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Cultural Humility: A Framework for Local and Global Engagement

Eloise Hockett, George Fox University, Linda Samek, George Fox University, and Scot Headley, George Fox University


Many institutions of higher education have implemented local and global engagement opportunities as a way to expose both students and faculty to different cultures and further their knowledge of those cultures. One of the primary goals of these cultural experiences is for students and faculty to become more culturally competent.  However, it is possible that our current way of thinking and promoting cultural competency within education specifically may not go deep enough and could be considered limiting in the ways we partner, collaborate, and interact with people groups different than ourselves.  Cultural humility, a construct currently accepted in some professional preparation programs in the medical field, may be the foundation from which to shift our thinking and practices about cultural competence within education and provide a deeper meaning and understanding to our work around the globe. This article describes the experiences and reflections, as well as personal and professional applications of three faculty members from George Fox University as we have participated extensively in global engagement experiences.  Each faculty member addresses three questions that we considered which directly related to our experiences and learning journeys: (1) How have we changed our perceptions or assumptions as a result of our interactions within the context of these opportunities?  (2) Have we changed our practices or thinking?  (3) Are we more culturally competent as a result of these experiences than before we embarked on our global engagement initiatives?

Institutional Mission

The community of George Fox University has long believed that we exist to be of service to the world.  Our current mission statement reads, “George Fox University, a Christ-centered community, prepares students spiritually, academically, and professionally to think with clarity, act with integrity, and serve with passion” (George Fox University, 2012b).  In our list of core values we find two that add detail to this mission: (1) Engaging globally and connecting culturally; and (2) Promoting peace, justice, and care of the Earth.

Engaging Globally and Connecting Culturally: We value worldwide experiential learning aimed at understanding and improving the human condition. We desire to connect genuinely with people from diverse cultures both locally and globally through relationships and reciprocal teaching and learning.

Promoting Peace, Justice, and Care of the Earth: Jesus Christ calls us to be peacemakers, to serve the poor, and to engage our world responsibly. We are a community that actively creates peace, promotes justice, and cares for the earth. Our website proclaims the George Fox community to be globally engaged:

Since its founding, George Fox University has encouraged its students to seek ways to make their faith relevant in the world. Our commitment to outreach, study abroad and addressing the social justice issues of our day has helped to create a learning environment that emphasizes global awareness and engagement.  George Fox University is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 50 out of approximately 1,400 accredited colleges and universities in the nation for the percentage of students studying abroad.  And graduate and undergraduate service trips continue to address complex social justice concerns in Africa, India, Brazil, Ukraine and Romania. (George Fox University website, 2012a)

In order to deepen our conversations and understanding of George Fox University’s commitment to global engagement, the university Diversity Committee has embarked on a process to develop a theology of diversity white paper, addressing racial and ethnic diversity from a biblical perspective.  This stance undergirds our desire to serve others with grace and humility.  The current draft of this paper states,

God’s people are called to live amid the tension between unity and diversity.  When followers of Jesus Christ retreat into racial and ethnic enclaves, the Body of Christ is fractured and cannot thrive in fulfilling God’s mission in the world.  When, on the other hand, it seeks unity through uniformity, it does so by means of the dominant culture’s oppression of non-dominant culture(s).  The former is unhealthy homogeneity by means of isolation; that latter is the same by means of imperialism. We succeed in living amid the tension between unity and diversity by honoring the uniqueness each other’s race and ethnicity, and by discovering the ways in which we complement and enrich each other as Christ’s Body, in which all manner of culture is ultimately subsumed under the lordship of Jesus Christ. (George Fox University Diversity Committee, 2012)

Personnel in the School of Education of George Fox University also attend to justice and diversity in our beliefs and actions.  Our conceptual framework summarizes our aims this way: “The School of Education prepares professionals who think critically, transform practice, and promote justice” (School of Education Diversity Committee, 2012).  As we develop a framework designed for action, we have created a diversity document that will guide our engagement in the communities where we serve.  The preamble to this document states,

The SOE routinely evaluates its effectiveness in identifying and responding to inequities that undermine human relationships and functioning within our university, the professions in which we serve, and the greater community.  The 2012 Diversity Document reflects our ongoing self-assessment and commitment to reducing barriers that inhibit full and equal partnership within our various communities. It is both confessional and aspirational, a living document open to further modification as we continue to learn and change as a result of engaging in enduring reciprocating relationships with those who might otherwise be unseen or unheard. (School of Education Diversity Committee, 2012)

Review of the Literature

Our world has become increasingly smaller primarily due to the advances of technology and access to different modes of travel.  No longer are we isolated from different people groups around the globe.  We have the technological capability to have instant communication and interactions with people from all over the world.  In the United States, we have a more diverse society than ever before.  This increasing diversity presents both opportunities and challenges as we learn to interact and build relationships and community with those living among us, as well as those living abroad.

