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Storytelling for Cultural Competency

Starting Monday (August 20, 2018), I'm going to be participating in a learning experience called "Storytelling for Cultural Competence."

My colleague Jessica Beckendorf and I created the experience as a part of the upcoming 2018 Military Families Learning Network (MFLN) Virtual Conference focusing on cultural competence. When we started working on the learning experience, our goal was to get participants more comfortable talking about cultural competence in advance of the conference, but as the experience developed new goals emerged.

We discovered that developing cultural competence is a journey, something to be worked on over time, not just over a few days. We also discovered the connections between storytelling and cultural competence highlighted in the work of Jan Carter-Black. As a result, "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" changed from a pre-conference activity into a learning experience that frames the MFLN Virtual Conference, but also serves a a launching point for and, hopefully, a way to sustain your momentum on your cultural competence journey.

The experience begins with the "Personal Storytelling Journal," which provides daily prompts, weekly reflections and storytelling tips that encourage self-knowledge (an important part of cultural competence), cultivate empathy and connection, and provide a space to practice the vulnerability and authenticity required for cultural conversation.

Over the next several weeks, I'll be sharing my experience using the journal on this blog. I hope you can follow along, but I really hope you'll try the "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" learning experience yourself.

I have been teaching in a way that suggests I believe learning is episodic. I’ve been designing learning events as discrete points in time with a beginning, middle and end, as if the learners had been intellectually born into this one particular session and with my final Powerpoint slide they will pass peacefully away never to be thought of again.

My actual belief about learning is that it is continuous and interconnected, that it is collaborative and subversive, but my actions have not lived up to that belief. This inconsistency between my philosophy and actions has been highlighted in my mind by “Bojack Horseman,” the animated series on Netflix.

I watched the first couple of episodes when the show debuted in 2014, but I never really connected with it. I think I expected something different from an animated show for adults, possibly something more pointedly “joke-y”, like “Archer.” I went back to the show last year on the recommendation of my son. What I found, after sticking with it for more than a couple episodes, was funny, dark, beautiful, sad and thoughtful.

In his excellent video essay about the show, Will Schroder argues that one of the things that makes “Bojack Horseman” so good is the fact that it is serialized, not episodic. Instead of resolving the problem or question of each episode in that same episode like most sitcoms, it “shows life going on with all its complexity and uncertainty.”

Schroder, using “Bojack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s own words, makes the case that stories that give us fully-resolved endings lead us to chase endings of our own where everything will make sense. Instead of endings, life gives us a series of positive and negative moments in time.

By focusing on those positive and negative moments, Schroder says, “Bojack Horseman” asserts that “happiness is ephemeral. There is no one thing, or experience or person that is going to make us permanently happy. The best we can hope for is temporary happiness.”

I think it’s the same with teaching and learning. There is no one course or workshop that will result in us achieving our learning goals or in us becoming a better or more learned person. Teaching and learning are a series of positive and negative moments to be experienced, connected and leveraged in an effort to take better care of each other.

So, how can I practice teaching and learning in a way consistent with this philosophy? I’m not exactly sure, but I can take another lesson from “Bojack Horseman.”

“It gets easier. Everyday it gets a little easier, but you’ve got to do it everyday. That’s the hard part, but it does get easier.” - Jogging Baboon

Featured image: "Lisa Hanawalt" by Rachel Lovinger CC BY-NC

An important article came out in the June 2017 edition of the Journal of Extension.

"Redefining the Concept of Learning in Cooperative Extension" is a thoughtful, challenging conversation starter. I recently discussed it with the NDSU Extension Innovation team, and it sparked several questions from the practical to the existential.

After that conversation, I could hardly wait to talk with the authors, and they were kind enough to oblige. Here's my conversation with Steven Worker4-H Youth Development Advisor, University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources; Kristy OuelletteAssociate Extension Professor, 4-H Youth Development, University of Maine, Cooperative Extension; and Alexa Maille4-H STEM Specialist, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension. I hope it gets you thinking.