Seeing the Invisible: a Conversation on Culture - Summer Learning Collaborative

Our Stories

Seeing the Invisible: a Conversation on Culture

Culture lies at the core of any organization. A healthy culture lies central to efficacy in the classroom, in administrations, in the workplace, at home–pretty much anywhere we interact with other people. What kind of culture sustains trust or hard work? What are the facets of a healthy culture?

The Christina Cultural Arts Center is a staple of education and the arts in Wilmington. Since its founding, it has served members of its community by creating opportunities to engage in the arts, across genres, disciplines, and styles.  Kim Graham is the Education Director at Christina Cultural Arts Center. Ms. Graham has worked with a range of organizations around the work of building intentional culture within their communities. She spoke with creative director Noah Friedman last week to answer some of our questions around culture. 

“An opening conversation”

Why is culture in important when starting a dialogue with campsites?

Our initial conversation around culture is going to be focused on organizational culture, with a focus on camp culture, so it’s a little distinct from having a larger conversation around cultural competency and cultural informed practice. But it is certainly a facet of it.

It’s important in the beginning because we think about what we want to achieve and where we want to go without necessarily thinking about whether or not my environment is conducive to the things I want to achieve, and so having an opening conversation about the way you want people to feel and think when they are in your environment–if you say you value creativity but there is no outlet for creativity, do you really have a culture of creativity–so it just gives an opportunity for people to really take a look at what exists in their current environment, and is it what they want to be, and if not, how do they go about changing it?


Does a conversation about culture have to be specific to the unique characteristics of environment? Does context play a key role in the shape of the conversation?

Yes and no–I think the conversation is the same wherever you go in terms of beginning a dialogue about culture. Culture is often the invisible thing. Even as I’ve been preparing for our conversation [with SummerCollab], I wonder how I have the same conversation within my own organization. I do think that camps are unique in the sense that, particularly within SummerCollab, that you’re not only talking about understanding the culture of your camp environment but all of the components of culture that are coming from the different players. There is often a need to blend or meld cultures for camp that is different than someone that’s in the same organization every day, all year.


Why is blending important?

It’s important because almost any word that you pick–if you say “leadership” or “respect”–is defined differently by different people. Having an intentional conversation allows people to understand either how we see it similarly, or if we have a difference, how we align that difference.

Expectation is another big one–if you have people who have a different view of what it means to be orderly, for instance, than the camp may have for being orderly, then you might have conflicts that are emerging out of a lack of communication and a lack of some type of norming. Culture conversation helps us to be intentional about fleshing those things out.

There seems like you have to find some sort of middle ground between cultural expectations. But I imagine that when you are engaging new staff it’s actually more like identifying preconceptions about culture and then bringing the new party closer to the ideal that you’re trying to set at your site. Does that make sense?

Yes, I think so. Concrete examples are always helpful–let’s say that you say that your culture is student-led and youth focused. But when you’re pressed, you really don’t have the mechanisms that indicate how you get student feedback, and there is no process in place for student leaders to express their thought, well, then you are not really student-led. Or if you say that you value a fun and interactive environment and all of your rules are worded as “don’ts,” then that doesn’t really reflect who you say you are. Or you are in a building where all of the artifacts on the wall espouse one thing when you say you are all about another thing. Sometimes it challenges you to just take a look at your own world through the lens of how someone else might view it, and is that carrying the message that you want them to take away?

Seeing the Invisible

You said that culture is often the invisible thing–how do you make it visible when you work with an organization and how does the organization, in turn, make it visible internally?

Both come back to intentionality. I’ll use an example: we are on-boarding an intern and I wanted to have a conversation about the culture of our organization. So there is a new staff person who has been here almost two years. My statement was that my organization feels like a big family and we have to often balance keeping that feel with staying task-focused and meeting our goals and expectations so that you can’t get lulled into a casual feel and forget that there is a machine and that there is data and that there is a drive. And the staff-member was able to articulate that that’s exactly what she felt when she first came in–who are these people who are trying to be my friends? I’m just trying to work here. And how sometimes that made her feel left out because the people that had embraced that sense of family may have seemed closer, and she couldn’t always find her way in.

So if you think about that, a way to make it intentional is, first of all, to have that kind of conversation with new staff to create pathways for them to feel connected without feeling bombarded by people entering their cosmic personal space.