Educators are especially faced with the need and responsibility to respond to the complexities of increasingly diverse classrooms.  Not only do we have a professional responsibility to address the needs of all of our students, but we also have a moral and spiritual obligation.  Additionally, we need to teach our students intercultural knowledge and skills so they can in turn be more culturally competent citizens.  Many different terminologies relating to cultural competence have emerged as educators continue the journey in learning how to appropriately respond to and meet the needs of our students. Following are the most common terms and their definitions.

  • Cultural awareness: general knowledge gained from a variety of sources; the person may have limited to no experience or emotional ties with those from other cultures (& Laszlosfly, 1995; Sermeno, 2011).
  • Cultural sensitivity: the ability to carefully and respectfully compare and contrast cultural differences through the lens of one’s own cultural experiences and make appropriate responses (Hardy & Laszlosfly, 1995).
  • Cultural intelligence: a fluid and successful navigation and adaptation of different cultural experiences and settings in such a way that is both natural and respectful of the present culture (Earley & Ang, 2003).

Another relevant term that has recently emerged from the medical disciplines is cultural humility.  In response to continued requests to help medical practitioners become more competent in working with patients of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, practitioners and theorists proposed that cultural humility was what was actually needed.  Reynoso-Vallejo (2009) contrasted cultural competence with humility by equating competence with knowledge and humility with understanding.  Cultural humility, as first presented by Tervalon and Murray-Garcia (1998) is defined as “…incorporating: a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations” (p. 117).

This definition of cultural humility closely aligns with the work of Corbett and Fikkert (2009) in their book, When Helping Hurts. The thesis of this book is that a fundamental issue with American Christian people attempting to help out people in the developing world is our definition of poverty.  Whereas people in the US and other developed nations tend to define poverty as a lack of material resource, a biblical definition of poverty is actually broken relationships between the individual and God, creation, other people, and self.  The differing definitions often lead to paternalistic views, a cult of competency, and an arrogance on the part of American Christians that inhibits our ability to truly help others with an attitude of humility. A further investigation of cultural humility includes general definitions of humility.  Tangney (2000) conducted an extensive review of the research, theological, and psychological literature on humility and found that humility represents wisdom, is a key to progress, and is characterized by an open and receptive mind, an ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, an openness to new ideas and advice, and keeping oneself in proper perspective.  It seems, that “virtually no research addressed directly this construct, and scientists have yet to develop a theory-based reliable and valid index” (Tangney, 2000, p.78). Challenges in measuring humility, and perhaps a general misunderstanding of the construct have prevented further study.

Wear (2008) also contrasted competency-based approaches to culture and diversity in medical education with a cultural humility approach. Central to her thesis is the notion that professionalism requires application of knowledge in unique situations and for effective decisions to be made in treatment, physicians need to hold appropriate dispositions, not just be knowledgeable and skillful.  In the culture of medical education, competence is valued above all else and yet, Wear believed that skill and knowledge are “insufficient without a simultaneous and ongoing process of humble reflection on how one’s knowledge is always partial, incomplete, and inevitably biased” (p. 626).  Humility is needed if physicians are to be effective in delivering care to patients, which is empathic, as well as respectful and culturally informed.  According to Tangney (2000) and Wear (2008), humility therefore indicated:

  • A willingness to accurately assess oneself and one’s limitations.
  • The ability to acknowledge gaps in one’s knowledge.
  • An openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice.

To further examine the ethical challenges that preservice medical professionals faced, Ross (2010) examined the implementation of community-based participatory research (CBPR).  The CBPR approach includes the following components: understanding insider-outsider dynamics, participation, community consent, power, privilege, racism and discrimination, and varying approaches to social change.  This study was conducted in a graduate program in community development and planning and analyzed the outcomes of the modified curriculum, which featured the CBPR components.  In examining the outcomes of this study, Ross suggested that the ethical challenge that preservice professionals were faced with could be addressed by developing a substantial list of skills, knowledge, and dispositions that are reflective of cultural humility.  One of the most meaningful instructional activities discussed in this study was that of reflection.  According to Bringle and Hatcher (1999) reflection is defined as “…the intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives” (p. 3).

