Tuesday / June 25

Cultural Proficiency Starts From the Inside Out 

I recall the first time my principal, a good friend and mentor, asked me to consider becoming an administrator. The challenge was to use my leadership skills beyond my classroom and influence positive change school-wide. This would be a seminal event as my principal referred me to an administrator program with an emphasis in social justice and handed me his personal copy of Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders written by Randall B. Lindsey, Kikanza Nuri Robbins, and Raymond D. Terrell. That was the start of my journey into the world of social justice, culture, equity, and access.

 An “Inside-Out” Approach 

As I reflect on my cultural proficiency journey, I often think back to when I was just eight years old and in the Third grade at Rockwood Elementary, in the small border town of Calexico, California bordering Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. Reflection of one’s own life experiences is an important and critical element to understanding how significant events in our lives tend to shape the “lens” through which we view the world (Lindsey, Graham, Westphal, & Jew, 2008). Since embarking on my journey, what I have discovered is that unless you take time to reflect, you may never realize how significant events impact your worldview.

Reflection is not just remembering events, but trying to analyze how they influence our individual mindsets. As we start our own cultural proficiency journey, it is important to start with an “inside-out” approach that causes us to analyze and maybe even question how we arrived to hold certain assumptions, biases, and perspectives (Lindsey, NUri Robins, Terrell, 2009). As culturally proficient professionals we must be courageous to dismantle perspectives that can cloud our judgement or even impair our willingness to change. Only in this way can we eliminate barriers of our own thinking before we can look to breaking down institutional barriers and leading educational change.

Life Experiences Shape our Lens

Remembering Calexico, I recall the extreme heat but still enjoyed my K-12 schooling. Funny, the thing is that even in a small town that sat on the United States and Mexico border, all my elementary school teachers were all white except for one. To this day, as a testimony to their positive impact on my early education, I can still recall all their names.

On a hot Spring day, I chose to wear a white t-shirt with a big brown fist on the front of it with writing that proudly proclaimed “Chicano Power!” This was a gift given to me by one of my aunts during the turbulent civil rights era of the late sixties. I had just been given homework to check-out a book from the library and bring it to class the next day. I was an avid reader who enjoyed reading because it could transport me to places beyond the hot, flat agricultural terrain of the Imperial Valley.

I stood in line for what seemed to be an eternity and as I finally stepped into the library, I was told not to take another step. The librarian glared at me and told me that I could not enter the library with “that shirt” pointing to my t-shirt. She said it was inappropriate and that the t-shirt was an insult to her and that I should be proud to be American. I tried to explain how important it was I check-out a book for my homework but it fell on deaf ears. So, I did the unthinkable. I decided to disregard her order, took off my t-shirt, walked in shirtless, indiscriminately grabbed a book off the rack, pulled the card, slammed it on her counter and ran-out! Not until I was introduced to the concepts of cultural proficiency did I realize that this was a real life example of systemic oppression and privilege.  Educators who do not recognize that systems of oppression and privilege exist may fail to “understand their students and the barriers that impede their students’ access to education” (Lindsey, 2009, p. 62).  This has shaped my lens through which I now examine school policy and practice, such as dress codes and discipline policies and their potential to impact on a student’s access to education.

Begin the Change Process, both Individually and Institutionally

If you are an educator embarking on your own cultural proficiency journey for the first time, I ask that you reflect on the following questions and challenge any unhealthy practices that are culturally destructive, culturally incapacitating, or culturally blind.

  1. Reflect on the concept of an inside-out approach. Using an equity lens, what cultural blind spots do you have that you may not have been previously aware?
  2. How might we, as educational leaders, have perpetuated barriers for our students and parents by our failure to recognize our presumption of entitlement, systemic oppression, or unawareness of the need to adapt?
  3. Recall a time when you were aware of a specific policy or heard an inappropriate comment which marginalized or disenfranchised a person or an ethnic group. Did you act or did you remain silent? Why did you react or not react?
  4. What institutional, district, and school-site policies might be constricting or preventing students from excelling or access to a free and public education? “Do our actions reflect our values as educators or as a district and/or school site?” (Arriaga, 2016)
  5. Review this real live case: and ask yourself what how would you have done, or how would you have handled it? Do you agree with the decision? Why or why not?

In closing, going back to my story and the event that occurred nearly 48 years ago involving the t-shirt on the left below, do you see any similarities of the expression, controversy or reactions schools or communities may have relative to the t-shirt on the right? Have things changed all that much? Or are things much the way they continue to be?






Arriaga, T. T., & Lindsey, R. B. (2016). Opening doors: an implementation template for cultural

proficiency. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A SAGE Company.

Lindsey, R. B., Graham, S, Westphal, C., & Jew, C. (2008). Culturally proficient inquiry: a lens for identifying and examining educational gaps.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A SAGE Company.

Lindsey, R. B., Nuri Robins, K., & Terrell, R. D. (2009). Cultural proficiency: a manual for school leaders.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Latest comments

  • Thank you for this article! It’s just what we need in our district as we continue to work on managing the dynamics of difference!

  • Thank you, Pete! I appreciate you sharing your life experiences and relating them to our work as educators. Good to “hear” your voice in this article!

    • Thanks John. Means a lot to have your feedback.

  • Great job, Pete. I applaud your efforts to bring more culturally competent issues to light, especially those that affect our students in schools. Thanks for sharing. It’s amazing how things in our childhood are so vivid so many years later – proof that how we treat our children will remain with them forever.

    Helen Galván

    • Appreciate and agree with your comments Helen.

  • Excellent article. I plan to share this with a district leadership team I am working with in a predominately white school district.

    Thank you for this gift!

    • Thank you Tracey. Hope it can help you with the district you are working with.

  • Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!! What a wonderful analogy. This was well said Pete. I am Proud to be on your team. Keep Fighting the GOOD Fight!
    Yours In the Fight
    Por Vida

    • Lawanda – thank you so much for your encouragement and support. Pete

leave a comment