Things I think we could do [at CCAC] differently is have a big poster when you come in that says, “We are a village. Welcome to the tribe.” So then, how do you create artifacts that create that? If you believe in communication, how can you ensure that each camp day begins with a circle? How do you incorporate practices and rituals and communication that embodies what you want people to see as true about your culture.

So if you think about our process last year at one of [SummerCollab’s sites], one of the biggest issues was that there was a feeling of non-communication. So we heard that, you guys made a lot of adjustments, and established a very intentional and very regular series of ways that you communicated with your staff and then your staff communicated amongst themselves.


Let’s say that an organization has all of these visual markers of their cultural identity and yet the interactions don’t jive with what’s being put out. Maybe there is a facade that you are one big family and that you are a community and that there is a very strong bond between stakeholders, and yet what’s taking place doesn’t represent those values. How do you approach a problem like that?

Early in the conversation, you have to incorporate the capacity to self-reflect and receive feedback. If you can’t be able to hear that you’re off the mark then you aren’t going to be prepared to make adjustments. Sometimes the reason there is a disconnect is because there are competing values and competing components of a culture. You might have an organization that says, “We are high on feeling like a family,” but you’re walking through and hearing a lot of negative talk to the students by the staff and you kind of dig a little deeper, and you find out that it’s because they have had a high-rate of negative peer to peer interactions. So they think that they are addressing it sooner, but the mechanism they are using doesn’t support family. You sometimes have to tease out the difference between the perception of who you are and what you are actually doing.


Self-reflection can be painful; it’s not easy for an individual, let alone an organization, to do.

It’s not easy at all. In fact, my new phrase since last summer has been “emotional constancy.” It is quite a task to say that you are going to embrace it as a practice and to actually put it into practice every day. A lot of times we say we are going to do something, but then I have to challenge myself not only to work with my staff to be emotionally consistent with their students, but that I have to be emotionally consistent with my staff if they don’t meet my expectations.

Imagine that you are building culture from scratch within a new organization. How do you create something that is authentic when it’s aspirational, when it doesn’t really exist yet, without making it seems totally fabricated or forced? There seems to be a delicate balance; you want something to develop naturally but also have to put pressure on it to make it grow.

I agree–you start with the aspirational, whether it’s through visioning exercises or discussion about creating say, if you were creating the best camp in the universe, what would it look like? What would it feel like? How would it move? And then you whittle down from there to determine what’s reasonable to start with  and what are some basic norms that we want to be true about our camp–we want to always listen, we want to value differences–you latch onto a handful of aspirational truisms that you want to be true and then you challenge yourself to keep coming back and saying, “Are we moving towards this? Where are we stumbling and why are we stumbling?” It becomes a feedback loop: this is who I say I am; am I being that? When I’m not being that, what is impeding my progress?


I imagine that one of the key influences is being able to ground your culture in interaction and relationships. If you start with visual culture like artifacts, the culture will feel inauthentic because they do not arise out of relationships and relationships are the bedrock of any culture.

Yes, I agree. You start with the interaction and the interactives because those are the key. In terms of all camps regardless of what their finite focus is, often are dealing with imparting information, whether it’s a skill or an attitude or knowledge to kids. A social interaction model is the best way to get that across and that always comes back to relationships. Grounding yourself in relationship development is going to help everything else. When you pull back from relationships and you look at the outer expression, then you can perceive to make sure the outer expression matches what you see as your inner work.


Kim Graham serves as the Education Director for Christina Cultural Arts Center where she has been employed for nearly 20 years.   While she often wears many hats, Kim M. Graham’s purpose is the same – To utilize the arts to change lives and transform communities.  

Kim holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology with a concentration in Psychodrama, which allows drama to be utilized for therapeutic wholeness   After seven years of counseling experience with individuals and families plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, Ms. Graham joined the CCAC team.  Now she shares her wealth of knowledge on risk behavior prevention, education, and family dynamics with parents and children of all ages. The performing arts are an integral part of the work she does.  She is also a member of the teaching faculty at Christina Cultural Arts Center in the theater department. She has studied the arts at The Wilmington Black Theater Ensemble, Christina Cultural Arts Center and Freedom Theater.

For more information, visit