This article summarizes results of a study designed to identify essential intercultural competencies for Extension professionals. Recommendations are provided for Extension administrators—including district and county directors—to inform recruitment and professional development decisions in the broader effort to provide relevant and responsive programming for multicultural audiences.
Among the barriers to Extension’s continued impact in the 21st century, three consistently identified challenges include responding to rapidly diversifying stakeholder and clientele populations, effectively meeting the needs of historically underserved and marginalized communities of color, and adapting programming to meet the unique service needs of youths with non-conforming gender or sexual identities, or youth with disabilities (Cochran et al., 2012; French & Morse, 2015; Harris, 2008; Soule, 2017). According to the Pew Research Center, a record 44.4 million immigrants (accounting for approximately 13.6% of the nation’s population) resided in the United States in 2017 (Radford & Noe-Bustamante, 2019). Diaz et al. (2019) claimed this immigration trend is “…expected to continue in the United States, with Hispanics accounting for the largest proportion of growth” (p. 1). Such rapid ethnic and cultural demographic shifts represent a potential challenge for Extension educators and have prompted emergent efforts to incorporate culturally responsive methods to engage stakeholders and clientele (Diaz et al., 2019; Flores et al., 2019).
In addition to the need to address new immigrant audiences, there also remain opportunities to reconcile Extension’s institutional history of discrimination against, or neglect of, communities of color (Harris, 2008). Growing awareness of Extension’s relationship with historically underserved communities has informed emergent inclusive programming models, as well as broader frameworks for reimagining ways to measure and articulate Extension’s community outreach commitments (Franz, 2014; Gonzalez et al., 2020). Finally, expanding social awareness and understanding of youths with non-conforming self-identities (e.g., those related to gender or sexuality) or youths with physical or mental disabilities have prompted a growing recognition within Extension of the need to commit to inclusive outreach (Soule, 2017).
To address these challenges and the potentially significant differences in cultural norms, values, and learning needs across client audiences, a growing body of research suggests an increased need for Extension professionals to become interculturally competent (Deen et al., 2014). While culture is a complex and evolving concept, Deen et al. (2018) defined culture as people’s shared experiences, which encompasses their language, values, beliefs, and customs, as well as their worldviews and ways of communication. Similarly, multiple definitions of intercultural competence have been developed and applied within corporate, public service, and non-profit sectors. Notwithstanding, intercultural competence can broadly be described as “the appropriate and effective management of interaction between people who, to some degree or another, represent different or divergent affective, cognitive, and behavioral orientations to the world” (Spitzberg & Chagnon, 2009, p. 7). Across industries and professional organizations globally, intercultural competence frameworks have been adapted into professional development trainings to emphasize the importance of cultural awareness, cultural responsiveness, and other competencies deemed important for intercultural career preparation (de Guzman et al., 2016; Deen et al., 2014).
Current Intercultural Competence Training Efforts in Extension
The overall growth of intercultural competence development in various industries and fields has prompted Extension institutions to follow suit. Extension systems and programs across the country have begun to incorporate intercultural competence curricula into administrative planning and professional development trainings for staff and personnel to better address the needs of an increasingly diverse clientele (Deen et al., 2014; Nieto & Bode, 2020). Two prominent examples of competence frameworks adapted to the Extension context include Coming Together for Racial Understanding and Navigating Difference, initially developed from the Cooperative Extension Service Rapid Response Team and Washington State University, respectively (ECOP Rapid Response Team, 2017; Deen et al., 2014). While these and other competence training programs have successfully applied a diverse set of theories and concepts from the intercultural competence literature, certain competencies may have been drawn from other disciplines and may not be best suited for Extension’s non-formal education context (Deen et al., 2014).
Previous efforts and scholarly recommendations indicate the importance of developing contextually grounded competence frameworks. Therefore, our recent study aimed to reach consensus on intercultural competencies deemed most relevant for Extension personnel across career phases (Diaz et al., 2021). The sections below summarize findings and provide recommendations for the application of the Intercultural Competence Model for Extension.
