I was first introduced to the Learning Community when I started my job in Refugee Resettlement. My supervisor invited me to the meeting: I was in awe and still am at the catered breakfast spread, and also the university tower that it was held in, overlooking the city. I grabbed a heaping plate of spicy potatoes, scrambled eggs sprinkled with herbs and a cinnamon role, coffee and fruit on the side. There were about 30 or more people in the room, and we all went around and introduced ourselves, and which organization in the metro we worked for. Most everyone was coming from different nonprofit fields, and together in the room it felt like we were covering a good amount of the social justice issues in the world. I loved that feel. And I loved what came next more.
Soon, we were diving into (what I thought were) pretty deep and sometimes radical social theory and practice. It seemed to be the place were academics and activists merged into one, guiding ideas and action into step. Here was a room of like minded people, with the radical notion that all cultures and peoples should be respected. I was hooked.
The Learning Community is an ongoing project created by the Kansas City Cultural Competency Initiative. The goal of cultural competency is an ongoing effort to increase one’s ability to understand, interact and appreciate people from other cultures and/or belief systems besides their own. The Learning Community was a space for this.
Each month I went, there was a different topic covered, and a different guest speaker from the community. We learned about Islam, we learning about domestic violence, we learned about speech impediments and disabilities, we learned about language barriers, we learned about race relations and we learned methods for how to create real structural change within organizations to allow for greater acceptance of diverse communities.
In addition to the Learning Community last year, my refugee resettlement job opened new doors for me and it soon became apparent that lectures were helpful, but jumping in and learning culture as you interacted with people was just as important.
I learned soon enough that sometimes you’ve just got to throw yourself into the unknown to really get a feel for who you are, what the people of the world consist of and how you are more alike than similar. I smiled and shook hands with all the refugees and immigrants that walked through the doors at the refugee resettlement agency. I said hello and asked them how their day was, even if they didn’t speak English. I tried to look deeply into everyone’s eyes that I met, and see the pure human inside.
As volunteer coordinator directing the Refugee mentor program, I was able to give this same chance to develop cultural competency to the Kansas City community. So many volunteers walked into my office who I shook hands with and got to know, and then accompanied them to refugee family’s homes where I introduced the new friends from completely different backgrounds. Through it all, there was a lot of difficulties, a lot of misunderstandings, frustration and sometimes pain, but there was also an overwhelming feeling of hope, laughter, progress and empowerment- for the volunteers, for the refugee families, and for me.
Every time I came back from a “mentor match,” I would feel like I had quietly fallen in love with the beauty and complexity of humanity.
I learned last year that cultural competency is not something that you ever “achieve,” but is something you strive to learn, appreciate and grow from daily. I learned that I am full of shortcomings, but that I also had immense confidence I didn’t know I possessed. I learned I couldn’t fix anyone’s big life problems- I could only give them a friend that I hoped was good for them. I learned that a smile, as cheesy as it sounds, is worth a million dollars. But it also can’t feed a family.
I was going to sit in the university tower of the Learning Community next week: eating the catered breakfast of eggs, potatoes, hot sauce and unlimited coffee. I was going to stare around at all the city’s biggest activist and nonprofit hot shots who are taking time out of their busy workday to learn about cultural competency. Instead I will be serving eggs and coffee food at a cafe downtown at my new job.
I must make peace with the fact that I am an hourly working person again, and can’t afford the luxury of ivory towers and hot sauce. But I need to remember that I can always pursue cultural competency. And that I matter, regardless. And the people around me matter, regardless.
This week starting at my new job, I am going to try to treat it like the Learning Community, like the Mentor Program, like my mission in life to learn about the people of the world, discounting none but also not taking any shit. I am going to take every opportunity I get to meet people, to understand people, and to write about people. And maybe even to learn and write about myself in the process.