Just over a year ago, friend and colleague Stella Ting Toomey and I had the distinct pleasure of attending the American Evaluation Association‘s annual conference as invited speakers. There I was pleased to witness a commitment to responsible inclusiveness that was truly state of the art.
Six years of diligent work by a task force and other concerned individuals had resulted in a theoretically sound and practical Public Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation (AEA 2011, Fairhaven, MA USA).
There is so much about this public statement that stands out for me, not least of which is a definition of culture that is at least on a par with the best of what I’ve seen come out of the intercultural communication field!
Culture can be defined as the shared experiences of people, including their languages, values, customs, beliefs, and mores. It also includes worldviews, ways of knowing, and ways of communicating. Culturally significant factors encompass, but are not limited to, race/ethnicity, religion, social class, language, disability, sexual orientation, age, and gender. Contextual dimensions such as geographic region and socioeconomic circumstances are also essential to shaping culture.
Culture is dynamic, fluid, and reciprocal. That is, culture shapes the behaviors and worldviews of its members and, in turn, culture is shaped by the behavior, attitudes, and worldview of its members. Elements of culture are passed on from generation to generation, but culture also changes from one generation to the next.
Culture not only influences members of groups, it also delineates boundaries and influences patterns of interaction among them. Evaluators frequently work across these boundaries.
I remember my excitement the last couple of times a book has been published with “intercultural competence” in the title. If I am truly honest, I will admit to you that I’ve been disappointed. Amidst good work and steps forward, the books I’ve reviewed rehash a lot of what I feel is old and tired or, even, counter-productive to good practice. But this AEA statement! How do they define intercultural competence? For me it’s spot on — both theoretically sound and skillfully applied!
Cultural competence is not a state at which one arrives; rather, it is a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning. It is a sensibility cultivated throughout a lifetime. Cultural competence requires awareness of self, reflection on one’s own cultural position, awareness of others’ positions, and the ability to interact genuinely and respectfully with others. Culturally competent evaluators refrain from assuming they fully understand the perspectives of stakeholders whose backgrounds differ from their own.
Cultural competence is defined in relation to a specific context or location, such as geography, nationality, and history. Competence in one context is no assurance of competence in another. The culturally competent evaluator (or evaluation team) must have specific knowledge of the people and place in which the evaluation is being conducted—including local history and culturally determined mores, values, and ways of knowing.
The culturally competent evaluator draws upon a wide range of evaluation theories and methods to design and carry out an evaluation that is optimally matched to the context. In constructing a model or theory of how the evaluand operates, the evaluator reflects the diverse values and perspectives of key stakeholder groups.
It is tailor-made for a Cultural Detective: process-based lifelong learning (CD Worksheet); knowledge of self and others and the ability to bridge (3 fundamental CD capacities); situation-specific, contextually grounded effectiveness (CD Critical Incidents); grounding practice in theory (pulling salient theoretical teaching from practical experience); and acknowledging people as complex amalgams of the influences of multiple cultural influences (layering Lenses).
The AEA statement includes the following content:
The Role of Culture and Cultural Competence in Quality Evaluation
- What is culture?
- Evaluations reflect culture.
- What is cultural competence?
Why Cultural Competence in Evaluation Is Important
- It is an ethical imperative.
- Validity demands it.
- Theories are inherently cultural.
Essential Practices for Cultural Competence
- Acknowledge the complexity of cultural identity.
- Recognize the dynamics of power.
- Recognize and eliminate bias in language.
- Employ culturally appropriate methods.
The AEA’s blog and their annual conference include lots of project examples and discussions about how to conduct culturally responsible evaluation, through which I’ve witnessed honest dialogue about successes and difficulties. Intercultural competence in evaluation has definitely become an organization-wide effort and an ongoing process for the AEA membership.
The work of the task force continues through today, as they do their best to develop cultural competence in evaluation via education and training, within and outside the AEA, as well as by sharing the public statement and what they have learned via the process they’ve engaged. I am proud to have had a very small role in their extensive process, and pleased to be able to help share it so that others can leverage their work.
Kudos to Dr. Melvin Hall, Cindy Crusto, the American Evaluation Association, and all of those involved in this terrific effort! I know they join me in hoping that their efforts might help you further yours. I will close with an excerpt from their closing:
Evaluators have the power to make a difference, not only directly to program stakeholders but also indirectly to the general public. This is consistent with the Guiding Principle that obliges evaluators to consider the public interest and good in the work they do. In a diverse and complex society, cultural competence is central to making a difference.
Cultural competence connects with and complements existing knowledge and skills in the field. It offers both opportunities and challenges for evaluators. Cultural competence presents evaluators with new horizons for learning, opportunities for renewal, and the potential to deepen understanding of one’s own work in all contexts. Cultural competence challenges evaluators to deepen their self awareness and sensitivity in terms of their own cultures and those of others.
Many evaluators are actively exploring the terrain of cultural competence. They are expanding the boundaries of what it means to respond to cultural diversity in authentic and respectful ways. This statement invites new conversations and connections to advance this sensitive and exciting work.