In this episode of As In Heaven, hosts Jim Davis and Mike Aitcheson welcome Denine Blevins to the podcast to discuss the importance of cultural competency, both at the individual and also the organizational level. Blevins also shares how cultural competency within Christian organizations must be different and distinct from the boilerplate secular diversity training in other workplaces. Blevins draws out some best practices in leading your organization into greater cultural competency so that you don’t undermine your organization’s core mission.
- An introduction to Denine Blevins (0:58)
- Parakaleo (4:18)
- How Parakaleo came to be (8:45)
- Moments that shape the organizational competency of Parakeleo (11:36)
- The Office and cultural competency (20:13)
- How to know your organization is ready for cultural conversations (26:09)
- How to help your organization grow in cultural competency (29:04)
- Landmines for organizations looking to grow in cultural competency (37:03)
- God’s character revealed in the process (38:57)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of race.
- How can organizational systems include or exclude certain people or cultures? What are examples of organizational systems that could work to include or exclude?
- Think of your church or workplace. Whom do your organizational systems currently primarily cater to? Whom do they possibly exclude?
- How do secular answers to cultural difference and preference in organizational systems fail? How does the Christian response offer a better answer?
- Why is cultural competency important for organizational leadership? What steps can your organization take to grow in this?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Denine Blevins: When cultural competence is lacking, there’s no real trust and authenticity in relationships because we end up making a lot of assumptions about the very people that we claim to love.
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to As In Heaven, a Christian conversation on race and justice. In this episode, we welcome Denine Blevins to discuss the importance of cultural competence, both at the individual and the organizational level. Denine thoroughly defines these terms and also shares how cultural competency within Christian organizations must be different and distinct from just the boiler plate secular diversity training that you find in the average workplace. Jim Davis and Mike Aitcheson are your hosts. Mike Graham is the executive producer. My name is Matt and I’m the technical producer. And now please enjoy this episode of As In Heaven with Denine Blevins.
Jim Davis: Welcome to As In Heaven season two, my name is Jim Davis. I am your host. My co-host today is Mike Aitcheson. Big Mike over there, and we are going to talk today about leading organizational cultural competency. And we have the privilege of talking with Denine Blevins. Denine is the executive director of Parakaleo. So I’m really excited to dive into that in a little bit. My wife is in Parakaleo, Mike’s wife is in Parakaleo. In the past, you’ve brought your exact execution minded focus to ministries, like substance abuse, recovery home for women, launching a dance team for kids experiencing poverty. And this next one is very interesting to me, replanting a cross-cultural bilingual church in Manhattan, and now you’ve gone from Manhattan, you’re living with your husband, Robert and Huntsville, Alabama. You like hip hop dance. You like listening to podcasts. We’re thankful for that. And you are passionate about helping women remember their gospel identity. Denine, thank you so much for joining us today.
Denine Blevins: Thank you so much for having me here today.
Jim Davis: So we wanted to have Denine on this show because of her dual expertise in both organizational leadership and her deep biblical understanding of the complexities of the conversation on racial justice. That is actually a rare combination to find both of these traits. And so this season really isn’t complete if we don’t have a conversation about organizational leadership and cultural competency. Listen, I lead a church, we’re leading through this change. We’re wanting to grow. Mike is doing the same in Orlando. We’re kind of the Mecca of para-church organizations. And I know leaders in all these major institutions, they want to grow, they’re looking to help their people grow in these areas. And man, if this year has taught us anything, it’s there can be very different ways that we all see one thing transpire on TV or wherever, and the way that we process those events.
And often the way we process those events going to be divided down racial lines. So the good news as we’ve seen over the course of this season is where we find chasms, there really is an opportunity there to listen, to learn, to empathize, to build bridges. And for those who find ourselves, especially in churches and ministries, the main challenge is how do we grow and to help our people grow in our cultural competency so that we don’t undermine the very mission that we’re called to be fruitful in. So this is the big question. That’s what we want to address today in this episode. But before we dive right in the deep end, I would love to hear a little bit more of your story. So can you tell us a little bit about your church background?
