Cultural Humility: A New Way to Reach Diverse Groups
By Patricia Peña
In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness and desire to open truly diverse places. As a result, organizations and communities have invested significant resources to be relevant and to create safe spaces where diverse people feel welcomed.
The church is no different. We also long for communities on earth to be as it is in heaven, with people from all backgrounds coming together to be in community. One of the challenges I’ve encountered while working with different groups is hearing the statement, “We want them here, but we want them to mold into us, not us learn from them. We want to include, but not be challenged by ‘inclusion’ mentality.” We cannot heal what we do not acknowledge or confess. We cannot move forward in true inclusion with diversity until we start understanding our narrow views and limitations.
Can we just open spaces without thinking about the cultural implications? Dr. Ismael Ruiz-Millan says, “As a Christian leader, we often minimize the significant role that culture plays in the formation of individual identities, in our views of God and the Christian life, and in our leadership styles.” To open spaces for true diversity and inclusion to happen, we must acknowledge the role of culture and diversity in our faith formation. Further, we must expand our limited views on culture and diversity and move from cultural competence to cultural humility.
The focus on cultural competency has played a role in how the church has opened communities of faith, created resources, and related to people groups out of assumptions based on these cultural competencies. Recently, there has been a move from the westernized cultural competency that focuses on knowing the traits and information about a people group from a single perspective to an acknowledgment of the need to understand diverse groups. The move went from having expertise of what was known to work in engaging diverse communities to a simple posture of listening and learning from diverse communities and then creating resources, programs, and communities. This new posture stems from cultural humility.
Cultural competency is limited in its approach. Although it may be well-intended, it may harm people. It is a false notion of a one-size-fits-all approach for reaching diverse groups. It can blind us to our privileges, limit our understanding of the complexities of cultures, and limit our capacity for true inclusion. On the other hand, cultural humility leads from continual learning to true inclusion with honesty, integrity, and authenticity.
What is cultural humility and what role does it play in reaching diverse groups? Lyna Nyamwaya writes, “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defined cultural humility as ‘a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities.”
Cultural humility moves us from a place of expertise to a place of being learners. In that way, individual cultures inform our learning, help us focus on those we serve, and enrich our communities with diversity.
Here are a few things to keep in mind in reaching out to a diverse people group:
1. Self-evaluation and self-reflection: Leaders in organizations that desire diversity, especially when opening new faith communities, must examine their biases. They must ask questions that challenge the understanding of how to communicate, serve, and be in relationship (or not) with people of diverse backgrounds. By challenging themselves through self-evaluation, they will bring to light implicit biases, the cultural lenses by which we measure and see people from diverse backgrounds, and our unconscious prejudices.
Self-evaluation goes hand in hand with self-reflection. Self-reflection helps us recognize how our behaviors, perceptions, or responses are modeled or affected by our backgrounds, beliefs, upbringing, and culture.
Ask questions such as, “What has been my experience regarding diverse groups? In what ways have I closed myself or have I been hesitant to learn and embrace new cultures? What are some of my limitations concerning the people group I am trying to reach?”
2. Challenge your assumptions: Keep asking relevant questions. For example, “What are your beliefs and assumptions about certain people groups? In what ways can you challenge those assumptions by opening in ways that allow you to challenge your assumptions, leaving room for growth and genuine interactions that lead to healthy outreach?”
3. Listen with empathy: We can open spaces that meet the community’s needs by listening and not acting on assumptions. Listening is vital in cultural humility because it allows the engagement to inform us. The wealth of knowledge and understanding we gain from genuinely listening and challenging our assumptions makes us open to learning. Further, when people feel heard and understood, they feel valued, and that leads to belonging.
4. Be a continual learner: The critical difference between cultural humility and cultural competence is the posture of, "It's ok not to know it all." Be a continual learner. Learn from the diverse groups, their needs, their joys, what moves their hearts, and what their presence brings to the table. Consider how to advocate for and open spaces for true inclusion to happen.
5. Improve how you communicate inclusion in words and action: Listening and learning will inform the values and decisions in your organization. This is the fun part of diversity and inclusion—seeing the richness of diversity coming together, continuously shaped and informed by the diversity in the cultures we engage. Enhanced use of language, intentional signage, and a broadening understanding of time, family values, and music are integral to cultural humility.
Practice, Practice, Practice. Cultural humility requires daily practice, continual learning, and continual adaptation as you grow in understanding of and relationship with diverse groups. The more we practice cultural humility, the more opportunities we will have for genuine diversity and inclusion. The more opportunities we have for diversity, the more we will see diverse faith communities develop. It all begins with cultural humility.
For more information or support in ways you may open new communities with cultural humility in mind, feel free to reach me at [email protected].
 Ismael Ruiz- Millan, Director of the Hispanic House of Studies, Global Education & Intercultural Formation at Duke Divinity School.
 Lyna Nyamwaya, Leading with Cultural Humilty:12 Inclusive Practices to Manage Biases, Promote Equity, and Cultivate Cultures of Belonging (Bold Impact Group, 2002), 13
Patricia Peña is the Director, Diversity & Innovative Community Engagement, with Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries.