Cultural Competency – How Does it Help?


Four years ago, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) conducted a raid on a mosque in Miami, Florida. What could have been a disastrous, public relations nightmare for both the Muslim community and the FBI was carried out so well and so carefully that most of us had no idea the raid took place. I wrote about it then, but I bring it up again now.

I believe this story has good insight into how cultural competency helps in any area of work.

I am not one to praise the FBI or government in general, but it is important to give credit and recognition where it is deserved. I was amazed with the thoughtfulness and cultural awareness with which the raid was carried out. All the evidence points to actions that took into account the larger Muslim community and efforts that were taken to inform and involve this community.

First: The story goes that the activity of the imams had been watched for some time so when the decision was made to arrest and question these men, the FBI consulted with a cultural broker about the best time to carry out the raid. It is a large and active mosque with prayers going on five times a day and activities in between. It was decided that a Saturday morning at 6am would be the ideal time. This ensured the fewest number of people and the least amount of chaos.

Second: The officers took off their shoes before going into the mosque. They took the effort, despite the obvious seriousness of the situation, to display sensitivity that this was a place of worship and it was important to abide by the rules of the mosque.

Third: They spoke to the imams in Pashto, through an interpreter. It was their native language so there was no ambiguity about the arrest and no miscommunication because of limited English. The Pashto was clear and precise.

Fourth: They did not interrupt morning prayers, but waited until the prayers had finished before they entered the mosque.

Last:  Before the media had any idea that this had occurred, the spokesperson for the FBI contacted leaders in the Muslim community. The neighborhood surrounding the mosque is heavily populated with Muslims and, while an arrest of a religious leader within any religious community would be difficult, given the current attitudes toward Muslims this is one of most difficult and potentially explosive things that can happen. They wanted the community to have an opportunity to frame a response before a media frenzy began inciting fear,  indicting all Muslims as well as spouting assumptions that everyone in this community was involved in suspicious activities linked to terrorism.

In a climate of police violence, FBI gaffes, and abuse of power by people in the role of law enforcement, the FBI used principles of cultural competency in carrying out this raid. Just days before the operation many of the officers had attended a training program that gave tools on working in a culturally sensitive way with Arab and Muslim communities.

What did the FBI do right?

They asked and they listened! Sometimes it’s as simple as just asking. They asked a cultural broker because they knew they were interacting with a culture and community they knew little about. But if we ask, we must also be willing to listen to the answer, to not impose what we think we know on a situation.

They adjusted their behavior. Not only did they ask and listen, but they adjusted their behavior based on what they learned.

They understood the importance of language and didn’t take any chances with misunderstanding. Cultural competency always takes language into consideration.

They respected the larger Muslim community. Respect is imperative in culturally competent interactions. We don’t have to agree with people, we don’t have to believe what they believe or adhere to their values, but respect is important. The people involved in this operation understood that these Imams did not represent the broader Muslim community. They didn’t stereotype and see a single story, instead they focused on the problem and actions of a couple of individuals. “The problem with stereotypes,” says Chimamanda Adichie “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Cultural competency can change outcomes, can make a terrible situation a bit easier on a community. Whether it be health care, education, law enforcement, counseling, social work, faith, or any other area, taking into account the cultural beliefs and values of a community gives us better outcomes. 

As you think about the way the FBI handled this situation, how do you think your work place handles sensitive situations? Do they practice cultural competency through asking, listening, adjusting, understanding the importance of language, and respect? 

There’s another question I ask myself — and that is this: What lessons could law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri learn from the way another law enforcement agency handled a difficult situation? 

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12 thoughts on “Cultural Competency – How Does it Help?

  1. Great example of cultural competency! We often emphasize on the cultural misunderstandings and incidents, the “what went wrong”. Its refreshing to read about “what went right”. Thanks for sharing this.


    1. Thanks so much Karolina. At a recent workshop I was thinking the same thing. Good for people to leave knowing what some really good examples are. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Marilyn, this occurrence in Florida was a potentially difficult, even explosive situation. However, as you so well say, the FBI handled it with sensitivity and respecting cultural differences.

    I followed right along with you, all the way to the end. Where you mentioned another explosive incident in Ferguson, Missouri. Oh, to have some culturally sensitive individuals on law enforcement! Just think how that situation might have been de-escalated, or at least made less volatile.


    1. So glad to have you track with this. I have thought about this so much…the “what ifs” What if all law enforcement didn’t just think about individuals but about the community as a whole? What if conversations take place with parents that aren’t punitive but instructive and come along side those parents? Oh so many what ifs….


  3. Many years ago, I taught conflict resolution courses to junior high students. One thing I recall emphasizing was cultural differences. The student body was diverse, a mix of African-American, Asian, Native American and a sprinkle or two of white kids. It was fun and important to discuss how we all reacted to stressful events at school due to our cultural backgrounds. I hoped the courses taught the students how to respect the rights of others as well as how to avoid problems with mainly white administrators and teachers who had a different world-view than the student body.


    1. Love this. Do you still have your materials? One of the things I stress is “negotiating an interaction.” The reason I like the wording is that it recognizes that you may continue to disagree but you will negotiate and move forward. Thanks Laurie. Love hearing bits and pieces of your story through comments.


      1. No the material was copyrighted and belonged to the alternative suspension program that I was contracted to as a teacher. I loved that part of our day. The youth may have been forced to attend, but at least our interaction was about positive solutions for resolving conflicts.


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