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Cultural Brokering: A promising way of building cultural competent community based organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Yali Pang
December 22, 2017

Community based organizations (CBOs) are agencies providing direct social services to people in their communities. As more and more programs and functions of governments are transferred to nonprofit sector, nonprofits, especially CBOs, are gatekeepers of local information for governments, and also “street-level bureaucracies” that directly deliver welfare services to needy communities, facilitating implementation and impacts of public policies. One of the biggest challenges facing CBOs today is providing appropriate, quality and ethnic support to their increasing culturally and linguistically diverse clients.

United States is a melting pot composited of a highly diverse population: 73.3 percent are White, 12.6 percent are African American, 5.2 percent are Asian and 8.9 percent are other races including two or more races. Of this population, about 13.3 percent are immigrants, reaching the peak in the past 94 years. The United Census Bureau predicts the immigrant share will continually increase. The increasing diversity of the population poses great challenges to CBOs because of the intersection of different identities such as races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, disabilities, social class and immigration and refugee status. The differences in clients’ understanding of welfare systems, perspectives on ways of receiving services, as well as the life experiences constructed by the interplay of these identities make it even more complex for CBOs to respond to their clients’ needs. As Del Castillo and Zakenski evidenced in their 2008 article services of some of the CBOs are demonstrated to be irrelevant and ineffective for immigrant client groups. The divergent needs of communities require CBOs to be highly cultural competent to be engaged in diversity, thus providing appropriate and effective services to clients of different culture backgrounds.

Cultural competence is a conceptual framework frequently adopted by professionals and agencies in social services to work effectively with clients originating from different cultural backgrounds. According to the National Association of Social Workers in 2015, cultural competence is “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.” Building a high level of cultural competence is a proven, effective way for organizations including CBOs to understand cultural differences and effectively respond to the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse clients.

Irrespective of widespread recognition of promising outcomes of cultural competence and proliferating discussions on ways of building and measuring cultural competence of individuals as well as organizations, there are challenges for individuals as well as agencies to actually achieve cultural competence in practice due to its incoherence and vagueness in concept and operations. The application of cultural competence in the organization level is even more challenging because of the complexity in effectively incorporating cultural diversity and difference into system, administration, services and practice. Our case study on two CBOs shows that even though organizations have integrated cultural components in their policies, organizational culture, management, training and daily activates, they are still struggling for providing right services to clients of different cultural backgrounds.

We argue that cultural brokering is a promising way of improving CBOs’ cultural competence based on the theoretical framework proposed by Cross and his colleagues in 1989. In this framework, five essential elements are identified to construct a culturally competent system: Valuing diversity, cultural self-assessment, dynamics of difference, institutionalization of cultural knowledge and adaptation to diversity. Cultural brokering is the “act of bridging, linking or mediating between groups or persons of differing cultural systems for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change.” Cultural brokering can improve CBOs’ cultural competence by bridging CBOs and clients in the communities they support.


Using a community service center that has adopted the cultural brokering initiative since 2009 as a case study, we explore how cultural brokering could improve the center’s cultural competence by interacting with the five essential elements discussed above. This center has five culturally and linguistically cultural brokers working with different communities. Results show that cultural brokers who are knowledgeable of their communities can help their organization recognize the diversity and differences of clients, and understand clients’ unique needs. As a “bridge” between organization and communities, cultural brokers bring diverse cultural perspectives to the organization and stay sensitive to the dynamics of the culture including conflicts and tensions in services, and thus help organization evaluate the effectiveness of the service system and adapt it to better support clients with distinct cultural backgrounds. Cultural brokers also serve as resources and support for other staff members in the center to make sure all services are delivered in a culturally appropriate way. By actively participating in the strategic plans, programs, activities and training in the organization, cultural brokers integrate cultural perspectives in every level of the service system. Staying attuned to the dynamics of culture through the cultural brokering initiative, the center successfully interacts with clients of different cultural backgrounds, and provide effective services to clients including Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian and other races.

While this study has found evidence on cultural brokering’ positive impacts on CBOs’ cultural competence, we are not clear how much cultural brokering could contribute to the cultural competence level of the organization, how cultural competence and cultural brokering interact with each other, and how organization could evolve to improve the positive outcomes. More research is needed to explore these topics in order to build a culturally competent social service system in the country with a highly diverse population.

Author: Yali Pang is a PhD student in Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and a 2017 Founders’ Fellow.

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