Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 4: Capability – Example 3


When I was one and half years old, my parents argued over how to feed my newly born brother. The argument turned violent and my father, consumed with anger, struck my mother and then myself in the head with a hammer. My mother woke up several hours later and managed to call the police. It took over ten days for me wake up from a comma after neurosurgery. My head injury and the resulting neurological condition became my first framing for my intelligence. In my early years of education, I was in special education classes. There was an assumption that my poor performance was a reflection of my ability, when in fact I disassociated throughout the school day and put little effort into my studies. I felt shame for my poor grades and still hold a deeply ingrained story that I am deficient – damaged and less intelligent than most other people. My experience in school, I believe, was amplified by my ethnic identity and social status. As the daughter of an African immigrant and then being raised by a single mother impacted how my capabilities were perceived and how I am treated throughout life. If I was a white child from a higher socio-economic status, I do believe that I would have been treated differently, perhaps with more compassion and hope.

I barely passed eighth grade, but when I got to high school I was exposed to new ways of learning. I began to understand my own learning style and I had mentors that fostered my self-confidence. My guidance counselor pulled me out of class after my first semester and said: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. There is no excuse for some of the poor grades you got. You are very bright so I don’t want to see any more poor grades.” I was shaken by the experience because I was now fully accountable to my performance and couldn’t hide behind my neurological condition or my suffering confidence. My guidance counselor took me out of special education classes, and his belief in me motivated me. I started to create my own tools to accommodate my learning differences. I would begin my work as soon as possible so I could make several drafts, I got a tutor in subjects that I struggled in, and I began to celebrate the things that came naturally to me. I began to apply myself, and with this incredible insight of my individual learning style and intelligence, I learned that I needed to engage multiple parts of myself: my physical body, creativity, and heart to process new ideas.

Understanding my own unique gifts began a pivotal journey that transformed how I viewed my intelligence and how I could leverage it to overcome perceived obstacles to my success. In high school, it was drama and the arts that activated my gifts and allowed me to build confidence. In college and beyond, movement, mindfulness and meditation remains a catalyst for deep self-learning and inner growth. I took a college accredited yoga and leadership course that required daily yoga and mindfulness practice as well as rigorous self-study. It was there that I became aware of my high levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that enables my ability to create and facilitate safe spaces for others.

Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences was key for my understanding that we all have different types of intelligence or strengths in particular areas. More confident now with the knowledge that I had my own areas of intelligence, I finally felt smart. What I call “emotional” and “group” intelligence correlate with Gardner’s  “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” intelligence. Cultivating my emotional and group intelligence continued to serve me as I began traveling abroad. Whether it was visiting the killing fields of Cambodia while studying the psychology of forgiveness, or serving as an HIV/AIDS capacity building volunteer in Botswana, living and working abroad awoke my consciousness around cultural difference and the value of emotional intelligence.

My intelligence is framed with far more self-love nowadays. I believe that every person has their own unique genius, particular gifts that only they can bring to this world. I still get rushes of frustration when things do not come as easily to me as they do to others, or if it is difficult for me to articulate my understanding through my writing, but I recognize that my ingrained ideas around my intelligence were created out of a deficit mentality. Focusing on our strengths stimulates our growth. My awareness about how my perceptions of my abilities have interfered with my success motivates me to celebrate the gifts and talents of others.

When I lived in Botswana, I met many students who were struggling academically not because of their intelligence, but because of the way in which they were being taught, mostly through rote learning. I created an expressive arts camp with a fellow volunteer that incorporated the arts in the teaching process for students from seven villages who had an interest in the arts and were having a difficult time academically. The camp engaged local artists and musicians and reflected the local culture. It was meant to be a full celebration of the students’ gifts. I will always seek to see the greatness in all people, to witness their capacity to push beyond the limits imposed on them by themselves or others.