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Moving from Diversity to Cultural Competence in Public Affairs and Administration Programs

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

By Brandi Blessett
April 1, 2016

This semester, I have the pleasure to teach an urban social justice course to students in the Master’s of Public Administration and Doctoral of Public Affairs program at Rutgers University, Camden. The course was developed in response to the social unrest that swept across the country as a reaction to police brutality and the resultant #BlackLivesMatter movement. Talking with colleagues about the events that transpired led to the development of several journal symposia, conference panels and courses (where possible) on topics related to social justice. The different outlets afforded researchers an opportunity to meaningfully engage with various audiences about the need for critical conversations in the discipline and classroom about injustice, inequity and the ever-present disparity that exists throughout society.

blesset 1Serendipitously, there were a number of on-campus (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter panel and Breaking the Color Barrier discussion) and off-campus (e.g. Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime performance, this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Donald Trump’s campaign and subsequent protests) events that have stimulated very insightful discussions in my classroom and across the college campus. Overwhelmingly, students of color have vocalized a need to have a space where they can contemplate, debate and make sense of real-world issues without feeling threatened or dismissed by administrators, professors or fellow classmates. These concerns are important and should be appreciated as a different way to understand and explore issues related to justice and democracy. Additionally, these are valuable spaces for white students, as well, because they open the door for exposure to alternative perspectives where those ideals can be interrogated in non-threatening ways.

While progress has been made toward diverse representation of faculty and students on some college campuses, more still needs to be done. Next steps to empower faculty and students of color to have difficult conversations may occur through the incorporation of cultural competence requirements throughout program curricula. Additionally, the use of critical readings or experiential service projects may combat normative discussions typical of public administration courses.

A focus on practice, protocol and policy absent of history and context and devoid of racial and ethnic real-world experiences undermine the lived realities of those groups. Although these conversations are uncomfortable, they are still necessary in a world where political rhetoric and disparaging imagery against racial and ethnic minorities remains a polarizing force. Furthermore, the lived experiences of racial and ethnic minorities are real and their respective voices should be acknowledged as an authority in their own right.

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Public administration, like many allied professional disciplines, has a responsibility to be responsive to and reflective of the larger population. Such discussions have been ongoing in the field for decades and are as imperative as ever due to the diversity represented throughout society. The updated NASPAA accreditation standards sought to promote and hold programs accountable for increasing and retaining diverse faculty and student populations, while also preparing students to interact and engage with diverse populations. Furthermore, the accreditation process mandates that public administration and affairs programs offer evidence that demonstrates good faith efforts to meaningfully incorporate diversity into all aspects of program management and course delivery.

Mandates from the accrediting body is a great first step. However, the real challenge becomes ensuring programs meaningfully sustain such requirements well after accreditation has been achieved. In other words, with relative ease programs can demonstrate an effort to recruit and retain faculty or align a few course objectives to show student competencies around diversity and inclusion. But this does not ensure students of color feel supported in their respective academic programs. For example, if faculty do not truly value critical perspectives, introducing such readings into a classroom can be more damaging than helpful, especially when professors grossly misrepresent ideas based on their own lack of knowledge or ignorance. These experiences, and they happen more than people are willing to admit, leave lasting impressions on students. Therefore, while the sheer presence of faculty and students of color affords programs to check a diversity box, administrators, faculty and peers alike can still marginalize the concerns, interests and voices of students of color in hurtful and impactful ways.

Developing cultural competence requires constant learning and it is not a skill gained overnight. Realistically, it is not a skill one can ever master. Faculty in public administration and affairs programs must be willing to commit themselves to such a life-long journey. Shulman recognizes that the “pedagogical imperative” in excellent teaching is not simply a matter of knowing the latest techniques and technologies, but entails an ethical and moral commitment to recognize the consequences your work has with students.

Programs and faculty must find ways to be more responsive and accountable to the needs of students of color. Academia is rooted in the Eurocentric, heteronormative perspectives about life and society but the diversity present in society requires programs to rethink course offerings and faculty preparation to ensure students from diverse backgrounds have a space where their voices are heard and their experiences are valued. Public administration programs in the 21st century ought to embrace this pedagogical imperative by digging deep, not just staying at the surface.

Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include: cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility, and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].

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