Wake Forest professor uses Smart Start grant to create first cultural competency program for childcare workers

Steven Folmar, a visiting professor of anthropology at Wake Forest University, is using a grant from the Forsyth Early Childhood Partnership to provide the first cultural competency training offered by Smart Start to North Carolina teachers and other professionals working with children ages birth through five years. The partnership is the local branch of the statewide Smart Start program.

The year-long program, “Growing Wings,” began with a group of early childhood teachers and administrators in February, after the nonprofit Forsyth Early Childhood Partnership approved the $27,486 grant request. The partnership also awarded Folmar a $67,688 grant to teach a second group beginning in January 2001. The grants allow the program to operate at no cost to participants.

“Smart Start has long considered cultural diversity to be a critical component to raising balanced, healthy children,” said Karen Ponder, executive director of N.C. Partnership for Children, the state’s Smart Start agency. “Smart Start allows individual partnerships to decide how best to address the issues that ensure that children are prepared for school. We’re very pleased to see that the Forsyth Early Childhood Partnership has taken such a proactive stance to make childcare teachers more sensitive to cultural issues.”

Smart Start has sponsored short-term cultural sensitivity training for childcare workers in other North Carolina cities before through programs at community colleges, but has never funded a long-term, comprehensive program.

The current Growing Wings group includes staff members from five area agencies: Forsyth Early Childhood Partnership, the Association for the Benefit of Childhood Development, Technical Assistance Center, Work Family Resource Center and the Reynolds Health Center. Folmar will invite daycare and preschool directors and teachers to join the second group which will begin meeting in January.

The idea for the year-long experiential program came after Folmar observed the way cultural sensitivity training was performed at businesses and educational organizations.

“As our society becomes increasingly diverse, more and more groups are offering short-term, seminar-type programs about cultural sensitivity,” Folmar said. “People leave these programs with great enthusiasm, but aren’t given the tools to apply what they’ve learned. Over the course of a year, Growing Wings will give participants the chance to use what they’re learning in their daily lives and bring their thoughts back to class.”

The program uses experiential exercises to teach participants how to relate to people from various ethnic backgrounds fairly.

“Culture is like an iceberg – we see only the tip of it as we notice how people’s dress and cuisine are different than our own,” Folmar said. “But it’s the 90 percent that we miss – why someone uses certain sentence structure, etc. – that could have the greatest impact on how we choose to relate to others. We make assumptions about how to treat people based upon our limited knowledge of their culture.”

The group is learning how to relate to others in an assumption-free manner. “It’s all about dealing with a person on an individual level instead of assuming that they take on all the traits of their culture,” Folmar said. “For example, we should avoid using phrases like, ‘you people,’ and avoid assuming that because someone is Latino they like to eat tacos.”

Folmar also designed the program to help childcare workers feel comfortable working with families from various ethnic backgrounds. This will help children develop high self-esteem and positive attitudes about diversity, he said. “We recently gave the group a scenario to tackle that seemed to really hit home,” Folmar said. “We asked them to pretend they were a nanny for a Mexican family and that they needed to find out what the children would want for breakfast. The second part of the exercise required them to go to a Mexican store and buy the food.”

Some members of the group ventured out into the community to find an answer. They approached some Hispanic construction workers and asked what Mexican children would eat for breakfast. The reply they got was telling, Folmar said.

“The man who answered said, ‘Is this a rich family or a poor family, because they would eat different things,’ and that drove home the point that even within cultures, there is diversity,” Folmar said.

Growing Wings is taught by Folmar and Jeanne Simonelli, chair of the Wake Forest anthropology department, and Frankie Denise Powell, a professor at Winston-Salem State University. Students from Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State have also worked on the program.

Folmar earned three degrees from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, including a doctorate in anthropology. He began teaching at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in 1992 and moved to the Reynolda (main) campus in August 2000.

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