ICYMI: SAA’s Initiative for Cultural Diversity Competence Webinar

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. We keep a running list of upcoming events. If you’re interested in writing a post for ICYMI, please refer to our sign up sheet. In this post, Megan Miller recaps AACR’s weninar SAA’s Initiative for Cultural Diversity Competence.

The Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable held a webinar featuring Helen Wong Smith’s discussion of SAA’s Initiative for Cultural Diversity Competence. Several members of MARAC’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion were able to attend the webinar; it is available for viewing at https://iastatelibrary.adobeconnect.com/_a1044384041/p28i8rt2in5/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal.

In the webinar, Wong Smith discussed the history and context of SAA’s cultural competency efforts, beginning with the May 2014 Council meeting’s choice of diversity as a “mega-issue” for discussion and Wong Smith’s suggestion to introduce cultural competency training. She touched on other developments, including the organization’s strategic plan, Elizabeth Adkins’s presidential focus, and the publication of the Diversity Reader, as promising developments in recent years. Wong Smith also included video of an address she gave at the 2015 annual meeting in Cleveland.

“Culture” is defined as a group with unique knowledge; cultural competency is applicable beyond racial and ethnic categories. Wong Smith noted a host of experiences and assumptions that may be bundled into one’s culture, using the metaphor of an iceberg to distinguish between overt markers (such as language, food, and holidays) and less obvious factors (such as body language, family roles, aesthetics, and self-concept). She offered a definition of cultural diversity competence: “The ability to function with awareness, knowledge, and interpersonal skill when engaging people of different backgrounds, assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors.” Cultural competency has a very real impact on archivists’ ability to do their jobs; for instance, archivists with public facing roles should be especially aware of how patrons (including infrequent users of archives) may interact with authority figures.

Wong Smith defined a continuum of cultural competency: destructiveness, incapacity, blindness, precompetency, competency, and proficiency. Becoming culturally competent is an ongoing process requiring proactive effort—including, crucially, conversation and consultation with individuals belonging to those cultures. She outlined five stages individuals and institutions pass through: self-reflection, personal competency, diversity-competent individuals, effective teamwork, and a culturally competent organization. She also cited cultural diversity competency skills: understanding culture as multilevel and multidimensional, understanding barriers to communication, practicing culturally centered communication, and designing and implementing organization-wide cultural competence.

During the chat following the formal presentation, Wong Smith solicited feedback on ways in which cultural competency training might be most effectively disseminated. (Despite expressions of interest, she suspects that cultural competency training, like ethics, could prove less popular that options like the DAS curriculum, particularly if fees were attached.) She expressed a hope that training as many individuals as possible, at the national and regional level, would result in a trickle-down effect, increasing archivists’ awareness of the need for cultural competency and the availability of training. Noting an aversion to hiring from within communities being served, Wong Smith cited Hawaiian institutions’ tendency to hire mainland professionals and academics, who often treat their positions as stepping-stones and depart after a few years.

She also addressed thorny organizational issues, including Council’s general lack of diversity and her decision to avoid highlighting subjects such as white privilege early in her advocacy efforts. Wong Smith remains conscious of the need to tailor her message to the audience, and that the road to cultural competency within the profession is a long one.

Megan Miller is the Digital Imaging Technician at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and a member of MARAC’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion.

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