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Thoughts About Commitment to Social Justice and Fostering Cultural Competence

Happiness is finding happiness in the happiness of others.

As Banks (2015) explains social justice, he emphasizes the importance of being reflective and moral in creating a democratic society where citizens are active contributors to a more human and just world. Banks also emphasizes the importance of teaching kids critiquing injustice in the world. Banks indicates that with the emphasis on high-stakes testing, educators and administrators had a narrow focus on basic academic skills to perform well in tests. For example, in literacy, there was a focus on mainly basic reading and writing skills but not on the knowledge and skills required to be effective citizens. However, the world’s greatest issues such as poverty, racism, and war mainly stem from ignorance and people ‘s lack of skills to collaborate and get along well with diverse communities to resolve problems. Therefore, cultural competence discussions in education are crucial to raising citizens who can contribute to social justice and world peace.

Gay (2002) describes culturally responsive teaching as using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively. Culturally responsive teachers help students to understand that knowledge has moral and political elements and consequences, which obligate them to take social action to promote freedom, equality, and justice for everyone.

When I think about cultural competence, I think of Nieto’s (2008) levels of multicultural education supports in education. They are monocultural, tolerance, acceptance, respect, and affirmation, solidarity, and critique levels. The level of affirmation, solidarity, and critique is where we are culturally competent to begin addressing social justice issues because this is the level where we do not avoid conflicts but we use it as an opportunity for learning. For more information about Nieto's levels of multicultural education, please visit THIS LINK.

One of the ways we can commit to social justice and cultural competence within our professional settings is by focusing on our own educational and professional improvements to become better professionals and leaders for our school communities. Education helps us to look at issues from broader and multiple perspectives. For example, looking at culture only from the perspectives of ethnicities, languages, or races will be limiting. There is more to it. People’s political views or characteristics are also part of their cultures. For example, during the adoption of new educational technology, we might judge the late adopters because of their reluctance to try something new. However, knowing Roger’s (2003) diffusion of innovation theory and the types of adopters, we will know that their lateness often comes from the need for hard evidence and it can be addressed by providing data and individual training. Not knowing their needs and characteristics and judging them would be an injustice. Or in another example, during the evaluation of a new intervention at school just focusing on outcomes but not the process can be an injustice to the efforts of participants and the needs of the school community because it might not take into account the unintended consequences of the intervention or unforeseeable barriers. If we have included a process evaluation we could actually get a chance to remove barriers and provide support to participants during implementation.

Banks (2015) emphasizes the importance of the total school environment by suggesting that all parts of the school and community should work together to provide a holistic approach to multicultural education. For example, having too much focus on academic issues and ignoring the development of students’ social-emotional growth is an injustice because by not providing necessary services for balanced IQ and EQ development, we then create an unhealthy learning environment leading to lack of respect, kindness, and empathy.

One of the major national and international social justice issues in education is the need to address the gender gap in STEM fields. I relate this issue to cultural competence as well. One possible solution could be the use of a transformative curriculum. According to Banks, a transformative curriculum is designed to empower students to help them develop the needed knowledge and skills to critically examine the world around them. For example, if we tell female students that our next topic will be irrigation, they might not be interested much. But if we start a discussion with different voices about helping those without water, female students might be more interested in the topic.

In summary, our overall goal should be creating a school community where the differences of people are recognized, everyone feels included, cultures are freely but respectfully critiqued, and our diversity is cherished through the aspects of the total school environment.

Teach the children. We don't matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin-flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb's quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. - Mary Oliver


Banks, J. A. (2015). The dimensions of multicultural education. In Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching (6th ed., pp. 3-22). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106-116. doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003

Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18-29). Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

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