Achieving Cultural Competency:

A conversation with Dr. Carol Bruson Day, CEO of The National Black Child Development Institute

When I received an email asking if I would be interested in interviewing Dr. Carol Brunson Day, president and chief executive officer of the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), I could not type, “Yes, I’d love to!” fast enough. Later, I marveled at the coincidence.

Within that same month, I attended a regular get together of women of color (including women with Latin, African, and Middle Eastern roots, to name a few) to talk about issues of race and culture. It just so happened, at that get together, a woman whom I consider a personal and professional mentor, spoke about an incident years ago when her then-elementary aged son, the only black child in his classroom, was made the subject of curious, unwanted attention when his well-meaning teacher brought in other teachers from down the hall to look at the unique design his barber had cut into his short, curly hair. As a fellow young mother and I left that gathering, we stopped in the parking lot to trade worries and tips about how we could help our African American sons’ teachers (now and in the future) value and respect the racial and cultural differences that exist in today’s classrooms and society at large.

So, you see, my interview with Dr. Day was meant to be. Dr. Day might say the same about her affiliation with NBCDI, an organization with the mission to “improve and advance the lives of Black children and their families through advocacy and education.”

Dr. Day became a member of the National Black Child Development Institute in 1970, the year of the organization’s founding, and within her first year out of graduate school. A teacher of young children, she made it a point to attend NBCDI’s annual conferences for the resources, perspectives, and networking that, over time, gave her the “courage of her convictions around the experience of black families.” After years attending NBCDI’s conferences, and volunteering through its Pasadena, CA and Montgomery County, MD local affiliates, Dr. Day took the helm of the organization whose mission and services are as important today as they ever were.

I asked Dr. Day four questions about cultural competency in the early childhood environment, a topic on which she will present at the 2nd International Infant and Toddler Conference this month in Tulsa. Her responses apply to parents, child care professionals, and other human services workers of all backgrounds.

Q: First, what is “cultural competency”?
A: In short, cultural competency is “an understanding that culture is a basic factor in the development of human beings,” Dr. Day said, “and bringing this understanding into your work to advance the lives of children and their families.”

Q: How does one learn cultural competency?
A: “You have to study,” Dr. Day explained. “You are not born with culture just by virtue of being a human and a cultural being. You have to be taught about it. Likewise, cultural competency can be learned through professional preparation programs, workplace workshops, and reading.”
However, cultural competence is not a skill that you learn in one sitting and it’s done. Developing cultural competency is a continuous journey, one that is well worth the effort. “Once we know how culture informs behavior,” Day said, “we become more adept at using culture to assist the development of others.”

Q: What can parents do to help teachers interact with their children in culturally competent ways?
A: First, “Parents should make it a practice to have conversations about culture within their families,” Dr. Day emphasized. “About how culture influences how we behave, about rules of culture that are not often evident, and about how you can’t discover culture alone — you have to have some mechanism.” (Day encourages family members to read about other cultures and their own culture.)

Therefore, “when incidents happen, the family is already used to talking about culture, values, beliefs, behaviors and language.”

Second, parents should invite their schools to also have these discussions. “Invite someone to speak at the school who is good at discussing culture,” Day suggested.

Q: Is it ever too soon to start talking with a child about cultural, racial, and ethnic differences?
A: “Kids notice skin differences as young as 2 or 3. That’s not a problem,” Day said. “The problem is that they are also noticing the different values that adults attach to these differences.” As role models in children’s lives, we want to help them see positive values in differences, not expect those differences to go away. We do this by talking with our children in age appropriate ways about values, and by watching ourselves and how we respond to things. For example, Dr. Day made a conscious effort to take her son to places where he would see black people in authority roles since, during his youth, those positive images were not commonplace.

“Compare it to if you want your children to treat older people with respect,” Day said. “You would have to take [your children] around them. Children will need to see older people in person, see them in charge, and experience time with them.” The learning process is the same for skin color, race, and language. “They may not understand, but make it a point.”

Finally, Dr. Day reminds us to be aware of our own biases so that we do not unintentionally teach them to our kids. “It’s about consciousness,” Day said. “[Prejudice] is in all of us. We have all been raised in this racist society. We all harbor negative attitudes that we aren’t aware of against different groups.” Yet, we can do something about it if we work together, as NBCDI members do, to “share best practices, frustrations, problems, and solutions to problems.”

“The world is rapidly changing for our children and there’s a lot of work out there to be done,” Day said, “but it’s not going to get done unless we do it.”

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