Diversity and Democracy

Cultural Agility: Leadership for Change

Minnesota ranks high nationally in both civic engagement and racial disparities (in education, employment, incarceration, and other areas). This stark reality requires new forms of engagement—and new leadership. With its Cultural Agility Collaboration (CAC), Minnesota Campus Compact has been working with a diverse group of fifty community members, students, faculty, and staff to generate campus civic engagement efforts that better equip people to work across differences and advance racial equity.

The CAC is funded by the Bush Foundation, which defines cultural agility as occurring when leaders “(1) understand their own culture and how it shapes their experience, (2) understand and appreciate cultural difference with others, and (3) incorporate this knowledge into their interactions and decision making” (Bush Foundation 2016). Our goals are not only to enhance the cultural agility of individual CAC participants, but also to develop with them key insights and resources that can advance ongoing efforts at colleges and universities and at Minnesota Campus Compact. This essay reflects emerging lessons from the project.

Stories, Trust, and Time

Relationships are essential to the CAC’s work. Participants have welcomed opportunities to share stories and engage authentically with each other, considering both their individual identities and historical and cultural contexts. Informal conversations, structured reflective activities, and discussions of the stories we carry (and those imposed on us) have been instrumental. Devoting significant time to the process has been challenging yet rewarding, and new connections among participants have led to collaborations outside formal CAC programming.

Among the project’s staff and leadership team, varied self-interests, assumptions, and theories of change have surfaced, adding complexity and depth to our collaborative work. The dominant culture—and our own desire to effect change—encourages us to leap prematurely into planning and action. Yet that can mean simply operating in the midst of difference, instead of truly accessing it as a resource. To prepare ourselves and others for full participation in our diverse democracy, we need to be willing to build relationships first—to speak our truth, admit what we don’t know, and listen deeply to others.

Power and Systems Change

As much as CAC members want to make change, they tend to locate power in others. During initial, separate retreats with students, community members, and campus faculty and staff, participants perceived members from the other groups as having more power than themselves. When they convened as a full cohort, they were struck by this pattern. They also sought to break down positional labels, insisting that they all were community members with both room to learn and knowledge or wisdom to share. The concept of spheres of influence became important in these conversations. One participant also offered the metaphor of “moving boulders” for and with one another, sparking discussion of how participants could leverage their own influence and activate allies.

What CAC participants most desire is systems change: for example, faculty and curricula that fully reflect community realities. This is also the area where participants feel least equipped, because systems change requires long-term strategies and relationships as well as deep, context-specific knowledge and skills. Leaders must be able to support small successes without distracting from the broader goal. They must also be able to identify when they are colluding with the systems they hope to change.

A Critical Phase

Collaborative leadership requires patience and adaptation, and the CAC is in a critical transitional phase as we shift from defining visionary goals to identifying specific actions for change. CAC working groups are now focused on developing their own and others’ capacities to facilitate inclusive, equitable spaces; to support institutional change and emotionally sustain themselves in that hard work; and to promote authentic community engagement, grounded in deep relationships rather than short-term projects. We are far from done, yet we are surer than ever that cultural agility, a network of trust, and a shared sense of power are essential to achieving these goals.

For more information about the CAC and related resources, see http://www.mncampuscompact.org.


Bush Foundation. 2016. “What Do We Mean By Cultural Agility?” https://www.bushfoundation.org/grants/leadership-network-grants/cultural-agility.

Autumn Brown is a core member at the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA); Nickyia Cogshell is chief diversity officer at Century College; Susan Gust is a community development consultant at Partners Three Consulting Company; Tania D. Mitchell is assistant professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota; Sinda Nichols is program director at Minnesota Campus Compact; Julie Plaut is executive director at Minnesota Campus Compact.

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