Denine Blevins: Yes, absolutely. So I am originally from New York City. I became a Christian later in life in my late 20s and started off living… I ended up moving to North Carolina and started attending just a solid grace rooted Bible believing church. And that church was committed to crossing socioeconomic and also racial barriers for the purpose of authentic relationships. What was unique about that experience is that it was a predominantly white church. And for me having grown up in predominantly white settings as a child, and then go into a historically black college you know in university, I had sort of said to myself, I never wanted to be in a position again where I was one of the only minorities. So God really had a sense of humor bringing me to this church, but I really loved it and learned so much from that experience and was actually able to speak into some of the conversations leading cultural change at that church.
So from there, I ended up becoming a missionary in the Dominican Republic. I was on a team where I was one of two Americans. I was the only black American and leading with Dominican’s. My leader was Dominican, all of my teammates were. And so it was a different dynamic to surrender and submit to that leadership there. And what was unique about the church that I attended is that they had a commitment to crossing racial bounds between Dominicans and Haitians. And so that was very similar to the story of black and white and the United States, obviously with a different history and implications. And they were also committed to socioeconomic diversity as well.
So from then I ended up moving back to New York City, moved to a community called Washington Heights, which if you know of anything about this neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, it’s a very diverse community, about 70% Hispanic, mostly Spanish speaking, 20% white and 10% Asian and African-American, and I was a part of a church replant there of, as you said, planning restarting a church that would cross both socioeconomic, but also racial lines and also language. So bilingual multi-generational church. And in this community, there was the street of Broadway just went right through the community and so on the west side of Broadway were more of the upper class, wealthier residents and in the east side were the lower income, mostly Spanish speaking. And so our church was specifically to bridge that divide. So, that’s a little bit about my church context.
Mike Aitcheson: All right. Denine, they thank you for sharing that. Can you tell us a little bit more about Parakaleo and what your role is there?
Denine Blevins: Sure, absolutely. So Parakaleo, which means coming alongside in the Greek was started by two women to… and I believe the ministry was started to address an issue of injustice. And I would say that’s the lack of training and support for women who carry a lot of the relational and the practical burden of church planning, but without any of the equipping that our brothers tend to have. So it was women who were playing supportive roles. Usually, elders and deacons are a part of a supportive community where they encourage one another and they get training where women are just kind of thrown into the fire and were expected to thrive under the weight of relational conflict, a lot of transition and ambiguity. So Parakaleo was set up to address that disparity. So we provide training in gospel identity. And so we facilitate these training spaces for women and safe, supportive groups for them to process life together.
So while Parakaleo primarily serves wives, when I went into the training, I was a single woman at the time. Replanting that church in uptown Manhattan, and it was really a lifeline for me. So like many organizations, the founders started off very organically with who was around them in the context that they were in. And that happened to be predominantly white obviously with many exceptions. Later on the doors open for them to go overseas and to encourage women to shape the training for that particular cultural context. And so Parakaleo is now in about 12 different countries.
Our material has been translated into several languages and as we grow, we’ve been considering not only how to serve diverse women, but make sure that they have a culture shaping influence organization-wide. In March of this year, I became the executive director right around the time of the pandemic. And a month later we faced the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and George Floyd being killed and all of the protests and the conversations that came out of that. And then of course, we just are kind of still in the middle of a contentious election cycle. And so that’s the context where I, as an African-American woman ended up leading an all white organization. So it’s been an interesting year brothers.
Jim Davis: Well, I mentioned it at the beginning, Parakaleo is such a blessing to my wife, to Mike’s wife. If there are any pastors out there listening, and you don’t know what Parakaleo is Google it, you want your wife in this. If you’re a pastor’s wife listening, Google it. If you’re a leader in your church, make sure you pay for it for your pastor’s wife. It is a real blessing.
Denine Blevins: And also for other women in ministry as well. Not just wives, but other women as well.
