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Study and Conversations on Cultural Competency

Much like math, reading and writing, St. Margaret’s educators believe that developing cultural competency in our students is essential for their futures. Last week, St. Margaret’s engaged cultural competency thought-leader Robert Greene to work with Middle and Upper School students, faculty and staff.
St. Margaret’s is educating students on the importance of cultural competency in their lives today and in preparation for life beyond our school. According to Upper School Assistant Principal Ryan Dahlem, who leads the schoolwide strategic diversity and inclusivity efforts, cultural competency is the understanding, perspectives and skills needed to effectively navigate interactions across individual, group and institutional differences.

Much like math, reading and writing, St. Margaret’s educators believe that developing cultural competency in our students is essential for their futures. These skills nurture healthy relationships with others in school, work and social interactions. Head of School Will Moseley revealed at the Opening Ceremony that building the essential life skills of cultural competency in our students and in ourselves is one of three schoolwide goals for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Last week, St. Margaret’s engaged cultural competency thought-leader Robert Greene, who consults with independent schools across the nation, to work with Middle and Upper School students, faculty and staff. He spent a day on campus leading a series of presentations, workshops and case study conversations.

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Mr. Greene began by asking students and adults to examine artistic images that contained hidden features, including shapes, landscapes and faces. The images provided a powerful metaphor for how it is human nature for individuals to view the same topic or situation differently from their unique perspectives. By then working together, audience members were able to share their perspectives and allow others to “see” aspects of the images they may have initially missed on their own. Mr. Greene highlighted how embracing a variety of perspectives leads to deeper understanding and innovation, and how the different aspects of the images are represented in the St. Margaret’s community and must be embraced and included to see the full picture.

Mr. Greene shared specific cultural competency skills students and adults can begin applying, including, “listening to understand rather than listening to respond,” and “managing both intent and impact.”

“In the 21st century, we are held accountable for the impact of our words and actions, as well as the intent,” Mr. Greene said. “It is no longer sufficient to say ‘that wasn’t my intent.’” Mr. Greene provided several case studies and asked students to consider the intent and impact of individuals in the scenarios, and how considering the impact would have led to more inclusive outcomes.

Upper School teacher Beth Clemmons thought the presentations and conversations articulated what inclusivity means in a powerful way. “I now see inclusivity as going beyond tolerance or even welcoming, but creating a feeling of comfort and ease based on the belief you truly belong. His illustration was great - the difference in being welcomed into a space by someone who kindly provides your favorite drink versus having the keys to the place yourself, with all your favorite drink ingredients on the shelves. The idea of creating that feeling for literally every person on campus is daunting and inspiring for me.

“He made a compelling case for the need to acquire cultural competency to be successful in life beyond St. Margaret’s. He showed how things as seemingly straightforward as the need to communicate clearly and be efficient in a diverse work group can have dramatically different interpretations in different cultures,” said Mrs. Clemmons.

Grade 12 student Daniel Freed found deep meaning in several aspects of Mr. Greene’s presentation. "Mr. Greene gave students an insightful perspective on the importance of difference: diversity of thought. When he had students work together to find faces, he highlighted how we all perceive things differently, and how, if we work together, our unified perspective can open our eyes to a greater understanding.

"After his speech in the Performing Arts Center, Mr. Greene met with the Upper School student leaders to answer our questions and offer suggestions for different ways to lead. He educated us on how to approach different audiences and how to listen to understand rather than listen to respond. His answers to questions surrounding unconscious bias and intent versus impact were very thorough and thoughtful. Through his efforts, Mr. Greene taught us how to be responsible individuals in a diverse community, making the St. Margaret's community more inclusive and preparing students for when they enter other communities all around the world."

Mr. Greene’s visit followed a professional development day in August for all faculty and staff on cultural competency led by Dr. Steven Jones, a leading expert on matters of diversity and colleague of Mr. Greene. Dr. Jones also spent a day at St. Margaret’s last spring presenting to the Upper School students, and working in smaller groups with student leaders, the Parent Teacher Fellowship and the Board of Trustees.

“Our goal in developing cultural competency in students and adults on campus is twofold,” said Mr. Dahlem. “First, we want to create an inclusive school community where every student, parent and employee walks onto campus each day feeling known, valued, loved and a sense of belonging. While there is much we have in common that attracts us to St. Margaret’s, we are not all the same. It is by leveraging our differences that we can be the most innovative and extraordinary school possible. Yet, we each need cultural competency skills to effectively navigate and leverage those differences.

“Second, we recognize our students will need cultural competency skills to interact across differences in their lives beyond St. Margaret’s—in their colleges, workplaces and communities. Fostering the development of these skills is an important aspect of fulfilling our mission to educate the hearts and minds of young people for lives of learning, leadership and service.”

Cultural competency development work will continue throughout the school year with additional presentations, discussions, workshops and professional development across all four divisions.
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