Building Consensus on Intercultural Competencies
We applied a three-phase Delphi approach to leverage the insights of 35 individuals across the United States who were included on our panel based on their expertise in intercultural competence capacity development and administration (Diaz et al., 2021). Panellists included diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) specialists, directors of access, inclusion, and compliance offices, managers of Hispanic/Latino outreach and education programs, and regional community development educators. The Delphi method is a research-based process that can facilitate structured anonymous discourse between stakeholders to deal with issues related to policy, practice, or organizational decision-making (Birdsall, 2004; Brady, 2015). During the three-phase process, the expert panel identified and refined a list of competencies they perceived most essential for the development of interculturally competent Extension professionals. The experts then designated the career phase in which each competence should be developed. The Delphi technique enabled the formulation of the first representative and specialized set of intercultural competencies for Extension’s non-formal education context. This process to build group consensus to determine priorities and policies is crucial in today’s complex and diverse Extension environment (Warner, 2017). More information on utilizing the Delphi process can be found in our recommendations.
Results and Recommendations
The Delphi panel came to consensus (based on an a priori definition of consensus as 2/3 of the panellists selecting “Strongly Agree” or “Agree”) on 54 competencies deemed necessary for successful intercultural engagement in the workplace and in educational programming with clientele. We outline below the competencies and provide recommendations for how intercultural competencies could be developed for agents across career phases as well as the implications the development of those competencies may have for improving inclusive and equitable outreach support to communities.
Within the First Year of Employment
Table 1 outlines the competencies that the panel agreed should be developed within or by the first year of an Extension professional’s career. This includes six personal traits and attitudes, two knowledge areas, and six skill areas. These competencies should be addressed through formal education programs (Extension preparation and preservice programs), educator recruitment, onboarding, and in-service training programs.
Table 1. Competencies that the panel agreed should be developed within the first year.
Formal Education of Future Extension Professionals
There is an opportunity to begin developing Extension educators’ intercultural competence prior to their entry into the field. Formal Extension education programs at the undergraduate and graduate level play an important role in realizing this opportunity (Bodycott et al., 2014; Janeiro et al., 2014). These promote the development of new Extension professionals with a foundation for success while also lessening the burden of onboarding and in-service training programs. Development strategies may include deliberately integrating intercultural development into new and existing academic programs, creating new academic programs that solely focus on intercultural development (e.g., Intercultural Competency Certificate) (Janeiro et al., 2014), and creating internationalized curricula (Bodycott et al., 2014). Research suggests that combining the tenets of intercultural competence with an internationalized curriculum improves “cross-cultural mixing, intercultural competence development and adaptation to different higher education contexts” (Bodycott et al., 2014, p. 1). While there is the opportunity to consider all competencies that came from this study for this approach, it is important to prioritize the competencies that are expected within the first year.
Job Descriptions, Recruitment Materials, and Hiring
Since the ability to work across cultural differences is a core competence for Extension educators (Harder et al., 2010; Scheer et al., 2011), it is important that Extension programs prioritize the recruitment of individuals who may have already developed these competencies through prior experiences. The competencies outlined for the first year provide a starting point for thinking about what to include in a job description. This prioritization allows Extension to better communicate expectations for new professionals and provides opportunities for productive interview discussion in these areas.
There is also the opportunity to leverage assessments that evaluate the personal traits, attitudes, knowledge, and skills among new candidates to better inform hiring decisions. According to Graf and Harland (2005), these competence assessments are a critical component of the screening and selection process when a professional is expected to work across and within the context of a multicultural setting. Administrators can use existing instruments that evaluate intercultural decision quality in an intercultural organizational scenario, but it is important to integrate the competencies from this study within these instruments (Graf & Harland, 2005).
Onboarding Programs: Understanding the Role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
While there may be the opportunity to recruit and hire educators who already have some or all of the aforementioned competence, not all hires will have the necessary competencies. This means that onboarding programs are important. According to the University of Wisconsin Office of Talent Management (2015), there are three goals for onboarding programs: (1) accommodating, (2) acculturating, and (3) accelerating. Onboarding programs typically last one year, which makes the first set of competencies an ideal fit for an onboarding program. We outline how using these competencies will help meet each onboarding goal below.
- Accommodating: The list of cultural competencies within the first year provides a reference for strategically adapting trainings, tools, and resources to help build and advance these core competence areas.
- Acculturating: These competencies will also help to develop an enhanced understanding of organizational culture. Using organizational examples and scenarios while building these competencies is a useful strategy.
- Accelerating: Building intercultural competencies from the outset will minimize the time before new employees become productive members of the culturally diverse workgroups in Extension.