Jim Davis: That’s a great point. Yeah, because it started, I think was a church planters wife, and then we have some CEOs of major ministries here whose wives are in it in Orlando. It is such a blessing. So we know about your work with Parakaleo, we know from that and from your colleagues at City to City, that you have a history of being a bridge builder in these spaces and helping them grow in the area of cultural competency. So I would just love to know how is it that you came to embrace this particular stewardship?
Denine Blevins: So a lot of it was really through my own growth and cultural competency. I’ve always been passionate about this issue. When I first became a believer and heard that 11 o’clock Sunday morning was one of the most racially divided times in our society, I thought, “That can’t be right. How can it be possible that this gospel that has the power to reconcile the enemies of God with himself, doesn’t have the power to reconcile equal image bearers.” It’s always been a passion of mine, but it crystallized for me in the Dominican Republic specifically about my own cultural understanding. So the D.R. is a Spanish speaking country in the Caribbean. I was one of two Americans on that team. I was the only black American. My leaders and my teammates were all Dominican.
I began to notice that with some of the interactions with white American missionaries from other organizations, there was almost this air of superiority. This idea that white Americans knew how to do things the proper way and Dominicans were there to execute, but not necessarily to lead. And so from my perspective, as an African-American, I really related to what my Dominican brothers and sisters felt about that. And they would oftentimes share their frustrations and concerns with me. And so I thought that because I’m a black woman and have that shared history that I got it, that I could identify with them. Little did I know that I was actually doing some of the same things to my Dominican brothers and sisters.
I remember I had a conversation, it was really an argument with one of my teammates who was probably about 10 years younger than me, but he came to me and said, “You think you know my people, you don’t know my people. You haven’t even lived here enough to understand our culture.” And he was right. I realized that I had been trying to give advice for situations that they really didn’t want my advice about, or I’ve been making assumptions that just weren’t true. And so, because I wasn’t fluent in the language at the time, it forced me to shut up, to listen, to observe and to learn, and to gain credibility through relationship, through trust, and through understanding. And so what that taught me about cultural competence is that when that is lacking, there’s no real trust and authenticity in relationships because we end up making a lot of assumptions about the very people that we claim to love.
Mike Aitcheson: Denine, that is so on point. There are very few things in life that can be accomplished without having deep, authentic, and sincere relationships. And especially in a time where cultural competency is so critical, relationships are paramount so thank you for that. Is there a moment or two that was really formative for you that really catalyzed a desire to help in organizational competency?
Denine Blevins: Yeah. I actually want to talk about two specific examples and I’ll just get real practical there. But before that just so that listeners understand what I mean when I’m talking about culture and cultural competence. So I’m looking at culture as the unspoken way that things are done by a particular group. There’s a shared understanding without ever really talking about it, perhaps, or even knowing that it exists. Usually, it’s the people on the outside of the culture who see those distinctions. But even though no one talks about it explicitly, you know when someone’s breaking the rules. So this is kind of a simple example from the Dominican Republic, and I’m speaking in generalities here, but Americans tend to have more of an individual mindset where Dominican’s tend to have more of a collective mindset. And so I would buy a bag of chips, for example, and my Dominican teammates would reach for my bag to get chips.
And in the beginning I thought, how rude, how disrespectful, but I had to learn that that was part of the collective nature of my friends. And so if culture is the unspoken way that things are done, I would say that cultural competence or agility and I’m using that interchangeably would be the ability to adapt to different cultural contexts and relate to its members with humility and curiosity rather than blindness, assumptions, or judgment. So in my simple example there at first I would label my teammates as disrespectful, but then I started realizing that’s just part of the makeup of their culture. They share the things that they have and so cultural competence, which changed my mind, but then it changed my accent actions to when I bought a bag of chips, I knew I was only going to get two or three of those chips.
I would automatically open it, pass it around and get whatever was left. So regarding the question of organizational cultural competence, Oh, so one thing I’ll just mention real quick, I would say that we can’t be culturally competent and agile, particularly in the US without understanding racism. In the first episode of this podcast, Dr. Crawford Loritts define racism as a particular form of partiality that disfavors a particular racial group. Now, some would say and argue that race isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but my pushback would be that race wasn’t really created until the 17th century, right? To justify the subjugation of black slaves and to prove that whites were superior.