As a part of his study, Ross (2010) provided a list of characteristics of effective reflection activities.  Among these are:

  • The community-based aspect of professional preparation is clearly linked to course content.
  • Expectations and criteria for assessing the reflections are structured and transparent.
  • Reflection should occur regularly through the term.
  • The instructor should provide feedback on the reflections.

At the culmination of the implementation of a new curriculum, which featured CBPR, Ross (2010) concluded that the following recommended actions needed to be implemented.  First, intentional class discussions about privilege need to occur prior to the field experience. Ongoing opportunities need to be provided throughout the field experience, which causes the participant to reflect on changes in their attitudes and beliefs regarding privilege, power, identity, etc.  Finally, specific instrumentation to assess the development of cultural humility is needed.

Conclusions from the Literature

Cultural humility, with origins in the medical field, is a relatively new construct in framing how one understands and relates to those of other cultures.  Cultural humility extends beyond the traditional and accepted concepts of cultural competency or intelligence and employs an additional component of humility to knowledge and skills.  There is very little research in the area of cultural humility in the field of medicine and virtually no mention of such a construct in other professions such as education.  However, as globalization continues to impact and interconnect with every area of our lives (political, social, economic), it is imperative that we develop an approach that will honor and respect all citizens of our world.


The framework for studying our global engagement experiences and our responses to those experiences is presented through the lens of reflective practice.  Dewey (1933), one of the early writers on reflective practice, posited that our ability to reflect occurs only after a problem has been identified.  The tension surrounding the problem invites the person to actively investigate possible solutions.  As a result, reflective practice allows the educator or practitioner to further assess personal motives, assumptions, and outcomes of his or her work, which can then lead to further growth and development as a professional (Larrivee, 2000; Osterman & Kottman, 1993).  The reflective process involves an honest examination of one’s own behaviors and biases, while identifying how those behaviors have an impact on responses and future work (Larrivee, 2000).  Osterman and Kottman believed that the reflective process has a greater impact when the learner is invested in the process and there is motivation to learn and change.  Osterman and Kottman further stated that true learning cannot take place without reflection and without the results of our reflection leading to action.  Kegan and Lahey (2009) wrote, “…Reflection without action is ultimately as unproductive as action without reflection” (Kindle version, location 3564).

Thus, the reflective practitioner continues to examine her experience by asking such foundational questions as: What did I do? What was the result? What could I do differently? Reflective practice is then a cyclical process, which continues to adapt to the changes and looks back on the process, only to repeat the cycle once again (Larrivee, 2000).  Therefore, our actions from the reflective process should produce an impact on our professional practice (Garson, 2005).

The process for our reflections first began with discussions of our shared experiences.  As we recognized how our global interactions were transforming us professionally and personally, we knew we had a responsibility to share our learning journeys.  In addition to our discussions, we also relied on journals, photos, and observations from others to provide the analysis of our experiences.


We, as the participants, are all faculty in higher education in the George Fox University School of Education. All of us have had K-12 teaching experience prior to entering higher education.  Together, the three of us represent over 90 years of experience in education at all levels.

While we each have traveled extensively in the US and internationally, our common global experiences have occurred in Africa, primarily Kenya.  In addition, we will share applications to our practice out of our individual experiences in Rwanda, Uganda, and China.  It is through these international experiences that we have reflected together on our transformation both personally and professionally.

Reflections of Three Educators

Educator 1: Applications to the Classroom:

Description of global initiative: Kenya – Our School of Education was invited to partner and collaborate with a group of Kenyan Quaker secondary school leaders on a peace curriculum project.  This group of Kenyan school leaders was already well-organized and had motivation for this project in addition to defined leadership.  What this group lacked were the resources to carry out the goals and initiatives they believed would improve the quality of education in the Quaker schools in Kenya.  As a result of the post-election violence in 2008, this group of Kenyan leaders had identified a significant gap in peace and conflict management strategies within their school curriculum.  A team of eight faculty from the School of Education joined the Quaker leadership group in this collaborative curriculum work.  After a three-year process, the completed project was a first edition curriculum for peace and conflict management developed for 9th and 10th grade students in the Kenyan Quaker secondary schools.  With formal governmental approval, this curriculum is now in the implementation stage in almost half of the 240 Quaker secondary schools in Kenya.

