Saturday, December 3, 2016

We all need some help with cultural competency these days, so here you go...

In one of my older blog posts, I came across an intercultural and interreligious resource that is now more timely than ever. The cultural competency guides, produced by Joe Grimm and the Michigan State University School of Journalism, are a series of informative books that each answer 100 common questions about a particular ethnic, cultural, or religious group.

The guides are each about 60 to 100 pages. Most Read the Spirit books are short, averaging between 80 and 200 pages. One benefit of this is it enables Read the Spirit writers and their publishing teams to get books out in a short time, and more of them—the cultural guides are each produced in a single semester by MSU School of Journalism students as their semester-long project assigned by their instructor Grimm. 

This quick response is very valuable in an era where people get inundated with new information and cultural changes at such a rapid rate that they need rapid-response educational commentary from credible sources to help them determine what these media and changes mean to them culturally, spiritually, socially, and morally.

There are four ethics Grimm’s students adhere to when writing and producing the guides, he said. The first is respect, for both the subject matter and the needs of readers seeking to understand how to live in a community with cultural groups different from their own.

The second ethic is accuracy: The student writers conduct interviews, refer to census records, published studies, and polls, and have their work vetted for accuracy by credible sources from the cultures they write about to assure their guides are accurate, concise, and practical.

The third ethic is authority, which is fulfilled by the vetting process each guide goes through, in the form of evaluation by experts from the culture or religion the guide is about.

The fourth ethic is accessibility: “Thanks to the digital stylings of [Read the Spirit co-founder] John Hile,” Grimm said, “these guides are made to come out simultaneously on paperback, on Nooks, Kindles, for iPads and as e-books.”

The focus is on distribution, not just selling. As Grimm pointed out, there’s no point writing a great guide if your distribution pool is too narrow to make much of a difference in society’s education. Since funding is critical for this, “if you can line up sponsors for a guide early, you’re guaranteed some kind of success,” he said. Grimm approached credit unions and cultural organizations, for example, to sponsor a few hundred copies of a guide each. Grimm also stated that audio editions of the guides are in the works.

The cultural competency series, which started in 2013, currently includes seven books, starting with 100 Questions & Answers about Indian Americans. The other books in the series cover Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, East Asian Cultures, and Hispanics & Latinos as immigrant groups. Even though Native Americans aren’t an immigrant group, they are as misunderstood as immigrant groups, so the team covered them too with 100 Questions & Answers About 50 Nations.

In 2014, one of Grimm’s colleagues persuaded him to produce a guide that was the reverse of the previous six. Whereas the audience for those is Americans who want to learn about people (particularly immigrants) from other cultures and religions in America, 100 Questions and Answers about Americans is written for immigrants to learn about us. Answered questions include what Americans mean when they say “How’s it going?,” how much do Americans study, how do you make American friends if you don’t know sports or popular culture, what is included in a date, and so on.

Deciding to branch out even further with their cultural competency series, in 2015 the MSU team tackled the task of creating a guide with answers to common questions about military veterans.

The cultural competency series books are available for purchase in paperback and digital formats on, and through Bulk and custom editions are available by contacting Joe Grimm.

In my next few posts, I’m embarking on a cultural literacy series of my own, so stay tuned for other highlights from my interfaith and intercultural encounters over the years, in the context of using what we can learn from such encounters to help combat the currently growing culture of misunderstandings and discrimination.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; marker, colored pencil, watercolor, metallic gel pen, flower petal

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