So of course, judging people based on their race, whether you’re aware of it or not is sinful. And so because of this kind of race based partiality, white and black people experience our world in some very different ways. And I believe that part of developing cultural competence includes understanding that dynamic. So back to the question of, there were two situations that showed me how having cultural competence would have organizational implications. So when I was replanting, or helping my pastor replant that church in Washington Heights, he recognized that our communication systems were favoring English speakers over Spanish speakers.
So there were two ways, one was that all of our bulletins or written in English. And then the way that we communicated with volunteers was through email where a Dominican congregants use WhatsApp. And so when he asked me to change those systems, to make them more equitable, I really pushed back hard on him. And I said, “Do you know how hard I’m working? Do you know what it’s going to take to translate it every week for me to communicate in two different ways?” And what he said to me, he said, “We will always default back to what’s comfortable for us.”
And I realized that if I didn’t make the intentional effort to change in that area, what I would be communicating to our Spanish speaking congregants is that we’re doing you a favor by allowing you to be in here, but you have to change to become like we are. And so I thank God I recognize that, but I started changing how I did things and it provided that kind of access for them into the community. The other example real quick was I was working at a predominantly white organization that was making some moves toward diversity, and we had to hire a new candidate for a position. And so we had two candidates, one who was very skilled in administration, but lack the cultural agility to relate to the program participants that we were serving. But the other one was very culturally competent, but lacks some of the skills for that particular role.
And so we had a choice, which one do we go with? Well, we ended up not going with either one of them and we waited until we had the right candidate. And the reason why was that we realized that in order to accomplish our mission, we needed to find someone who had cultural competence as a skill, not just as a personality, experience, and characteristic, but it was actually a skill that we were looking for that was at the top of our ranking. And so these two experiences with replanting the church and communication, and the hiring decision, taught me that cultural competency or a lack of it can create organizational systems that either grant or deny people access to participation and power.
Mike Aitcheson: Denine, I mean, wow. That was so rich. You’ve had a wealth of experiences, and I’m just wondering, as you were going through that transformation, as you were having these nickel drop moments, these Holy spirit moments, how did you feel internally? And did you sense like a heightened bond with your Dominican brothers and sisters or your Hispanic speaking brothers and sisters as this transformation is happening to you, did you feel like they sensed a certain rapport developing too while that was happening?
Denine Blevins: Yeah. Thanks for asking that question. It was very humbling to discover these things about me. Someone who loved my Dominican brothers and sisters who lived in their country, who had been discipled by leaders there. And yet for me to have so much resistance in my own heart and to actually see myself as worthy of that faith community and them as outsiders. It was humbling and continues to be. And it was a lesson to me and those of us who are in this work, we can never stop looking at our own biases. I certainly did feel a greater appreciation for how God had created them because once we did change the communications and they started coming to hospitality meetings and stepping into leadership roles, they actually started shaping the culture of their own church right? That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? But many times we don’t go that extra mile to ensure that they have equal access to that kind of participation and power.
Mike Aitcheson: Wow. Well, so as you all heard earlier, Jim and I are both pastors here in Orlando, Florida, but for those of you who may not be fully apprised of our city’s makeup, this is a diverse city here in Orlando, Florida, and our city is increasingly growing in its diversity. Presence about 47% white, 25% Hispanic-Latino, 21% African-American, 4% Asian Pacific. And by population ethically speaking, our city is already predominantly populated by minority ethnicities. However, this is largely not found expressed in the churches in our city. And obviously multi-ethnic church comes with a whole host of complexities that many others have elaborated on already, but the need for cultural competency is on the rise without a doubt. I mean, it’s as important if not maybe more important than emotional competence in some spaces. And it’s on the rise as the combination of greater proximity and greater cultural chasms land on simultaneously.