As I have reflected on my Kenyan experiences through the lens of cultural humility, I found that Ausland (2010) had a framework, which aligns well with the concepts of cultural humility, in that, the focus of the global initiatives shifts the focus from the server to those being served. This framework has helped to shape my reflections and responses to my experiences in Kenya, while further informing my work as a professor of graduate students at George Fox University.  Ausland’s framework with brief descriptions of each are as follows:

  • Stay for tea: building relationships first, mutually indebted, honest about our needs and vulnerabilities.
  • Process matters: the community must have ownership in the process; people must be at the center of the process.
  • Focus on values: community vision, beginning with the values, helping the community develop the process for sustainability.
  • Check your filter: intentionally seeking to recognize Christ in all people since all are created in the image of God, each one with their unique names and stories.

Cultivate a servant’s heart: prefacing our work with prayer, recognizing our own tendencies to assert our own position; avoiding an attitude of privilege while still remembering that people may be more resource poor, but still very capable.

Staying for tea. – Our School of Education work with the Quaker schools in Kenya has been centered on relationship building.  From the initial invitation to collaborate with the Quaker school leaders, we were deliberate in first forming the relationships with these leaders, relationships that are ongoing and continue to develop and deepen.  We have been careful and intentional not to move ahead in the development of our peace curriculum project without first meeting and discerning together with our Kenyan partners what might be the next steps in the process.  It has been important for us to honor the culture, the priorities, and time lines determined by the Kenyans, thus building the trust with one another and ensuring that our curriculum project is truly Kenyan and not American.

Process matters. – In the development of the peace curriculum, the Kenyan Quaker school leadership had pre-determined that such a curriculum was of the utmost priority in their schools in order to address the issues of conflicts, especially related to the post-election violence of 2008.  The Quaker leadership team acknowledged that they did not have the training, resources, or background in order to develop their own curriculum and they further identified a lack of peace and conflict resolution resources available for use in their country.  When these leaders issued the invitation to George Fox University to assist them, they had already determined what they needed and we viewed our role as coming alongside collaboratively to assist with the development of the curriculum.  Thus, they owned the process and were responsible for the direction and timing of the project.  They have been driving this project to completion with our team as the support for resources and development of the curriculum.  As one Kenyan young man stated to me, “These are talented people.  They just lack the resources that you have.”

Focus on values. – The Quaker leadership team had already prioritized their need for a peace curriculum for the secondary schools.  In the development of the peace curriculum, we focused on needs from the Kenyan point of view and concepts and examples that would be applicable to the Kenyan culture.  The leadership team had already determined the specific themes of the curriculum, so they already owned the process.  In the development of the curriculum resource guide, the Kenyans have written the bulk of the background information, conducting their own research for appropriate resources.  The sustainability is already ongoing as they are now training others in the implementation of the curriculum.

Check your filter. – In collaborating with the Kenyan Quaker school leadership, accepting them for who they are was a significant lesson.  Thomas and Inkson (2009) believed that the majority of our cultural mishaps occur when we desire for the other group to be or become like us.  Rather, we need to view others as God’s people, created by him for a specific plan and purpose.  This was a continued tension for me as I many times had to resist thoughts and comments such as: “I would do it differently”; “I can’t believe they do it that way”; “That process doesn’t work”; “Surely there is a better way to do it!”  In one instance, I challenged a colleague’s assumptions because he was upset that the Kenya group was not implementing all of the peace components he believed were necessary to the project.  As we later reflected on this issue, he agreed that I was correct to take a stand and allow the Kenyans to develop the curriculum as they needed for their purposes and not force them to become like us.

Cultivate a servant’s heart. – One of the highlights of the Kenya peace curriculum project has been the opportunity to visit the Quaker secondary schools.  To date, our faculty at George Fox University has had a presence at 25 of the 240 secondary schools.  We have been able to observe classrooms, speak with students, interact with teachers and staff, and support and encourage principals.  We have found that even though we are miles apart, we share similar problems and challenges within our respective education systems.  Our visits to schools have provided vital insights into the school culture in order to better serve these educators.  Many of the school leaders have shared with us that even one of our visits encourages them in ways we cannot understand or comprehend.  A visit from US educators is an honor, highlight, and inspiration.  They are greatly appreciative that we would take the time, effort, and resources to come a great distance and meet with them in their schools.  We have been told that professors from their own universities do not take the time or effort to visit schools and talk with teachers and principals. We have intentionally taken the time to listen to the stories of their needs, challenges, and success.  While we do not always have answers for their unique situations or circumstances, we can and have provided encouragement and support through prayer and continued relationship building.  Through these visits, other opportunities for collaboration and educational support have been identified with plans for implementation.

