|Articles from Reaching Today's Youth
Youth, The Community Circle of Caring Journal, is published by the National Educational Service.
|Complete citation for this article:
Osher, D. & Mejia, B. (1999). Overcoming barriers to intercultural relationships: A
culturally competent approach. Reaching Today's Youth, 3(2), 48-52.
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Barriers to Intercultural Relationships: A Culturally Competent Approach
David Osher and Brenda Mejia
In this article, the authors profile two exemplary
programsone in Denver,Colorado and one in Washington, D.C.that are
successfully bridging cultural differences through the development of cultural competence.
Culture is a complex matter. Although we often think of it
in terms of beliefs and values, it is actually more than that. Culture comprises what we
feel; what we learn; what we do; who we spend our time with; memories of and preferences
for smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings; images and stories we cherish. It is the
resource we all draw on when we problem solve, interpret information, plan for the future,
assess ourselves and others, and locate ourselves within time and space.
Because the concept of culture is so complex, building
cultural bridges is far more than merely "bringing together" individuals from
separate cultures. Cultural bridges must be grounded in the historical experiences of
individuals, groups, and nationsfor example, experiences with racial, ethnic,
linguistic, or religious oppression and privilege. They must be shaped by how these
experiences are comprehended, remembered, and processed by different individuals and group
members. Given these factors, building cultural bridges between the many cultures that
exist in this country is neither an easy nor a short-term process. It requires safe places
that address the barriers to bicultural and multicultural community in the United States.
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|Barriers to Cultural
Even in communities and among
people who are sincerely striving for cultural competence, there are very real obstacles
to overcome. One such obstacle is that cultural beliefs and values are so much a part of
our day-to-day reality that we take them for granted, without realizing how much they
shape our every interaction. This unconscious cultural "baggage" influences
perception, response, and ultimately behavior, even when we believe we are acting in very
objective ways. Although ones culture forms a lens through which everything is
viewed, most people are so accustomed to their lenses that they fail to realize they are
even there. This very lack of awareness can be a barrier to good intercultural
A second barrier is that the divisions between and among
people of different cultures frequently show up in the political, or power, structure of
schools, organizations, governments, and communities. Even in organizations and
communities that are striving to become more culturally sensitive and competent, these
changes are often not reflected in the organizations hierarchy or the
communitys government. Too often, the cultural makeup of the "powers that
be" is not representational of the cultural makeup of the people they serve.
Events that occur and tensions that exist between different
cultural groups in society at large also continue to present a barrier to intercultural
relations on smaller scales. That is, racial conflicts taking place in other parts of the
community, state, nation, or world are often played out in schools, community centers, and
other places where people of different cultures come together.
A final barrier to building cultural bridges is a
phenomenon sometimes called "competing oppression" (Goldenberg, 1978). The
collective histories of many cultural groups involve wrongs done to them, and within each
cultural group, these wrongs tend to be viewed as greater than anyone elses wrongs.
This belief that "my oppression is worse than your oppression" tends to
negatively affect the ability of people of diverse cultures to interact and work with one
All of these barriers require investments of time and
effort to overcome. But they can be overcome. Cultural bridges can be built. Below are
examples of two programs that do so by providing youth and, in some cases, adults with
sustained and supported opportunities to work together, to appreciate their own cultural
values, and to develop skills that help them succeed in multicultural contexts.
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|The Latin American Youth
Center: 25 Years of Bridge-Building
nationally as a model program, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Washington, D.C.,
offers an excellent paradigm for how to build cultural bridges between Latino,
African-American, Asian, and African youth. First established in the 1970s, the Center is
a nonprofit organization located near Adams Morgan, one of the most multiracial and
multicultural neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. Through comprehensive
educational, human development, vocational, recreational, and cultural programs, this
community-based agency draws together youth from diverse backgrounds to work toward
improved racial relationships. Following are brief profiles of several of the
Centers specific programs.
- Youth Build. Designed for low-income African-American and
Latino youth, Youth Build students work as a team to lead and oversee a common community
service project, such as remodeling a neighborhood house, reconstructing community
streets, and creating furniture. By allowing youth from different cultures to work toward
a common goal, the program fosters real intercultural relationships. In addition, by
giving these youth responsibility for a construction project, the program teaches them
both leadership and valuable vocational skills.
- After-School Tutoring and Computer Program. This program
helps bridge cultural gaps by drawing multicultural youth together to share a common
interest. After school, participants come to the Computer Center to play computer games or
to share computer skills with other participants. Because of their shared interest, youth
from varied cultures and backgrounds learn to communicate and interact with one another at
the same time they develop computer proficiency. Often, this interaction helps Latino and
Asian youth learn English and assimilate into the mainstream culture.