Jim Davis: So I can’t ask this next question without thinking about the TV show, The Office. I think it’s season one, episode two, I believe was diversity day and this launched the office and it was the worst possible cultural learning program. I’m a huge fan of The Office, but the truth is that there are people who are listening, who have sat through either frustrating and maybe legitimately problematic diversity trainings in their secular job. So giving this person the benefit of the doubt and choosing to believe the best as we want to do all through this podcast and our life, I have a two-part question.
First, how do you help folks in your organization who have maybe had bad experiences in efforts to grow in their cultural competency? And then I’ll go ahead and give you the second one. How are the ways in which you might lead different than… I’m going to have to re-edit that out I messed up that question. Let’s just go, all right. We’re going to edit, I’m going to ask the first questions. How do you help folks grow in your organization who have maybe had bad experiences in efforts to grow their cultural competency?
Denine Blevins: Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for bringing up The Office, because that is one of my favorite shows. And I hadn’t thought about that episode when was thinking through this podcast. First of all, I would say that DEI training is a growing industry. By DEI I am referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion being, having a voice, and then equity being, having that voice be heard. You can have a seat at the table, but not be allowed to speak. You can be allowed to speak, but then those in power don’t listen. And we see this playing out in all kinds of ways, even in many multicultural settings, including churches, but that’s another episode, right? And so companies have found that there’s actually a benefit to hiring people with high CQ or cultural intelligence.
They see that teams that are diverse, actually outperform homogenous teams. Now warning when those diverse teams are not united, they actually underperform homogenous teams. And so secular efforts toward diversity motivated by profit can result in creating a culture in which employees are afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing because of political correctness, the cancel culture that we have. And so I think that the Christian concern about cultural sensitivity training, particularly among our white brothers and sisters, I think that it’s legit and I feel like it’s rooted in two understandable fears. The first one is the fear of being characterized as something that they’re not. Being labeled as insensitive, being labeled as not just having racial bias, but being labeled as being a racist. And so in some of these cultural efforts toward cultural sensitivity, we’re actually naming people and putting labels on them that we don’t have a right to put on them.
You know, one of the things that we say in Parakaleo is that only God has the power and the authority to name us. Because only God knows who we are. Only God knows our motives and he knows the inner workings of our heart. So while we can certainly point out behavior, we can’t point out someone’s identity. So, one is the fear of being characterized as something that they’re not and the second fear is a fear of our adopting secular ideologies and methods. So I think that both are worthy of addressing. We ought not dismiss them or discount them and I think we need to be careful about painting entire groups with a broad stroke of bullying or shaming people and making them feel guilty for being white. And unfortunately, like any other way of thinking that we tend to follow that doesn’t align with biblical truth, we have to be careful.
And so I think that we can critique training and practices that go in this direction. And at the same time, I often think that the fear of how we engage in this issue actually keeps us from engaging. And when we don’t engage people who are not under the lordship of Christ actually take matters into their own hands. And they create strategies for us for addressing injustice because we, the body of Christ, have failed to do so. So if we continue to ignore this issue, the trend is going to continue and the racial divide is going to grow.
Jim Davis: Yeah. So how are the ways in which you might lead different than their negative experiences?
Denine Blevins: Yeah, so I think one way is by helping the team understand how cultural competence aligns with our vision, mission and goals. Like helping them understand that this isn’t a separate thing or a personal agenda that we’re going into. We’re actually doing work, that’s going to help us achieve our vision. The second thing is helping them see how cultural competence is a reflection of God’s heart for us, and also for his people. Third, is to create a safe space to have these conversations, right? And so everyone is on a different place of the journey. And we need to have general assumptions about one another. We need to resist canceling someone just because they say the wrong thing. I really believe that we need to be less concerned about what people say and more concerned about renewed hearts and minds that lead to right actions.
And then for the subdominant culture, whoever’s a minority in that space, like giving them a heads up about sensitive conversations and not forcing them to bare their souls about all the racial injustice that they’ve experienced in their lifetime to people who may not respond with empathy, because that can be hurtful for them. Also, we need to avoid tokenizing them and using some certain people as the token for our diversity issues. And then finally we need to root ourselves in our gospel identity. We need to realize that we’re both deeply sinful and also deeply loved. And so we shouldn’t be surprised by our sin of even if it’s racial bias, but because of Christ, we can have redemptive of hope.