My experiences in Kenya have drastically changed my perceptions of those in other cultures.  I have come to realize that in other parts of the world, relationships are more important than agendas and outcomes or what I can accomplish in a certain amount of time.  In the western world, we measure our successes with projects on what was produced or how much we accomplished during the work on the project.  In Kenya, I had to learn to allow the relationships to drive the agenda and not be dismayed or frustrated if we did not complete the objectives we had planned.  The level of work produced was viewed through my lens of outputs, while the Kenyans took their time with the relationships first.  As a result, initiatives or projects can take longer, but perhaps the outcomes are more significant because of the relationships and understanding that was built first.  With my Kenyan colleagues, we have continued to build our level of trust with one another, which has furthered our collaborative efforts in the education projects.

In my academic practice, my lessons learned in Kenya have provided more depth to my perspectives in how I view my students.  I am now more intentional in how I build relationships with my students.  These efforts then inform the level of support I can provide to my students, since I am more aware of their backgrounds, job situations, and challenges.  While I need to also meet the demands of academic requirements (course objectives, assessments, school calendars, etc.), relationships need to take priority so that I can nurture the growth of my students in all areas of their lives, not just the academic side.

I believe that I am also more culturally competent than I was three years ago.  However, I also realize just how much I still need to learn and apply.  Within the context of cultural humility, I see my role as serving the whole student, not just within an academic course.  Each student brings her/his own unique experiences, talents, and gifts to the table, which when combined with others in a course, can help to shape, inform, and inspire others within our roles in education.  My experiences in Kenya taught me that God was already at work there, and that I only needed to respond to where I was asked to participate and partner with the work.  The same is true of my students in my classrooms here.  God is already at work and I need to be attentive to where I can help shape my students holistically while acknowledging their unique gifts and talents.  I have learned to take more time and truly listen to others, and not make broad assumptions about them, or their backgrounds.  Even within an identified culture, there are often many differences and many tendencies to make broad assumptions or judgments, which can be limiting to the work at hand.

Educator 2: Applications to School District Partnerships: Being an adult educator, I have long realized that it is important to understand the context, needs, and prior experience of my students in order to help them learn.  However, it was not until I began working in Africa that I came to a fuller realization of my need to give up my control of learning situations or to explain problems for learners or followers in terms of my own view of what works.  In Kenya, I learned that educators desired to build relationships with me rather than receive information that I sought to dispense. I learned that interruptions are not roadblocks to learning, but an opportunity to accept circumstances out of my control.  Kenyan colleagues showed me that I could put myself in the hands of others, not needing to be in charge of solving issues, but becoming a co-laborer with others. As I delivered instruction related to professional development to secondary and college-level faculty, I discovered that my own vulnerability and weaknesses became openings for the Lord to bridge gaps between colleagues.

These realizations have built in me more trust that the Lord will work in the moment to enable learning to occur and that all of my experience and characteristics can be used in teaching and leading, including my lack of understanding and my need to admit shortcomings. For the past four years, I have managed grant-funded projects with the purpose of providing professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators in public and independent schools in Oregon and Washington.  My fuller reliance on Jesus by adopting a stance of humility has been beneficial in this regard. One project, the Christian School Leadership (CSL) program, is funded by a regional trust.  This program is now in its fifth year and to date we have worked with about 30 schools through the CSL program.  The purpose of the program is to help local Christian schools identify needs in individual and group professional development, especially related to leadership, and to address those needs by designing strategies and activities to serve those needs.  The framework presented in Figure 1 depicts the CSL program approach to providing professional development support to personnel in local schools.  The framework represents the major elements that comprise the context of the Christian schools and the system by which we serve them.  The elements of this system are: a) the context of the Christian school; b) the philosophy, purpose, and operation of the CSL program; c) the desired outcomes for school culture and leadership, school personnel and for students; and d) the specific interventions designed to assist the Christian school in moving toward their desired outcome.

Contextual framework. – The context of the Christian school refers to the unique mission of the Christian school and the professional development needs of the specific school.  Particular challenges situated within the context of many local schools are budgetary constraints, which hinder investment, some lack of appropriately prepared and equipped personnel, and lack of knowledge about leadership and commitments, which hinder effective professional growth.  The purpose of the CSL program is to help local schools identify professional development needs and to address those needs by designing strategies and activities to serve those needs.  The program operates through a consultation process in which program personnel, collaborating local school personnel and specific resource persons establish relationships, design interventions and assess processes and outcomes for each school.

