As a trainer, facilitator and program officer at Youth Outside, I have the honor of building relationships with countless nonprofit organizations working tirelessly to accomplish their missions. Regularly, these organizations identify their desire to be more culturally relevant and regularly, people feel at a loss for how to take actionable steps for making cultural relevancy a reality in their organization. And at the individual level, many leaders tell me they are confused and need to first understand what cultural relevancy means before they can connect it to their work.
This confusion is understandable. Since I started working in the sector, the cultural relevancy conversation has evolved – a lot. When I began, the focus started and ended with “diversifying the workforce.” Today, people realize more and more that a diverse workforce alone does not create cultural relevancy. In addition to workforce diversity, an organizational culture of equity and inclusion are necessary to both anchor and guide efforts to engage communities. A powerful paradigm shift, this new lens invites organizations and the people within them to examine their current systems and cultures in order to make organic and sustainable change possible. This journey of transformation is no small endeavor, and when an organization identifies its readiness to embark upon it comprehensively, receiving appropriate levels of support is essential to its success.
Over a seven-month period in 2016, I had the pleasure of co-designing and co-facilitating the Cultural Relevancy Series, a unique capacity building program for youth-serving environmental organizations. The series offered training, tools and coaching for grantees to strengthen their understanding of equity and inclusion, deepen their commitment to systems-level change, and implement concrete actions for increased relevancy to, and inclusion of, the communities they engage.
The series was a direct response to feedback from grantee partners who had expressed a need for support for their efforts to be more culturally relevant and to have a greater impact on their constituencies. With each organization’s specific needs and interests in mind, Youth Outside collaborated with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Morgan Family Foundation to host the 2016 Cultural Relevancy Series for their grantee partners.
Youth Outside has learned from this experience. In the newly-released case study Deepening Commitments: Working Toward Equity and Inclusion When Connecting Youth To The Outdoors, we at Youth Outside examine the lessons learned and the results of participants’ experience in the series. The study reveals how embedding cultural relevancy into the fabric of everyday operations and culture can result in greater impact and sustained organizational change. The study also explores the potential for broader applications across sectors.
I was particularly struck by the following insights from participants:
- Working towards increased cultural relevancy is both challenging and rewarding. Participants reflected on the ongoing dedication, intention, and patience required to achieve change, and the feelings of empowerment that stem from approaching this work with humility and mindfulness.
- We must challenge the assumption that delivering programs and cultural relevancy efforts are competing priorities. When participants accelerated projects to make their programs, curriculum, staffing, board leadership, and community engagement work more culturally relevant, they found that the results yielded a greater impact for youth, including on outcomes like health, environmental leadership, equity and access.
- Cultural relevancy is far more than a “nice to have.” In fact, as many participants recognized, the integration of cultural relevancy is a core factor in determining how well organizations accomplish their missions. More inclusive work is more effective work.
These lessons point to the value of a team approach to achieving the systems change needed for cultural relevancy. This work is challenging and deeply personal, and no one individual can or should be the lone champion for increased equity and inclusion within their organization. Nor is this an endeavor that individual organizations or even the social sector can or should tackle alone. For us at Youth Outside, the findings of the series reaffirm the importance of the sector modelling a commitment to increased cultural relevancy by investing in the support organizations need to make change. Together, foundations can leverage support of grantees and serve as champions of their efforts to become more culturally relevant, equitable, and inclusive.