Mike Aitcheson: Oh, those are good thoughts, Denine honestly. Now, how do you know if your organization is ready to even have these conversations?
Denine Blevins: Yeah, unfortunately, sometimes we don’t know until we start having these conversations. I think in my case, when I was interviewing for the role, I really had to think long and hard if working in such a significant leadership position at a predominantly white organization was going to be healthy for me. During my interview process, I decided that would just be transparent from the beginning and tell them about my commitment to these issues. I let them know how much Parakaleo had personally impacted me so much, but how many times I had to contextualize and reframe some of the material from my own experiences. I talked to them about how I experienced it as one of the only minorities there and how I really long to take the material much further particularly in the United States to women that had not been a part of those spaces before.
And I did that to kind of gauge their reaction and what I saw, I saw these three indicators that really answered the question of readiness. I saw openness, I saw curiosity, and I saw a commitment to change. So openness in the sense that there was not this fixed assurance that we’re right, we’re doing the right thing, but there wasn’t actually an openness to see how things could be done differently. There was a curiosity about who was missing from our community and how we could include them. And then there was a commitment to change. It wasn’t just lip service, but it was followed by action. And so I realized that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes God has called people to step into the area of cultural change especially in the Christian community and there’s a lot of pushback there.
I realized that some people aren’t going to be ready to have the conversation. And so we often need to look for people that are talking about it, that have that openness there, even if they’re not in leadership positions and begin to try to move the needle with humility, with patience and with prayer, and then always asking God to reveal our own sin in the process. Those of us who are taking the lead in these conversations, like we have the danger of falling into our own self righteous, anger, and sin ourselves.
And then finally, we need to recognize that even if we think we’re ready, we’re not ready. Like nobody wants to deal with their own biases. Nobody’s ever grateful when someone points out your sin, right? But for the Christian, like we have the spirit that leads us to all truth. Again, as I said before, we’re deeply sinful, but we’re also deeply loved. And so we don’t have to be defensive or self-protective, but we can courageously address issues of injustice and trust God to open our eyes. Just out of love for him and love for one another.
Jim Davis: This next question we’ve touched on already in multiple places, but it is the million dollar question. So I’m going to be… or a fault of mine is I tend to over-communicate, but I want to make sure it’s clear. And one of the neat things about doing ministry in Orlando, Mike would attest to this is the pastors here, we’re really good friends. We get together regularly. So I know that it’s not just my million dollar question. I know it’s theirs. I know we get to run with people and crew and Family Life and RTS and Ligonier and Wycliffe and Pioneers because they’re all… I’m leaving some out, but they’re all here. And so this is the million dollar question. We’re asking, how do we help our organizations that we serve and lead grow in their cultural competency? I like cultural agility the way you’ve been saying that, so that we don’t actually undermine the mission that we’ve been called to be fruitful in.
Denine Blevins: Yeah. So because of our sin nature, we have to admit that our default is to divide into our own camps. And so we’ve got to be intentional about it, right? So when this happens on an organizational level, we’re going to fall short of our mission because we’re all part of the family of God. I think a lot of homogenous and predominantly white churches are going to ask, like, “Why do we need to grow in cultural understanding?” But when we think about the mission of the church, regardless of what our actual mission statement is. Our mission is to make disciples. So it’s not just about the people coming into our churches, but it’s with others that we encounter in different walks of life. And so the way that we treat the people that we encounter as image bearers, either validates or discredits the gospel message that we say that we preach. But many Christians have very little understanding about the racial history of our country and the impact that it’s had on people of color.
So this is particularly true of Christians, right? According to the survey from Barna, in 2019 11% of practicing Christians said that race was not at all a problem in the United States. And then in June of 2020, it increased to 19%. Other studies show that non-believers are more likely to acknowledge racism than believers. So these are practicing Christians who are teachers, who had doctors, judges, supervisors, they make hiring decisions, they determine our pay, they’re social workers that decide whether children will stay in homes or not. And they’re police officers that have to make split-second decisions. So for those institutions who may not see these issues as a priority, African-Americans and other people of color would say that our livelihoods and sometimes even our lives depend on it.