Philosophy and operation. – Of particular interest to this paper is that the philosophy of service of the CSL program is founded on the principle of cultural humility and that effective educational practice in schools is influenced by leadership and school culture.  The program philosophy is characterized by the following factors, which are reflective of cultural humility:

  • CSL personnel reflect on our own beliefs and practices regarding school leadership and culture and examine those beliefs in light of the unique situations encountered in each school.
  • We have become the student of the recipient of our services by conducting recipient-focused interviews, assuming the recipient can help identify their own needs and solutions.
  • We value reciprocal relationships characterized by trust and believe this type of relationship is needed for effective professional service.
  • A primary stance we take is that we are learners in the process of serving our clientele. This position stands in opposition to the view that we are experts who are very competent and able to fix them.

Desired outcomes for school personnel and students. – The desired outcome in working with schools is to see improved learning outcomes for students and attainment of skills, knowledge, and dispositions consistent with the mission of the local school.  A culture of effectiveness, supported by collegiality among the educational staff, is enabling outcomes for student gains.

Interventions are designed through a collaborative process of needs assessment and problem solving (reminiscent of the stages co-learning and community initiated) modes of participation described in the participatory continuum in Figure 2.  Specific interventions include individual and small group mentoring, professional learning community development and facilitation, summer institutes and workshops, individual consulting, and school-wide culture change processes. Ongoing formative assessment is conducted to determine specific effects and outcomes.

As I have reflected on my global experience, especially in Africa, it did change my original perceptions and assumptions.  My assumption about the importance of schedule and time has changed a bit.  While I am still bound by a typical western clock and calendar, I realize that this is not the only way to view the world.  I take more time for reflection and for relationships.  I make time for openness in my schedule to allow for unplanned meetings.  My perception of what needs to occur in a conversation has changed.  I don’t have to make a sale or convince someone that I am right.  I am more careful to state that my view is my view and works in my situation and that I realize my view may not be valid or appropriate in another culture. As I make the application within the local context, it has become a great joy for me to listen to local school leaders and teachers describe their commitment to improving their relationships and school culture for the sake of student learning.

I have really accepted the construct of cultural humility as opposed to cultural competence.  I view myself as a learner, which requires the humility to be open to learn in any situation and with anybody.  What I am committed to is getting beyond my preconceived notions of who people are (based on their role, or culture, or ethnicity) and what they need (based on my own experience and beliefs).  Further, I am committed to a continuing renewal of my recognition of the need for humility in the moment, in my relationships, and in my work as a teacher, leader, and helper.  I can never be competent enough to address every issue I encounter.  I am not skilled enough or knowledgeable enough to understand and respond to the unique needs and concerns that each educator and school brings to me.

Educator 3: Applications to Personal Worldview – In their book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, Corbett and Fikkert (2009) shared a continuum of participation with communities. Figure 2 outlines this continuum.  The intention of this book is to contrast the common model of Christian missions’ work that they title coercion, with the ultimate goal of community initiated participation.  The range of participatory levels between these two extremes includes increasingly more community-initiated projects that move from mere passive observation to project initiation, design, direction, and implementation.  Our goal in the George Fox University School of Education is to work not only with our international partners in ways that are collaborative and respectful, initiated by them, but to do this with our school partners in Oregon.  What we learn from our experiences abroad is directly applicable to our own backyards and the educators we serve at home.

Figure 2. A Participatory Continuum. Adapted from de Negri, Thomas, Ilinigumugabo, Muvandi, & Lewis. (1998). Empowering Communities: Participatory Techniques for Community-based Programme Development. Trainer’s Manual.

Mode of Participation

Type of Involvement of Local People

Relationship of Outsiders to Local People


Local people submit to predetermined plans developed by outsiders.



Local people are assigned to tasks, often with incentives, by outsiders; the outsiders decide the agenda and direct the process.



Local people’s opinions are asked; local people analyze and decide on a course of action.



Local people work together with outsiders to determine priorities; responsibility remains with outsiders for directing the process.



Local people and outsiders share their knowledge to create appropriate goals and plans, to execute those plans, and to evaluate the results.


Community Initiated

Local people set their own agenda and mobilize to carry it out without outside initiators and facilitators.