- Teen Drop-In Center. Available to youth after school,
evenings, and weekends, the Drop-In Center is designed to help fill youths
"unstructured" hours with positive activity. At the Center, teenagers play
chess, pool, and other games together, often overcoming language barriers and developing
creative means of communicating with one another in the process.
- Art and Music Program. Operated by young African-American,
Latino, and Caucasian staff, this program helps youth overcome racial and language
barriers by allowing them to express their identity via photography, sculpture, arts and
crafts, and music. As the Director of Educational Initiatives, Lupi Quinteros, points out,
"The art program empowers kids to develop self-esteem by being able to see the
beginning and the end of a project. Finishing a drawing or a sculpture gives them a sense
of pride and achievement, and it allows them to learn to respect and learn from each
another." One example of the youths achievement is a popular mural constructed
by 16 Latin American Youth participants entitled "Youth of the World." The
colorful mural decorates the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C.
- Youth Radio. One of the Centers newest projects, Youth
Radio teaches multicultural youth about broadcasting, editing, writing, technical
equipment, and music. Mondell Morton, a member of the Youth Radio staff, explains that
music is one way of bridging cultural gaps because "kids from different cultures
gravitate towards music. The energy of the music brings them together and allows them to
forget their differences. They do not discriminate against each other because of their
shared interest in music." Currently, students in Youth Radio serve as disc jockeys
at various parties in the community. These African, Latino, Asian, and African-American
youth hope to eventually become a full-fledged radio station where kids are given a voice
to advocate for the communitys young people.
- Diversity Video. When asked how LAYCs new Diversity
Video Project helps build cultural bridges, project leader Marie Mollen recalls that in
the early stages of this project, youth of different backgrounds were not interacting with
one another. Perhaps uncomfortable with their racial differences, they seemed unable to
have meaningful, constructive conversations. Faced with the challenge of bridging the gaps
between participants, Marie started bringing in different snacks that represented the
cultures of the program participants. Eventually, the participants began to feel
comfortable and to explain their passivity honestly. They shared that they were afraid to
talk openly with one another for fear of either hurting someones feelings or having
their own feelings hurt. Today, however, the participants are working together to produce
a video commentary about how they migrated to their neighborhood. The youth are actively
involved in the videos production, which often leads them into constructive debates
about how to improve their neighborhood. Even youth from cultures that are unused to
"arguing," such as the Vietnamese, are happy to have the freedom and safety to
speak out in this forum and learn from the other participants.
Through careful recruitment of staff and a balanced
cultural representation on the board of directors, the Center has managed to ensure that
the "powers that be" are sensitive to the cultural differences of the youth they
serve. In this environment that encourages multiracial youth to value one anothers
opinions and cultures, relationships are forged that transcend differences. The
centers success is evident in its continued growth. This past July, the Center
relocated to a new facility in the same multicultural neighborhood to facilitate new
initiatives and allow for more participants. Clearly, the Latin American Youth Center is
overcoming barriers to cultural bridges.
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|The Asian Pacific
Development Center: Reciprocal Cultural Training
Another exemplary program building cultural bridges among Asian Americans is the
Asian Pacific Development Center. Located in Denver, Colorado, the program was established
during the heavy influx of Asian refugees to the United States in the 1980s and currently
serves a large population of Cambodian, Chinese, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, and
Vietnamese youth and their parents. The Centers services and programs are designed
to provide cross-cultural trainingthat is, to help Asian parents and children better
assimilate into mainstream culture, while also educating the dominant society about the
As the Director of Child and Adolescent Services, Dr. D. J.
Ida, explains, "It is important to work with the system, with those who are in power.
Cultural competence requires systemic changes. Not only do we have to educate Asians about
mainstream society, but we also have to teach the system to respect and value the Asian
culture. We have to effect change at multiple levelsto help the family learn new and
adaptive ways of functioning in the United States while dealing with cross-cultural issues
and changing the system to modify how it interacts with Asians." The Center provides
this reciprocal training through a number of community programs, such as:
- Cultural Competency Training. For businesses and
organizations that work with Asian populations, the Center offers specific training in the
values and norms of the various subcultures. For example, the Center may teach a hospital
staff how to ameliorate working relationships with Asian patients by helping them better
understand Asian cultural norms. Rather than assuming that Asian patients who fail to
comply with medical instructions are being oppositional, for example, staff members may,
through training, come to realize that these patients actually do not understand the
instructions due to language barriers. The Center provides training on similar issues to
the Department of Social Services, law enforcement agencies, courts, the juvenile justice
system, and mental health services.
