Cultural Communities: Small Considerations Equal Big Benefits

Culture profoundly affects human behavior. Disasters also profoundly affect human behavior. From the beginning stages of a crisis situation – planning and preparations through execution of operations – emergency management decision makers from government agencies and private sector organizations must be able to view their jurisdictions through various cultural lenses.

Simply put, people are who they are as the result of their culture or system of values, beliefs, behaviors, and norms that provide a worldview shared with others who are similar to them within society. Through this cultural lens, people perceive and interpret the world around them. Programs such as the U.S. Army Cadet Leadership Course integrate cultural awareness into its curriculum. This lens is used on a daily basis to make decisions. In many cases, this occurs in a normal and routine manner to determine the appropriate actions and responses – both individually and collectively as a society – to common events. Although this is an important, yet often overlooked aspect of daily life, it is in the aftermath of a crisis, disaster, or emergency when culture can have the biggest impact. However, the immediacy and confusion of emergency management situations rarely offer emergency managers the time or ability to consider the effect that culture ultimately may have on the effectiveness and outcome of response efforts.

The Cultural Competency Continuum

“Cultural competency” within emergency management organizations refers to a requisite level of sophisticated interactions with diverse populations and cultural communities. Therefore, these organizations should recognize the significance of and, if possible, help to facilitate the cultural understanding of its members to employ culturally competent actions to assist the affected cultural community in the aftermath of a crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cultural competence refers to “a set of values, behaviors, attitudes, and practices that enables an organization or individual to work effectively across cultures.” When incorporated in planning mechanisms from the onset, such an approach can have a huge impact on situational outcomes when these organizations understand the range of effects culture has on organizations and their members.

As the first step in the process of building cultural competence within an organization, it is important for both the collective body as well as individual members to understand the “five principles of cultural proficiency,” as defined in the publication, The Culturally Proficient School: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders (2005):

  • Culture is the predominant force in people’s lives.

  • The dominant culture serves people in various ways.

  • People have both personal identities and group identities.

  • Diversity within cultures can be vast and significant.

  • Each individual and each group has unique cultural values and needs.

The second important concept concerning cultural understanding is that cultural competence/proficiency can best be illustrated by the use of the “Cultural Proficiency Continuum.” This continuum contains six degrees or levels that progress from left to right toward ever-increasing ability within the cultural realm to the ultimate goal of cultural proficiency. 

  • Cultural destructiveness is the level that is furthest from the ideal and is the tendency to negate, disparage, or counteract cultures other than one’s own culture. 

  • Cultural incapacity can be seen as less sinister, with the propensity to elevate the superiority of one’s cultural values and beliefs while either knowingly or unknowingly suppressing the culture of others. 

  • Cultural blindness is important because it is seen by many (especially within the government realm), as a reliable standard of fairness or equality, which tends to produce an environment where cultural differences are not only not recognized, but are actually seen as not existing or not having any effect on society.

  • Cultural pre-competence begins when the differences in culture are recognized and there is at least some realization that the lack of cultural knowledge, understanding, and experience can actually limit one’s ability. 

  • Cultural competence is achieved when individuals and organizations begin to employ behavior and practices that recognize cultural differences in ways that begin to enhance and optimize performance. 

  • Cultural proficiency is the final level on the continuum and entails “honoring the differences among cultures, seeing diversity as a benefit, and interacting knowledgeably and respectfully among a variety of cultural groups” (quoted from The Culturally Proficient School: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders).

Ideally, cultural proficiency is the state or condition that officials involved in emergency management would strive to achieve in dealing with different communities. The cultural continuum concept also serves as a balance scale, or seesaw, with a corresponding middle or “tipping point,” where individuals and organizations begin to emerge from cultural blindness into cultural pre-competence, thus realizing the benefits of considering these communities within emergency management.

Starting From Here & Now – Taking Stock

In many ways, the key factor in reaching the cultural tipping point begins with a necessary evaluation of one’s own individual or organizational cultural environment in comparison with the culture of the target community or individual. In many cases, emergency management organizations come from a paramilitary or pragmatic emergency response culture, so it is useful to understand some of the differences between such cultures and more traditional civilian cultures. Such comparisons are outlined in Table 1, which was presented by the author in a previous work, entitled “Cultural considerations in consequence management and emergency response.” Interestingly, these concepts have been incorporated into various training programs targeted at military members preparing for overseas deployment to other cultural communities, but are equally applicable to many U.S. domestic cultural communities.

Table 1: Cultural Comparison of Communities 

Types of Cultural Communities

There are many different types of cultural communities – largely determined by the geographical, demographic, and political environment within organizations’ jurisdictional areas and operational space – that emergency management organizations may need to consider and ultimately will have to interact with. In addition, smaller subcommunities may exist within larger overarching cultural communities. One of the first steps in effectively dealing with diverse communities is to conduct a thorough inventory and analysis of the cultural landscape within a jurisdiction to identify significant factors, which include but are not limited to the following considerations:

  • Ethnic and immigrant groupings;

  • Separate racial minorities and groups;

  • Religious belief communities;

  • Language communities and groups;

  • Education level and literacy;

  • Gender considerations (i.e., women and children with no accompanying male family member);

  • Age considerations (specific age-related communities such as senior citizens); and

  • Socioeconomic groupings (e.g., areas of poverty, working poor).

Danger & Opportunity

Arlene Silva and Mary Beth Klotz with the National Association of School Psychologists stated in a 2006 article that, “the Chinese word for crisis comprises two symbols: wei, which means danger, and ji, which means opportunity.” Considering cultural communities in emergency management planning in the wake of a natural or manmade disaster or even a terrorist incident presents both. Silva and Klotz further described that the way in which individuals, organizations, and communities “respond to a crisis dictates in great measure the degree to which risk is transformed into opportunity.”

The first step is to understand the risk presented by not considering cultural communities in the process of planning, training, and operations. Once this risk is realized, emergency management organizations can begin to mitigate and eliminate the risk by building programs and incorporating cultural communities into their everyday efforts and interactions, as well as into their planning and crisis response operations. Unlike stockpiling massive amounts of supplies or purchasing rescue equipment, this may take very little commitment of physical resources. Instead it requires awareness and a change in thinking when it comes to culture.

When considering cultural communities within an emergency management context, current research and practice is in its infancy and more rigorous and expansive study, as well as refined standards and best practices, are needed when it comes to cultural communities. However, emergency management response organizations simply cannot wait to begin to incorporate at least basic understanding and considerations of cultural communities into their organization planning models. This is ultimately when the risk begins to transform into opportunity.

For more information about cultural considerations, read:

Bergeron, W. P. (2012). Cultural considerations in consequence management and emergency response. In D. Čaleta & P. Shemella, editors, Managing the Consequences of Terrorist Acts – Efficiency and Coordination Challenges. Ljubljana, Slovenia: Institute for Cooperative Security Studies, 29-37.

Lindsey, R. B., Roberts, L. M., CampbellJones, F. L. (2004). The Culturally Proficient School: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wayne Bergeron
Dr. Wayne P. Bergeron, lieutenant colonel (retired), served in the United States Army for 23 years within the Military Police Corps and Special Operations Forces. He currently serves as an associate professor teaching criminal justice and security as well as emergency management. He is the founding director of the North Alabama Public Service Training Center at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, providing continuing education and training to the region’s law enforcement, fire/rescue, emergency medical services, and emergency management communities. His education includes undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and political science, a master’s degree in international relations, and a doctorate in emergency management.



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