Intercultural Planning and Cultural Competency

This is a guest post by Ian Adelman, a graduate student in urban planning at Tufts University.

On April 6th I participated in the “Skill Building for the Intercultural Planner: A Cultural Competency Workshop for Policy and Planning Students” hosted by the Intercultural Practice Group (ICP) of Tufts’ Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Program. I want to share some of the teachings, learning and reflecting that happened at the event. But before I get to the content of the event I want to try to think through why I—and perhaps others—went to this event and why planners should be concerned with cultural competency.

I should disclose that I am a member of ICP, but I think my reasons for being a member of the group and attending the event are the same, and will treat them as such. As a soon-to-be-graduate of a planning department, I am going to be engaging in the protection, creation and transformation of community spaces—yet the communities I will work in are likely not places I will call home. Furthermore, my interest in confronting the destruction and dispossession created by our deeply flawed economic system will likely put me to work in communities of color where the dispossession and destruction has had disproportionate impacts. So as a white male, hailing from the suburbs, waiting for the ink to dry on my diploma, I come asking: How do I make sure I am part of the solution and not the problem?

I am confident that when I stand in solidarity with people of a particular race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity different from my own, I do so out of my resolute commitment to social, economic and political justice, not some misconstrued idea of liberal white guilt. Yet that does not mean that I always have the cultural competency to understand, work with and celebrate difference. So I participate in our intercultural competency group and I go to events like this skill building workshop to get better at recognizing and celebrating difference and to learn how to convince others to do the same.

So what did the skill-building workshop have to offer?

The first presentation was from Tufts UEP Professor Julian Agyeman on the lack of and need for explicit cultural competency education in planning schools. He argued that planners need more than just good facilitation skills; there is more to be done in the intercultural city than just making sure all groups are represented in public processes.  Indeed, thinking about “the public” is limiting; instead, planners should consider how “multiple publics” can be recognized and accommodated.  We also need to understand how culturally competent planning is good planning for all and how embracing difference can lead to more equitable and livable communities. For those interested, Dr. Agyeman and recent UEP alum Jenn Erickson (a founding member of ICP) have just published a paper on this topic in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, “Culture, Recognition, and the Negotiation of Difference: Some Thoughts on Cultural Competency in Planning Education.”

Dr. Agyeman’s presentation was followed by a bystander awareness workshop with Maureen Scully from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Dr. Scully led us through some examples and role-play to improve our actual interpersonal skills with regard to cultural competency. How do you react when someone says something degrading or insulting? To remain as a silent bystander can be even more devastating for the victim and serves to reinforce or accept degrading norms. Instead, we learned how to be active bystanders by first creating space in the conversation with a simple comment like “ouch,” and then becoming that victim’s ally by addressing the comment.

Next was a spatial justice workshop from the Design Studio 4 Social Intervention. Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine led us through a discussion of a framework they use for understanding rights to spatial justice: Spatial Claims – the right to be and become; Spatial Power – the right to thrive and express; and Spatial Links – the right to access and connect (a paper on this can be found on ds4si’s Website).  A participant brought up how Fenway Park is often presented in the media with images of white fans only, which reduces the spatial claims that non-white baseball fans may make on the space and is compounded by historical segregation enforced by Red Sox owners and common in the city of Boston.

The day ended with a presentation from Tufts’ urban sociologist Ryan Centner. He provided us with a case study of the transformation of a neighborhood in Buenos Aires comprised of residents with varying social, cultural, legal and spatial claims on the neighborhood. Dr. Centner described this as a situation of multiple positions of knowing and trajectories of experience.  All residents of a community have their own histories with and understandings of those spaces; these multiple viewpoints and experience in a space over time represent interests that must be acknowledged and balanced during phases of redevelopment or gentrification.

For me, the seemingly disparate presentations were unified by the need for an explicit link between social and physical spaces. Physical spaces are envisioned and planned in social spaces through dialogue, debate, and listening. Without the use of interpersonal skills that recognize and celebrate difference the social spaces would be closed off to many, thus limiting the potential for our physical spaces. But as Dr. Agyeman pointed out, we need more than just good facilitation for intercultural planning. We need the cultural competency to understand how physical spaces are experienced socially—among friends, family, neighbors or strangers. The discussion about spatial justice surfaced the idea that social norms can be reaffirmed, created or destroyed by how we use our physical spaces. The flip side is also true, physical spaces themselves can affirm, create or destroy social norms.

No single workshop intends to anoint a group of planners “culturally competent,” but it was an opportunity to think about what skills for intercultural planning we need and why the skills are important.