Over the last four years I have had opportunities to work in mainland China and East Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda), mostly in teacher training and professional development.  As I look at the initiatives in which I have been involved, I realize that I have come to several of them later in the process of developing collaborative projects.  The work in China with Chinese teachers of English began five years before my first experience at the level of cooperation. Members outside the community, although they were native Chinese speakers, worked with local officials to determine needs of teachers.  Over the years the work has come to be more and more directed by the local Chinese officials and the needs of schools there.  The curriculum we use has also changed to become more in tune with cultural norms and expectations of Chinese schools. We have now moved to the level of co-learning. The summer of 2011 found me in south central China with five Master of Arts in Teaching candidates and a faculty colleague operating a middle school English camp for 80 Chinese children ages 10 to 16.  The experience for our candidates was exceptional.  They had an opportunity to hone their skills with English language learners, be immersed in a culture they did not know, and were unable to return home for three weeks.  Each candidate expressed the life-changing experience he or she encountered and the impact it continues to have on classroom teaching.

As a result of our connections in China, we have had three Chinese scholars join us to study at George Fox University and four summer groups of university administrators, then high school teachers, university teachers of English, and more recently, Grades 1-8 teachers have spent 2-4 weeks on campus learning about American culture and education while practicing their English skills.  My delight comes in opportunities to develop friendships and working relationships that continue when these educators return home.  I initially expected to find issues in Chinese education to be much different from ours in the US.  However, I have found that we struggle with many of the same things such as students who are not motivated, expectations for results that depend on multiple complex factors, and teachers for whom life happens.  These conversations always begin with building relationships that are foundational to safety, curiosity, and willingness to share our struggles.  Building relationships is critical in most cultures before launching conversations that are personal and spiritual.  This is particularly sensitive in China.

In East Africa, my most recent experience has been in working with the eight teachers at Lingira Living Hope Secondary School on Lingira Island of Uganda.  I spent three days on the island visiting classrooms, consulting with teachers, sharing in chapel, and just hanging out.  I expected that what I brought to them might be quite new.  Instead, they talked to me about student-centered teaching and learning, engaging activities in the classroom, contextual learning, and how to integrate Christian principles into their content courses.  They worried about students who had never traveled off the island and could not see the relevance of what they were learning in mathematics, chemistry, and business courses.  As they became comfortable talking to a white woman who had to be carried back and forth to the motorboat as there were too many parasites in Lake Victoria, we had conversations about the joys and agonies of teaching adolescents.  I have learned that teachers are teachers, kids are kids, and schools are schools no matter what the context.  The human connection is essential and it is only through relationship building that I can learn my role and wait to respond to the expressed needs of my friends in other places.

The distressing thing for me in Uganda was the realization that I had come to a place where the mode of participation was coercion.  This word has such a negative connotation and I still find myself embarrassed that I went expecting their contribution to be so small.  I am hoping to return within the next year and this time we will begin with co-learning.  I anticipate the day when I might be asked back to participate in community initiated professional development that takes full advantage of the strengths of the teachers on Lingira Island.

My assumptions about the size, complexity, and issues of the world have changed radically as a result of my opportunities to interact with colleagues from other cultures.  I have lived all my life in the Pacific Northwest, and I did not encounter anyone from a very different background from my own until I attended college.  Even there, my contact was limited to an African American basketball player I tutored.  I now have friends with whom I correspond (by email and Skype) on a regular basis in East Africa and China.  I have come to realize that we are much more alike than I could have imagined.  The things that concern us about the education of young people are very similar–student-centered teaching and learning, motivation, national standards, and how to teach morality and ethics conversations are common.  It is wonderful to hear different perspectives and engage in discourse focused on leadership in these areas.

I am much more likely to pursue and hear multiple perspectives than I would have been even five years ago.  Last fall semester I volunteered to teach a section of our university undergraduate senior capstone course titled “The Majority World and the West.”  I would not have had the background or the interest previously.  I have also been involved with colleagues across the US in thinking about change in higher education and the implications for our practice.  Being able to reference perspectives from multiple cultures has changed the way I think about organizational change.  The opportunity to observe struggles in other countries that we have also encountered in the US helps me step back and think more objectively about the role of leaders in times of change.