Within Years 1–3 of Employment
Tables 2.1–2.3 outline the competencies that the panel agreed should be developed within the first three years. These include three personal traits and attitudes, 13 knowledge areas, and 20 skill areas. The competencies in this section should primarily be addressed through in-service training programs.
Table 2.1. Personal traits and attitudes the panel agreed should be developed within years 1–3.
Table 2.2. Knowledge areas the panel agreed should be developed within years 1–3.
Table 2.3. Skill areasthe panel agreed should be developed within years 1–3.
In-Service Training: Cultural Awareness, Cultural Knowledge, and Cultural Skills
The competencies outlined within years 1–3 provide a framework for moving new employees from completion of an onboarding program to their engagement in initial in-service trainings. The competencies in this career phase involve the awareness of various dimensions of culture and an understanding of how culture impacts one’s lived experience. Competencies in this early career phase also center on building the skills among Extension professionals to navigate cultural difference constructively and learn to apply communication, listening, and self-awareness techniques to better understand points of contention based on issues of racism and oppression. The competencies identified here can be explicitly integrated into professional development goal-setting exercises (i.e., competencies can serve as proxy outreach, relationship building, and needs assessment goals) for employees and can be used as development benchmarks in performance reviews where appropriate.
Within Years 2–7 of Employment
Table 3 outlines the competencies that the panel agreed should be developed within years 2–7 of an Extension professional’s career. The competencies in this section should be addressed through in-service training programs in facilitation, relationship building, and community development. The panel consensus coalesced between two career phase designations, resulting in overlap with the previous phase. This includes four skill areas.
Table 3. Competencies that the panel agreed should be developed within 2–7 years.
In-Service Training: Community Development and Relationship Building
The competencies in this career phase are crucial to promote meaningful and effective community development. These competencies suggest the educator should work to become part of the community and facilitate activities that allow for effective and honest exchanges in both policy and educational discussions. These competencies expand previous models that focus on relationship building as a core competence (Harder et al., 2010; Scheer et al., 2011), and move towards a new community development role for Extension (Gallardo et al., 2018). As with the primary competencies within years 1–3, the competencies for years 2–7 could serve as target professional development goals and may be used as benchmarks within performance reviews.
Evaluation Considerations and Recommendations
The volume and diversity of tests, tools, surveys, and techniques have massively expanded with the growth of intercultural competence research. Fantini (2009) identified 44 such instruments to assess different measures of cultural competence. This includes commercial assessments such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), which is proprietary and likely cost-prohibitive for widespread adoption by county. While the IDI and other similar models reflect a degree of consensus on primary intercultural competencies, any effort to adapt the model for the purposes of assessment should be grounded in the recognition that competence development is an ongoing process and that certain factors will be more or less important at any given time and within particular contexts (Deardorff, 2009). Deardorff (2009) explicitly calls upon researchers to take appropriate measures to ground the model in their chosen context.
Given the variety of conceptualizations of cultural competence (i.e., models and frameworks) as well as assessment techniques/strategies (e.g., externally developed commercial test instruments, internally developed instruments), Extension leaders should aim to support emergent research efforts to generate very specific measurable outcomes/indicators within the Extension context (i.e., they should seek to apply a related Delphi consensus-building method).
Preexisting models may not be appropriately tailored to assess competence in an Extension context. Deardorff (2009) offered a series of questions assessors should ask themselves when deciding on a model or assessment tool to leverage:
- Is the tool compatible with your goals and objectives?
- Does it improve your overall assessment plan?
- Is it based on a theoretical foundation?
- Does it have a cultural bias?
- Is it appropriate for the age level and developmental level of those involved?
- What logistical aspects are involved in administering the tool (cost, time, etc.)?
- For whom are the results intended?
Extension professionals increasingly work with diverse clientele. Thus, it is important for administrators to expand opportunities for employees to build intercultural competencies as a measure to provide relevant and responsive programming for and with multicultural audiences (Deen et al., 2014). There is a pressing need to introduce this first set of intercultural competencies developed for and by Extension professionals and experts. The skills, knowledge areas, and personal attributes discussed in this article can be integrated into hiring interview questionnaires, trainings, professional development curricula and programming, goal setting exercises, and performance reviews. These outputs can be used to assess the ways in which skills and knowledge have been strategically utilized within programming, outreach, curricula development, and hiring practices. Ultimately, enhancing the capacity of Extension programming to account for clients’ cultural differences can boost overall program effectiveness and address the needs of a broader audience (Nieto & Bode, 2020).
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