Cultivating Cultural Competency in After School

Sully Diaz, Director of our PAZ After-School Program at PS 24 in Sunset Park Brooklyn, shares how she and her staff make everyone feel welcome in a program whose participants come from all over the world. 

PAZ classroom

PAZ families come from all over the world. 


As director of Morningside Center’s PAZ after-school program at PS 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a community with many recent immigrants from around the world, I know that being culturally competent isn’t just about awareness. It’s about taking intentional action to ensure that everyone is included.

Last year, a Muslim immigrant mother asked to speak to me about removing her daughter from PAZ. When I met with the family, I learned that the daughter had told her mother about a PAZ dance activity she’d taken part in that was not aligned with the family’s religious traditions. At that point, I could have shrugged, informed the family that this was part of the PAZ program, and let the girl go.

Sully Diaz
   Sully Diaz.

Instead, I listened to the family. I told them I understood that they didn’t want to see their values and traditions undermined. But at the same time, I explained the context behind our dance activity. The mother felt listened to and respected, and she came to understand that our activities had value within a program that has benefited her daughter.She elected to keep her daughter in the program, and I assured her that I would keep her informed of all PAZ activities related to music and dance. 

In PAZ, we make it a point to learn and know the community we serve. And in a diverse neighborhood like ours, that takes some work. Our families come from Puerto Rico as well as Latin American countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many other children come from Chinese-speaking and Arabic-speaking families.

As the bilingual daughter of immigrant parents, I can easily relate to and connect with the more than half of our families who come from Spanish-speaking countries. But being culturally competent means going beyond those boundaries. In any educational setting, we’ve got to cultivate in ourselves a level of empathy, understanding, and respect for values and traditions that are different from our own.

I try not to let linguistic differences keep me from interacting meaningfully with the Chinese-speaking and Arabic-speaking families in our program. I make it a point to remember the families’ names, and actively work to make them feel included in our activities. During our thematic projects, we encourage students and their families to express themselves authentically, and to share their traditions and identities with the rest of the after-school community.PAZ classroom

To support our diverse families, we need to provide the children with social and emotional support and guidance. Fostering social and emotional learning (SEL) in young people is a central focus of our after-school program. We actively teach young people such skills as empathy, standing up to bias, conflict resolution, and working together to address wrongs and strengthen the community. This lays the groundwork for cultural competency in our young people.

But we can’t effectively foster SEL and cultural competency in children if we’re not modeling it ourselves. We can’t do our jobs without being culturally sensitive to the ideals that our young people and their families bring to our program. So we provide regular workshops to help our staff develop their own SEL skills. We build our staff’s capacity to address discriminatory behavior in our community, including in the children. We support staff in embracing all the cultures and traditions of our families. Ongoing staff training to support our ever-evolving community is key.

We are constantly finding new ways to invite self-expression in our young people and their families and encourage them to bring their true selves to the program. Despite our different traditions, values, and even holidays, we as a collective make the effort to embrace and celebrate our cultural diversity – and mostly, we succeed.