The most significant change in my thinking may be related to my growing understanding of how privileged I am to be white, western, professional, Christian, and live in America.  Every time I come home I have to adjust to the excesses of our culture.  Food, clothing, money, leisure, and other things are abundant.  Time, relationships, and rest are not, but they can be if I choose to make them so.  My friends in China and Africa have classrooms that have too many children and too few resources.  Compared to the resources we have available in America, they are impoverished, particularly in East Africa. Reconciling my wealth with my growing understanding of cultural humility leaves me often in a quandary about how to make sense of the inequities I see.

I believe I am more culturally competent as a human being than I was before my experiences with other cultures.  I am less likely to make assumptions about people before I spend significant time with them and I drink multiple cups of tea.  I listen more closely, ask better questions, and am quick to apologize for any faux pas that I may commit.  We laugh together and learn together as is befitting human relationships that support both growth and safety.


One of the shared learnings from our global experiences has been in the area of relationships.  Working with those in other cultures has taught us the value of building lasting relationships that are based on mutual respect and trust.  It is within this framework of trust that we have been able to establish a strong foundation for our global endeavors, which are ongoing.  Pusch (2009) believed that this in-depth type of relational building takes an immense commitment as we learn about and care for others who are different than we are.

Another significant learning from our global work has been that of respecting the skills and abilities of the local people.  We have recognized that in order to respect the culture and create a work that was truly collaborative, we had to set aside preconceived ideas of how we believed the work should be completed, in addition to the time in which it needed to be completed.  We recognized the need to be fluid and adaptive, stepping aside from our agendas and our worldview, thus shifting the focus to the culture where we were working.

Finally, we have all realized the immense responsibility of our global engagement. We have chosen to allow these experiences to shape us personally, professionally, and more importantly, spiritually.  It is only in building bridges with those different than we are that we can attempt to build community and understanding together.  And, this is applicable anywhere in the world.

Recommendations for Educational Practice

In providing for education of both preservice and inservice professionals that has cultural humility as its goal, the following suggestions are made for leadership, teaching, and professional practice.  First, there must be institutional commitment to a paradigm shift in how global engagement is approached.  This can be achieved through consistency, which demonstrates a broad commitment to self-reflection and self-critique on the part of institutional leaders with verifiable processes leading to school-wide change toward cultural humility (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

Secondly, we recommend that university faculty in all schools and departments examine how cultural humility could be incorporated within policies, procedures, decision making, and course development. In the field of education, specific curricula could be developed, which includes advocacy training and emphasizes as its end, the teacher as learner (humility) as opposed to the teacher as knower (competency) (Juarez, Marvel, Brezinski, Glazner, Towbin, & Lawton, 2006).  Additionally, students and faculty must be engaged in an ongoing process of self-critique and self-awareness in order to recognize the position of power they have over those they serve. We recommend each person continually examine her or his own cultural identity and background in order to understand how it informs and shapes both thinking and practice (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

Thirdly, we would recommend considering how cultural humility may apply to working with colleagues in the public sector in America.  As we build partnerships with public schools and agencies, it is imperative that we as Christians not make assumptions about people outside our community of comfort.  Approaching others with gentle questions and curiosity goes much further in building relationships than criticism and judgment.

Finally, developing community-based reciprocal relationships, which are founded on mutual trust, is another avenue that can lead to shifting thinking and practices toward cultural humility.  Ross (2010) suggested that utilizing these kinds of community partnerships and creating opportunities for participatory research can also be a powerful tool in practice and in fostering cultural humility within the communities served.


Our reflections on our global engagement experiences, through the lens of cultural humility, align with the research of Tangney (2000) and Wear (2008).  We first had a willingness to accurately assess ourselves and our own limitations.  Secondly, we recognized the gap in our knowledge and continue to be open to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice.  The framework of cultural humility requires a servant’s heart that involves shifting our hearts, minds, and hands.  Regarding her work in the medical field, Wear stated that humility is needed if physicians are to be effective in delivering care to patients, which is empathic, as well as respectful and culturally informed.  What if this concept was also applied to education?  We believe that going beyond traditional checklists of cultural competency and employing an attitude of cultural humility could have a great impact in education in the United States as well as abroad.

Being followers of Christ who serve and lead and teach brings a unique responsibility to reflect the nature of Jesus in our interactions with others.  Attending to cultural humility is not a technique or a strategy, but our most clear understanding of the charge given to us by the Apostle Paul in Philippians Chapter 2:1-8 (New International Version).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!

Reflecting on our global experiences through the lens of cultural humility has changed how we view others and has transformed our practice.  As Christian educational leaders, we recognize the need not to just teach cultural competency to our students, but to live it out as an example.  Our journey is only beginning.


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