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News | Aug. 13, 2021

Soldiers, Airmen discuss structural competence, cultural humility

By Don Branum Vermont National Guard Public Affairs

The Vermont National Guard invited Dr. Maria Mercedes Avila, a member of the Vermont Governor’s Racial Equity Task Force, to conduct a workshop on structural competence and cultural humility at the 158th Fighter Wing in South Burlington, Aug. 13.

In opening remarks for the event, Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, the state adjutant general, said he appreciated the enthusiasm of the Soldiers and Airmen who attended as well as the outside expertise that Avila brought to the Vermont National Guard.

“I don’t need people to tell us what we’re doing right,” Knight said. “I want to know where we can improve.”

The workshop, titled “Structural Competence and Cultural Humility to Address Disparities and Inequities,” focused on how inequity harms both individuals and communities; examined ways to establish cultural and structural competence; and looked at Defense Department Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion recommendations for how to ensure the DOD has a force that is as diverse at all levels as the nation it defends.

Cultural humility, Avila said, is defined as a commitment to critically reflect on oneself and one’s organization, to fix power imbalances where they shouldn’t exist, and to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others. Cultural competence includes valuing diversity, developing the ability to self-assess, considering the dynamics of cultural interactions, maintaining institutionalized culture knowledge, and adapting to reflect an understanding of cultural diversity.

Structural inequities, such as racism, sexism, and queerphobia, can create trauma-related harm in people who are part of historically oppressed groups. These same inequities can affect the economic mobility, health, and employment of entire communities. Within the armed services, structural inequity has historically taken the form of policies such as segregation, which President Harry Truman eliminated in 1948, or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which Congress effectively repealed in 2011.

 Short-term recommendations from DOD include removing photographs and references to race, ethnicity, and gender from personnel files in promotion and selection processes, as well as enforcing stronger anti-harassment and anti-discrimination practices, Avila said. On the longer term, senior leader positions must reflect the nation’s increasingly diverse racial and ethnic makeup, and aptitude tests must eliminate barriers to diversity while maintaining a rigorous screening process.

As the state equal employment manager’s team and the members of the Vermont Guard’s Joint Diversity Executive Council work through the development of a strategic plan, Avila and others with content expertise will continue to collaborate.

“I think it’s worth it to bring in that outside subject matter expertise to give a different perspective,” Knight said.

Knight pointed out initiatives within the Vermont National Guard to increase diversity and inclusion within its ranks. The Vermont Air National Guard’s Priority One Task Force focuses on improving recruiting, retention, diversity, and inclusion within the 158th Fighter Wing. In addition, Vermont has received the first authorization from National Guard Bureau to recruit women into any of its Army combat units.

“Vermont leads the way. Whatever we touch, we lead the way,” Knight said. 

Based on the feedback she received, Avila said participants wanted a longer session with more time for discussion. The content in the workshop was new for many of the attendees.

“Equity work takes buy-in, commitment, and a willingness to reflect and change,” she said. “The Vermont National Guard is showing their commitment to this lifelong journey.”

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