Mike Aitcheson: So Denine, you sort of alluded to this earlier in your own personal journey, but what specific exercises do you recommend that people walk through as you seek to raise the bar on cultural intelligence?
Denine Blevins: Yeah. So I would say five things and I’ll name them and then talk a little bit about each one. One is education. Two is building relationships. Three is scrutinizing our own ministry practices. Four is working on our own team culture and five would be getting help. Hiring diversity consultant. So just educating ourselves. When I was in high school, I had to learn about black history because it wasn’t taught in my school. My parents made us watch Roots when I was eight years old, talk about traumatizing, but many of our white brothers and sisters don’t know about the history of race, the connection between slavery and our present day issues. They don’t know about Jim Crow and red lining and mass incarceration. So imagine you don’t know all this, and then you go to your ministry co-laborers and tell them that they’re about to deconstruct so much of their ministry practices to make them more equitable.
So it’s really important that whoever’s leading this initiative educate themselves, but also take the steps to educate the people who are going to navigate the change. So second, getting relationships, getting to know people who are different. It’s not enough to just have head knowledge about these issues if we’re not walking in community with people who are experiencing it for themselves. So I would recommend asking an African-American or a person of color that looks like they might have some emotional bandwidth to engage in these issues because honestly, a lot of us are tired and we do not have the bandwidth. And if that’s not possible just being in spaces for our white brothers and sisters, where they are actually in the minority and they’re having to learn from and submit to the authority of someone else. Just going into that space and humbly listening and learning, and starting to confront their own biases and assumptions.
And three, this is something that just real time is important for those who are leading ministries and churches. Looking at your ministry practices that might be excluding people of color. So, just one example of this, the median net worth of white households is 10 times the amount of black households. So when you’re looking at program costs, or if you’re recruiting for board members and you have minimum giving levels, how might that impact whether or not African-Americans can have access into those programs or positions? There was a study done by Harvard’s Business Review, and it said that minority candidates that removed references of their ethnicity from their resumes got more callbacks than if they had not removed it. And so if you have a person in your organization that’s going to be making hiring decisions, are they aware that they might perceive a resume written by John differently from one written by Jamal? A resume written by Katie differently from one written by Lakeesha?
Jim Davis: Well, I’m going to interrupt you right there. We had Jason Cook on the podcast and he was talking about he was named Jason by his parents for that reason. Sorry to interrupt you, but other people are saying this.
Denine Blevins: That’s right. These are real things. So the third practice would be scrutiny. Looking at our ministry practices and seeing what needs to be changed so that we provide access for those who aren’t included. Four, work on existing team culture. If the culture is homogenous and yet there’s an unhealthy culture where you’re not fostering inclusivity, where people don’t feel like they have a voice, where there’s not healthy feedback, where there’s not a place where you can rumble and have healthy conflict. When you bring in diverse people into that space, that’s actually going to add another layer of complexity.
And so one thing that people can do in the meantime is just work on their general team culture, work on hospitality. So one of my recent concerns is with this new virtual environment, I’ve been in spaces where I know that there are African-Americans in that space, but they leave their cameras off and their MICs muted until they know that it’s safe to speak there. And so we even need to rethink how we do hospitality in a multicultural virtual environment, so that people feel like they have a voice. And then lastly, as I mentioned before, hire a diversity consultant.
Now I realize that organizations including our own, may not have the resources to do something like that. And a lot of people of color who are leading these organizations have an extra burden of also leading these initiatives. And so go as fast or as slow as your bandwidth and budget allows. But if you have the ability to do so, hiring someone who knows what they’re doing, because we’re not trained to be diversity consultants. But it helps to get outside help.
Jim Davis: Can you tell us about some of the pitfalls, some of the landmines that you seen when organizations are trying to grow in these areas?
