Cultural Competence: A 21st-Century Leadership Skill

Article excerpt

I recently attended "Diversity in Physical Activity and Health: Measurement and Research Issues and Challenges," a conference cosponsored by the Measurement and Evaluation Council of AAPAR and the Cooper Institute. During the three days of the conference, medical doctors, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, university professors, graduate students, and health and physical activity practitioners and administrators from around the country wrestled with ideas to improve the effectiveness of physical activity programming for the diverse communities that currently constitute the United States. One of the messages I took home from the conference was that "cultural competence" is a requisite skill for all 21st-century physical activity leaders.

The Changing Face of America

Today's United States population is very different than it was just a half-century ago. It is simultaneously getting "bigger, older, and more diverse" (Scommegna, 2004, p. 2). Between 1950 and 2000, the population grew by a remarkable 85 percent, a growth rate four times that of many other industrialized countries. While much of the United States' growth can be attributed to birth and death trends, net immigration (i.e., immigration less emigration) is also a significant component of the national population growth, and it will likely continue to be so through at least 2050 (Shrestha, 2006). The leading source countries (of birth) for legal immigrants in 2004 were Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic. The result of this net immigration trend is a population that is more ethnically and racially diverse. In 2000, nearly 99 percent of the persons in the United States identified themselves as being of only one race; 81 percent of them classified themselves as "white" (referring to people with origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa), 12.7 percent as "black" or African American, and 3.8 percent as "Asian," with smaller percentages for all other racial groups. The Census Bureau has projected that by 2050 only 72 percent of the United States population will be white. While there will be a modest increase in the number of blacks and African Americans, the most dramatic increases in nonwhite populations will be of Asians and persons of "other races," such as American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, and persons who can be identified with two or more races. Additionally, persons of Hispanic or Latino origin (regardless of race) are expected to increase from 12.6 percent to 24.4 percent by 2050 (Shrestha, 2006).


Before 1950, the United States was considered to be a "young" country due to relatively high birth rates, declining infant and childhood mortality rates, and high rates of net immigration by young workers and families. However, since the middle of the last century, the United States has experienced rapid population aging. By 2050, we expect one in every five persons in the population to be age 65 or older, with the majority of these older persons being women, due to greater female longevity (Shrestha, 2006).

Ethnicity, race, and age are, of course, not the only ways that the United States is becoming more diverse. In addition to the increases in some ethnic and racial populations, we also see an increase in the variety of the religions being practiced by significant numbers in the population. Furthermore, medical advances in diagnosis and treatment have increased the number of "differently able" persons living among us, and societal changes have swelled the number of "out" gays and lesbians. In 2000, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau counted the self-reported number of same-sex "unmarried partners" living in the United States.

Implications for Physical Activity Leaders

Clearly, the "face" of the United States has changed and will continue to change in substantial ways. …