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Today’s blog was inspired by a conversation with a potential client. The potential client was grappling with how to support organizations that have already done some work around cultural competence and want to engage in multicultural transformation. I hope you enjoy reading and welcome your feedback!

How can leaders who want to build transformed, multicultural organizations conceptualize and approach this process?

Many organizations have engaged in work to improve their services for diverse populations. Sometimes there are new programs in place, new staff hired and new policies. Often, individuals experience deep reflection and learning. This work sometimes, but not always, is transformative in nature. Today I discuss some key concepts and suggest steps for organizational leaders who want to transform their organizations.

What is a transformed multicultural organization?

Transformation is distinct from incremental or discrete changes, which do not fundamentally impact an organization. Multicultural principles, such as commitment to equity and valuing socio-cultural similarities and differences, are embedded in all of domains of the organization. This includes the organization’s mission, vision, programs and services, people, organizational culture and communication, policies and procedures, resources and infrastructure and engagement with community. A core element of a transformed multicultural organization is the capacity to engage, value and learn from diverse cultures and people. Multicultural transformation is not an end result, but an ongoing process.

Orientation Toward Culture and Difference

An organization’s mindset toward culture and difference is a determining factor in its approach to multiculturalism. If culture and difference are seen as problems to solve or specific issues to address, the process may be incremental or discrete. On the other hand, transformation occurs when culture and difference are valued as relevant throughout the organization’s work.

Deficit to Opportunity

I often get called to work in organizations when they are stuck in conflict and don’t know how to move forward. Sometimes, they are entrenched in a deficit-based approach focused on solving the “problem” of culture and difference. For example, problem-solving may focus on programs that lack the ability to serve different language or cultural groups. In such situations, staff often view cultural responsiveness as a burden; one more thing to add to their long to do list. When culture and difference are viewed as problems, people may be cast as victims and villains. There is often blame. shame, defensiveness or demoralization.

One step in transforming the organization’s approach is reframing the deficit orientation to one of opportunity.
A transformational approach does not ignore problems or challenges or side step the need for people to be heard. I have seen some of the greatest transformation come from acknowledging the tense and difficult situations and seeing the opportunities that can come from them. For example, an incident of staff insensitivity was reframed as an opportunity to clarify organizational expectations. A conflict was reframed as an opportunity to share and learn from different perspectives. A complaint from staff about inaction by management was reframed as an opportunity for managers to step beyond their comfort zone and develop new leadership skills. An underlying assumption in the transformed multicultural organization is valuing culture and difference and the real life experiences that happen in culturally diverse organizations.

Additive to Integrative

In an additive approach, an organization might hire culturally diverse staff and/or add on new services and programs to reach different populations, without integrating multiculturalism into other aspects of the organization. The mindset underlying this approach is that culture and difference only impact some communities and only comes into play in specific contexts. Often, in this approach, the people who work with “diversity” are marginalized in their organizations. They often perceive that other people in the organization, particularly those in management, don’t understand their communities or the issues that they deal with.

In an integrative approach, multiculturalism is part of the lens through which all of the organization’s work is viewed. The underlying assumption is that culture and difference impact all of the organization’s work. Therefore, rather than relegating responsibility for being culturally responsive to a few “diverse” staff members, it is owned by the entire organization and embedded in multiple areas of work. In an integrative approach, multiculturalism is not limited to interactions between the organization and the population it serves, it is also germane to interactions internal to the organization. One crucial step in organizational transformation is establishing explicit values about multiculturalism and aligning key organizational players around those values.

Orientation toward People and Work

Another crucial aspect of transformation is in the view of and approach to people. Dominant organizational culture tends to treat people as “instruments” that perform tasks. Relationships are based upon performance of job function and people are viewed narrowly as task performers. The needs of individuals are often put aside in deference to the demands of the work. I have often heard from people in organizations I work with say that they feel undervalued and disempowered and don’t have a voice. Non-managers often see managers as having all of the power. Those who are not in management roles are seen as subordinates with no real power.

In a transformed multicultural organization, people are seen and engaged as whole human beings and as agents of transformation. Each person has specific job responsibilities and is also valued for what they bring beyond their job description. Culturally diverse staff members, clients, community partners and volunteers are valued for the experiences and perspectives that they bring to the organization. For example, an administrative staff person may come from and live in a community being served by the organization. This person may have deep cultural knowledge and connections with key community institutions and leaders. There are opportunities for this staff member to share this knowledge and for organizational learning to take place.

As agents of transformation, staff members actively engage in sharing responsibility for creating open, collaborative patterns of communication. For example, many organizations I work with adopt guidelines for collaborative multicultural communication. These guidelines are utilized for staff meetings and people share responsibility for supporting each other to practicing them.

There is a culture of learning and a commitment to developing the leadership of both individuals and teams. The support of individuals is acknowledged as a crucial part of organizational sustainability. For example, one organization established support systems to enhance staff well-being in serving a highly distressed client population. This required that the organization transform its implicit view that “self-care” was low priority in contrast to serving clients. The transformed way of viewing people also extended to the organization’s work with clients. Rather than viewing clients as helpless recipients of service, they were seen as whole human beings, capable of taking responsibility for their own lives. Another key element of multicultural transformation is defining the organization’s orientation toward people and work and bringing its culture and practices into alignment with this orientation.

This article offers some ways to think about and approach multicultural organizational transformation. While it is not a blue-print for action, it suggests some steps that can be taken. These steps are not linear in nature and the different elements of transformation are interconnected. If you’d like to read more about MCOD, read Multicultural Organizational Development: A Resource for Health Equity or Multicultural Organizational Development in Nonprofit Organizations: Lessons from the Cultural Competence Learning Initiative.

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