good rally or protest, there had to be something I could with my role as an educator to affect change in our country. The answer came to me a couple of days ago: actively integrate the principles cultural competence in my everyday work.

For me, the term “cultural competence” has a deeper meaning than our usual diversity education. The word “diversity” has become so overused these days that it has lost much of its meaning and people shudder at the very word. Gather a group of your students and announce that today you plan on teaching them about diversity education and wait for their reaction.

Cultural competence isn’t just an idea; it’s a skill. It’s the ability to effectively interact with people of different cultural backgrounds, encompassing awareness of your own culture, your attitude towards and knowledge of other cultures, and the relational skillset needed to communicate and relate across these differences. By integrating the principles of cultural competence throughout my own everyday work and work with my students, I can begin to shift their paradigm from tolerance, to acceptance, to appreciation. So while I may not be able stop another Oscar Grant death or keep Miley Cyrus from twerking, I can influence how my students interpret and respond to such incidents.  And while I could not stop George Zimmerman from shooting Trayvon Martin, maybe I can stop future Zimmermans. Just think, if George Zimmerman had any sorts of cultural competence, would he have seen Trayvon Martin as a threat or danger?

Educating my students on cultural competence is how I plan to fight social injustices (as well as still attending a few rallies and protests here and there). What will you do?

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