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Personal Reflections on Intercultural Competence

This blog is next in a series of blogs that aim to share with its readers a bit about our journey as the Foundation engages in a human-centered design process to update our funding priorities.

As a key part of our Design Thinking work, the Foundation staff completed The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®)  which assesses intercultural competence—the capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities. We spent a day recently with consultant and trainer Beth Zemsky to untangle and better understand the findings of our individual and organizational IDI profiles. Below are the reflections of two of our staff regarding that experience and the journey ahead.

Emma Olson, VISTA Leader

Emma OlsonAs a young woman of color who seeks to make social change and reduce systemic inequities, much of why I choose to do this work is related to my identity. Or rather, the complicated and powerful ways my different identities flow with each other and inform my life experiences. Each of us has a reason for why we are called to do this work and this is often a reflection of our identities, communities, and cultural experiences.

As the Foundation sets out on a Human Centered Design approach to our strategic planning, we decided to take a moment to reflect on ourselves, as well as the cultures and identities we bring to this work.

Many in this sector are familiar with the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). Created as a tool to measure one’s capacity for intercultural fluency, the Foundation believes it is important for us as staff to examine our own experiences and be critical of our limits. It was an opportunity for us to deeply reflect, both as individuals and as a group, on our different cultures and how they impact the work we seek to do and the change we seek to make. In order to be a more equitable and inclusive organization, we must hold space for each other to wrestle with all of our identities, both privileged and oppressed, and this is one of the ways we have decided to do so.

Following the assessment, we had a full day workshop which provided insights into the IDI model and the various stages of intercultural development along the continuum. While understanding the model is foundational, what I appreciated about this day was sharing and listening to each other’s experiences and perspectives. This was an opportunity for me to be vulnerable with the rest of the staff about my identities, an opportunity few are allowed in a professional setting.

Often when we talk about the inequities that exist in the world, it is from a systemic lens.  Yet so much of the work we each need to do is on an individual level. We are individuals who are called to do this work for a reason. We know that there is injustice in the world, and we seek to make the world a just place. In order to do so, that internal work is critical. When we are better able to relate to and understand the realities of one another, equity and change can follow.


Patrick Troska, Executive Director

Patrick TroskaI’m a white middle class male.  I grew up in a small rural farming community in Northwestern Minnesota.  My first memory of “difference” was being Catholic in a largely Norwegian Protestant community.  My friends thought me odd for not eating meat on Friday, confessing my sins to a priest rather than going directly to God, and worshipping Mary.  I thought they were heathens who were going straight to hell.  As a child, I found the occasional foreign exchange student from such far-off places as Brazil or France to be rather “exotic”.  Of course, when we hit the playground, none of these difference seemed to matter.

As a result, I never spent much time thinking about my own culture. Everything I knew around me was just the way things were supposed to be, and it seemed everyone just accepted it without question. Of course there was the occasional bully, picking on people’s looks or their smarts or their propensity for wild hairstyles or a dubious taste in music. It all seemed to go with the territory and was par for the course in growing up.

As I entered my teen years, I became increasingly aware that I was different than my classmates.  My attraction to other boys, including our basketball coach, left me feeling increasingly “other”. I remember reading the book “Scruples” by Judith Krantz, and being fascinated by the closeted gay character and the glamorous life of New York City.  Were there other people out there like me who were living such exciting lives? At 14, I knew there was no real way to find out for sure that wouldn’t put me in serious danger. Thus set in motion years of trying to fit in; to ignore what I knew to be true at my core in favor of sheer survival.

When I hit my college campus, I was exposed to so many new things, that “other” no longer felt so threatening. Those four years set the stage for life long exploration and a deep desire to know myself and not compromise on being my true self. It is because of this lived experience that I have an appetite for learning more about others, about connecting authentically in ways that allow us to expose and explore even more about ourselves.

The IDI is a tool that measures our intercultural competence, and then provides a development plan that offers ways to increase competency. What excites me about the possibilities with this new found information is that it provides insight into the lens I bring into intercultural interactions and the mindfulness necessary to engage authentically.  Over the years I have had many opportunities to engage with people and communities different than my own both professionally and personally. Sometimes I have fumbled around rather awkwardly and uncomfortably, while other times the interactions have felt effortless and reciprocal.  This duality has always unnerved me and now I have a deeper understanding of why, along with ways to hold this discomfort and engage in the complexity.

As we move through this human centered design process to arrive at a bolder set of funding strategies, we will be working more closely with folks very unlike me.  Our consultants, Creative Catalysts, have designed a process and a set of learning opportunities that will make me and my team uncomfortable at times while we engage at a level not often experienced by foundations. From these experiences, great learning should occur that will further develop my cultural competence.  The opportunity both excites and frightens me.

Phillips Family Foundation

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