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National Educational Service

Reaching Today's 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.

Overcoming Barriers to Intercultural Relationships: A Culturally Competent Approach

David Osher and Brenda Mejia

In this article, the authors profile two exemplary programs—one 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 nations—for 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 Integration

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 one’s 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 relationships.

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 organization’s hierarchy or the community’s 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 else’s 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 another.

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

Recognized 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 Center’s 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 youth’s "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 Center’s 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 community’s young people.
  • Diversity Video. When asked how LAYC’s 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 someone’s 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 video’s 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 another’s opinions and cultures, relationships are forged that transcend differences. The center’s 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 Center’s services and programs are designed to provide cross-cultural training—that is, to help Asian parents and children better assimilate into mainstream culture, while also educating the dominant society about the Asian-American culture.

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 levels—to 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 Center’s 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 didn’t feel protected or understood by the school staff." As a result of the Asian Pacific Development Center’s 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 acculturation process.
  • Youth Tutoring Program. The Center’s 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 another’s cultures. As they have discovered similarities between their immigration and refugee experiences, cultural differences have been minimized and lasting friendships established.

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 differences—to 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 Center’s 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 be—and will be—constructed.

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 Today’s 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 Center’s other greenhouse sites, please visit the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice’s 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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Goldenberg, I. (1978). Oppression and social intervention: Essays on the human condition and the problems of change. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Morgan, E. S. (1975). American slavery, American freedom. New York: Norton.