Denine Blevins: Yeah. I can name three of them. One is expecting immediate results and because we expect immediate results, we give up too soon. The minute that we create a safe space for people to talk about how cultural bias has affected them, anger comes out and a lot of times our white brothers and sisters are very afraid of black anger, right? Getting the pushback that comes from this work is intense. And so when we don’t get immediate results, we don’t get people on board right away, that can cause us to shrink back. And so we have to determine the right pace. My husband is a fan of using the cruise ship analogy, where if you turn a cruise ship too slow, people are going to get impatient and jumped ship. But if you turn it too fast, they’ll fall overboard. So finding the right pace is important.
The second pitfall would be pointing fingers to people who don’t get it, but not dealing with your own blind spots and continual growth. It’s important to remember that our allyship is not our identity. Being ally is a gift that God has given us to steward, but we can’t use it to justify ourselves or to declare ourselves righteous or to prove to other people that we’re well or that we’ve got it when other people don’t. And actually when we fall into that kind of performative allyship, it actually hurts our ability to lead others into cultural competency.
And then finally, I think the last pitfall is pursuing optical diversity without addressing issues of power and access. So that’s an example of bringing people to the table, but not allowing them to change the meal. We ask people to come into our organizations, but we don’t really want them to disturb the way that things are done. So if we’re really committed to this work, we’re going to look at power as one of the key things that needs to shift with a cultural change.
Jim Davis: Well, as we get to the end of our time together, the subtitle of this season is a Christian conversation on race and justice. And that word Christian is really important to us here. So in what ways does leading in these areas helps reveal aspects of God’s character and His value?
Denine Blevins: Yeah, so we serve a God who is completely unlike us yet he made himself like us, right? He stepped into our culture, he became one of us to bear witness to the love of his father. So this was like a scandal of sacrifice that stoop down so low to forsake all of his power and glory so that we, his enemies could be saved. He could have walked away from us, but he didn’t. So we can walk away from this conversation. Some of us can. Some of us don’t have a choice, but God invites us to lay down our lives for one another in humility and in love. We don’t have to, but we get to participate in God’s work of renewal or redemption.
Mike Aitcheson: Well said, Denine. Can I just say when’s the book coming out? So as we come here down our home stretch, what else would you want to say to those who are listening, who maybe aren’t convinced that this is important or maybe has concerns that we are importing worldly ideas into the church or our ministry?
Denine Blevins: Yeah, I think first, I would say for those of us who are in this work, our tendency might be to resist pushback as soon as it comes, right? I don’t think that’s helpful. I think we need to… a pastor said to me recently that I should know the perspective of my opposition more than he or she does. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Like, I think we want to be mindful of the concerns that people have. I think we want to do more listening than speaking and with the same expectation that we demonstrate, like care and concern, as we develop cultural competence, we need to apply that when it comes to people who have an opposing viewpoint. So my words a convicting me as I say it.
I would also say that Christians should be the first ones in the training classroom with cultural competence. So why is that? Because we have the spiritual resources to look honestly at the brokenness of our world and how it’s led us to sin. So we’re the ones who have the spiritual resources to confess without shame and to repent without condemnation and forgive without bitterness. We’re the ones that have the spirit of God that leads us to all truth and transforms us into his likeness. So we shouldn’t be afraid of what this process might reveal. And we have the power of God on our side. At the end of the day, I feel like our prophetic witness is at stake, either we say to a watching world that God has the power to reconcile enemies and to make wrong things right. Or we show them a church that is more concerned about holding onto our power and reputation. So we’re the family of God, and this is our father’s business. So I think we should get to work.
Jim Davis: Well, this has been really helpful. I mean, as we said in the beginning, both very clear high level biblical trues, or we could say low level biblical foundations, however you want to look at it, but you’ve given us some very clear action steps to be able to move in this direction. So I just really appreciate you spending this time with us. Again, I’m deeply thankful for Parakaleo the way that you minister to my family there and excited for what God has for you in this new season. Thank you so much for joining us.
Denine Blevins: Thank you both so much and thank you so much for the blessing of this series.