Using photographs for strategic exploration

 In Visioning

What makes a professional association culturally competent?

Peggy Pusch and I have been exploring cross-cultural effectiveness using VisualsSpeak for several months. Peggy is the Executive Director of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research USA (SIETAR-USA). I am the Vice President of Outreach for the American Society for Training and Development Cascadia Chapter (ASTD-Cascadia).

SIETAR-USAThe SIETAR-USA board is multi-cultural and multinational. You can see they are diverse, and you can hear it in their accents. They are all involved with helping people reach across differences in their professional lives, although from the perspectives of different disciplines.

ASTD-Cascadia Logo

The ASTD-Cacscadia board appears to be more similar. Each member has some connection to training and development, across a variety of industries.

Why do we care?

SIETAR-USA and ASTD-Cascadia have been using VisualsSpeak at their annual board retreats for the past several years. Two years ago, ASTD-Cascadia identified diversity as a core value for the association. The commitment was reaffirmed as a strategic focus at the next board retreat. ASTD-Cascadia recognizes a change initiative to become inclusive of new audiences takes long term focus. Portland Oregon is lucky to be home to SIETAR-USA, and there are a number of people who are members of both organizations. We recognized an opportunity to utilize the expertise of SIETAR-USA to assist ASTD-Cascadia in their work.

When we looked at what has been written about strategic diversity initiatives, we found a lot about business and some about non-profits, but not much about professional associations. They are a particular kind of non-profit, with working member boards. We became interested in how professional associations gain and sustain the motivation to become inclusive.


Our first step was to ask each of the boards we work with to create images of a culturally competent professional associations. We worked with SIETAR-USA first, then ASTD-Cascadia the next month.

Group selecting images

We covered a large table with a piece of white paper cut from a roll. The group was given a VisualsSpeak ImageSet and told to spend 20 minutes constructing an image together of a culturally competent professional association. We mentioned they should pay attention to the process they go through as well as the content. There was some discussion as the image was constructed, then more sharing to describe the various elements that were added. Each group also talked about what they noticed about the process of making the image.

What we heard

Both groups talked about the need for the association to be a collection of individuals who are working together toward common goals. They cited the need for multiple communication methods, flexibility in structure, and a comfort level with conflict. Both groups commented on how the process of creating the image was very much like what it was like being a member of a volunteer board. Each person brings their pictures/stuff to the table, and then you have to figure out how to fit it all in.

The SIETAR-USA board members spoke from a variety of culture specific areas. We heard people saying things like, ‘as a Russian I see’ or “as an African-American I see”. The differences were evidenced overtly, multiple perspectives and interpretations were explored. There was playfulness about differences. Space was intentionally made for order and chaos, and the tension between those who wanted to impose order and those who wanted to let things be freer was discussed.

With ASTD-Cascadia people were searching for ways to get beyond their own blind spots. There was discomfort expressed about not knowing what to do. Invisible differences were inferred, but not overtly claimed. A major question was how do you show invisible diversity?

What we saw

ASTD-Cascadia culturally competent organization

The image above is ASTD-Cascadia, the one below is SIETAR-USA. So although the stories were very different, the images were similar. As a matter of fact, almost half of the individual images used were the same.

SIETAR-USA Culturally Competent Association

The work continues

Peggy taught a pre-conference workshop at the SIETAR-Europa conference, and asked a random multicultural multinational group to create an image. They constructed a more ordered image. And used 14 of the same images as ASTD-Cascadia and SIETAR-USA.


Peggy and I did a program at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, where we had three multicultural multinational groups make images. We gave the same instructions we had the previous three times, but this time the results were a bit different. All three groups were working at the same time, so we weren’t facilitating the process as much as we had in the past. One of the groups created their own process where each person selected images and the group then listened to why they chose them. Together they decided the unifying themes and created the final image together.

SIIC group

SIIC Evening Program 2007

The other two groups struggled. Informal leaders rose, and the other group members seemed uncomfortable, but seemingly unable to stop the process that was occurring. Each group produced an image. One seemed to have input from group members. The other group reduced the images to a small group of abstract images and said they were the only ones they could agree on.

SIIC group

What have we learned?

Diverse groups are complex. The boards we worked with had some prior relationships with each other, and most people knew one or both of us as facilitators. There was some level of trust. This helped the discussion deepen, and we were able to surface more cohesive material.

Assembling random groups of diverse people is more risky. You don’t know what is going to happen. While some may be able to perform the task at some level, actively facilitating is very helpful. Even at two intercultural events where all the participants might be expected to have some developed skills around working across differences, difficulties arose, and were not resolved in the short time available for the task. Interestingly enough, the group that had the most difficultly also contained the most experienced interculturalists.

Understanding how to work with people different than us takes time and practice. Individuals need to be committed to learning and growing, and the organizations we create when we come together need to learn also. We are committed to continuing in this process with more groups, and allowing it to inform the work we do helping professional associations become more inclusive.

Starting the process with VisualsSpeak gives us an understanding of the values, beliefs, and assumptions individuals are bringing to the work. It provides a ‘third space’ to begin to discuss difficult issues. It also is teaching us the types of images that resonate and represent the desirable qualities of diversity. It is forming a deeper understanding of what images we can use, beyond the line of rainbow people, to reinforce the values in our print and online materials.

Showing 3 comments
  • beth

    nice, detailed summary of the results, as well as some detailed how-to. i look forward to hearing/seeing more at sietar.

  • Christine Martell

    Thanks Beth, it has been a very interesting exploration and I look forward to see where it goes.

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  • Increasing diversity by becoming more inclusive | BlogCascadia

    […] The board has incorporated diversity skill building into their meetings. We explored the question of ‘What makes a culturally competent professional association?” in the April board meeting. You can see the process we went through, and how another more diverse organization explored the same question on my blog: Using photographs for strategic exploration. […]


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