- School Consultations. The Asian Pacific Development Center
provides consultation to schools experiencing racial conflicts. Dr. Lynn Emken, of the
Centers Child and Adolescent Division, recalls being called into a neighborhood
school in which Asian and white youth were in conflict. "The school called us to
provide mediation between the Asian students and their staff," Dr. Emken says.
"During the mediation meeting, we found out that some of the Asian students were
being bullied by some of the white students in the school. Being a small minority in the
school, the Asian students didnt feel protected or understood by the school
staff." As a result of the Asian Pacific Development Centers intervention, the
Asian students felt they had a "voice" and were being heard by adults who could
understand and relate to them. Since the mediation meeting, discord among Asian and white
students has lessened, and both white and Asian students feel safer.
- English as a Second Language. A common occurrence among the
Asian-speaking populations in Denver is a type of role reversal between parents and their
children. Because the children are conversant in the mainstream language and culture, they
often have to translate for their parents. In these cases, the children come to be
"in control," and may experience stress or embarrassment over their
parents dependency. Realizing the challenges and obstacles this presents, the Center
offers a free ESL program for adults. The ESL program motivates and enables Asian parents
to become more involved in the mainstream culture and less isolated by language barriers.
By learning how to communicate with the dominant culture, they are empowered to regain
their independence and retain their traditional roles in their jobs, families, and
communities. In addition, the ESL program offers a forum for these parents to interact
with one another and share both their frustrations and positive experiences about the
- Youth Tutoring Program. The Centers Youth Tutoring
program is designed to offer youth from multicultural backgrounds opportunities to meet
and learn about other cultures through active participation in various team-centered
activities. Composed of Asian, Latino, African-American, and Caucasian youth, the program
offers participants academic support, as well as field trips, substance abuse prevention
education, and conflict resolution training. The tutoring program has helped iron out what
was in the past a racially tense relationship between Latino and Asian youth. By working
in a collaborative style and constantly interacting as a team, these youth have learned to
respect one anothers cultures. As they have discovered similarities between their
immigration and refugee experiences, cultural differences have been minimized and lasting
Like the Latin American Youth Center, the Asian Pacific
Development Center is overcoming barriers to building cultural bridges. By training both
the Asian population and the dominant society to interact effectively with one another,
the program has helped minimize cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes. Giving
multicultural youth the chance to work as a team has allowed them to focus on their
similarities rather than differencesto see the cultural bridges that already exist.
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|Common Success Factors
The Latin American Youth Center and the Asian Pacific Development
Center have been identified as "greenhouse sites" of the Center for Effective
Collaboration and Practice in Washington, D.C. The Centers greenhouses are model
programs that have empirically demonstrated their effectiveness in reaching children,
youth, and their families in their schools, homes, and communities and in improving their
outcomes through the programs approaches and activities.
Regardless of the geographic distance between them and the
disparate cultures they serve, both the LAYC and the Asian Pacific Development Center
share several common features. Both Centers have made cultural competency the fundamental
core of their organizations, infusing their programs with respect for and celebration of
diversity. They each acknowledge that actualizing cross-cultural competency means
providing a way for Asians and Latinos to interact with the larger population without the
risk of losing their cultural heritage. They also share the common goal of helping
individuals make the emotional and behavioral changes necessary to live better lives in
their communities. Perhaps most significant, both programs are premised on the belief that
with a sincere respect for differences and a value of diversity, cultural bridges can
beand will beconstructed.
David Osher directs the Center for Effective
Collaboration and Practice, which identifies, develops, communicates, and promotes the
exchange of useful and usable information about children and youth with emotional and
behavioral problems. He is senior research analyst at American Institutes for Research,
where he and his colleagues have helped the Department of Education to develop and
implement its National Agenda for Achieving Better Results for Children and Youth with
Serious Emotional Disturbance. He is a regular contributor to Reaching Todays Youth.
Brenda Mejia is a research assistant with the Center
for Effective Collaboration and Practice (CECP). She is an active participant in her
community and currently serves as secretary on the board of directors for the Latin
American Youth Center. Ms. Mejia was involved in the development of Early Warning, Timely
Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, a document disseminated to every school in the nation.
To learn more about the Latin American Youth Center, the
Asian Pacific Development Center, and the Centers other greenhouse sites, please
visit the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practices web site at http://cecp.air.org. In addition to a host of general
information and resources on serving children and youth with emotional and behavioral
problems, information can be found on this site about research in culturally competent
practices and about joining an e-mail-based listserv that discusses issues of cultural
competency in serving these children and youth and their families.
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