What is culture?
As community builders, understanding culture is our business. Whether you live in central Kansas or New York City, whether you live in Miami, Nevada, or the Pacific Northwest, you are working with and establishing relationships with people–people who all have cultures.
What is culture? Here is one viewpoint.
“Culture” refers to a group or community which shares common experiences that shape the way its members understand the world. It includes groups that we are born into, such as race, national origin, gender, class, or religion. It can also include a group we join or become part of. For example, it is possible to acquire a new culture by moving to a new country or region, by a change in our economic status, or by becoming disabled. When we think of culture this broadly we realize we all belong to many cultures at once.
Do you agree? How might this apply to you?
Why is culture important?
Culture is a strong part of people’s lives. It influences their views, their values, their humor, their hopes, their loyalties, and their worries and fears. If you are from New Mexico or Montana, if your parents are Cambodian, French Canadian, or Native American, if you are German Catholic or African-American, if you are Jewish or Mormon, if you are straight or Gay, if you are a mixture of cultures your culture has affected you. So when you are working with people and building relationships with them, it helps to have some perspective and understanding of their cultures.
But as we explore culture, it’s also important to remember how much we have in common. A person who grew up in Tibet, will probably see the world very differently than someone who grew up in Manhattan–but both people know what it is like to wake up in the morning and look forward to the adventures that of the day. We are all human beings. We all love deeply, want to learn, have hopes and dreams, and have experienced pain and fear.
At the same time, we can’t pretend that our cultures and differences don’t matter. We can’t gloss over differences and pretend they don’t exist, wishing that we could be alike. And we can’t pretend that people that discrimination doesn’t exist.
This chapter will give you practical information about how to understand culture, establish relationships with people from cultures different from your own, act as an ally against racism and other forms of discrimination, create organizations in which diverse groups can work together, overcome internalized oppression, and build strong and diverse communities.
This section is an introduction to understanding culture, and will focus on:
- What culture is
- The importance of understanding culture in community building
- Envisioning your cultural community
- How to get started in building communities that encourage diversity.
But first, it is important to remember that everyone has an important viewpoint and role to play when is comes to culture. You don’t have to be an expert to build relationships with people different from yourself; you don’t have to have a degree to learn to become sensitive to cultural issues; and you don’t have to be a social worker to know how culture has affected your life.
Why is understanding culture important if we are community builders?
The United States is becoming increasingly diverse. By the turn of the century one out of every three Americans will be a person of color. According to James Banks, more than 8 million legal immigrants came to the U.S. between 1981 and 1990, and an undetermined number of undocumented immigrants enter the United States each year. In addition, the United States includes people of many religions, languages, economic groups, and other cultural groups.
It is becoming clear that in order to build communities that are successful at improving conditions and resolving problems, we need to understand and appreciate many cultures, establish relationships with people from cultures other than our own, and build strong alliances with different cultural groups. Additionally, we need to bring non-mainstream groups into the center of civic activity. Why?
- In order to build communities that are powerful enough to attain significant change, we need large numbers of people working together. If cultural groups join forces, they will be more effective in reaching common goals, than if each group operates in isolation.
- Each cultural groups has unique strengths and perspectives that the larger community can benefit from. We need a wide range of ideas, customs, and wisdom to solve problems and enrich community life. Bringing non-mainstream groups into the center of civic activity can provide fresh perspectives and shed new light on tough problems.
- Understanding cultures will help us overcome and prevent racial and ethnic divisions. Racial and ethnic divisions result in misunderstandings, loss of opportunities, and sometimes violence. Racial and ethnic conflicts drain communities of financial and human resources; they distract cultural groups from resolving the key issues they have in common.
- People from different cultures have to be included in decision-making processes in order for programs or policies to be effective. The people affected by a decision have to be involved in formulating solutions–it’s a basic democratic principle. Without the input and support of all the groups involved, decision-making, implementation, and follow through are much less likely to occur.
- An appreciation of cultural diversity goes hand-in-hand with a just and equitable society. For example, research has shown that when students’ cultures are understood and appreciated by teachers, the students do better in school. Students feel more accepted, they feel part of the school community, they work harder to achieve, and they are more successful in school.
- If we do not learn about the influences that cultural groups have had on our mainstream history and culture, we are all missing out on an accurate view of our society and our communities.
As you think about diversity, it may be helpful to envision the kind of cultural community you want to build. In order to set some goals related to building relationships between cultures, resolving differences, or building a diverse coalition, it helps to have a vision of the kind of cultural community you hope for.
What kind of cultural community do you envision?
Can you imagine the kind of cultural community you want to live or work in?
People have very different views of what a multicultural society or community should be like or could be like. In the past few decades there has been a lot of discussion about what it means to live and work together in a society that is diverse as ours. People struggle with different visions of a fair, equitable, moral, and harmonious society.
- How will our country be unified as a cohesive whole, if people separate into many different cultural groups?
- In order to be a part of the American dream, must I assimilate?
- Why does racism persist in a country that is committed to equality and liberty?
- How can I protect my children from the harmful influences in the larger culture? How can I instill my children with the moral values of my own religion or culture, but still expose them to a variety of views?
- Are there structural problems in our government or economic system that serve to divide cultural groups? How can they be changed?
- Should I put my community building and civic energies into my own cultural community, rather than the mainstream culture? Where can I have the biggest influence?
- Can oppression be stopped by legislation, or does each person have to overcome their individual prejudice, or both?
- Why do immigrants have to hold onto their own cultures and languages when they come to the United States?
- If my group is excluded from the American dream, what can I do?
- How do I protect my children from being targeted by racism or sexism other forms of discrimination if I live in a diverse society? Shall I send them to Afro-centric school, or a female-only school, or another appropriate school?
- If each person overcame their own prejudices, would all the divisions disappear?
- How do I overcome my prejudices?
- Is prejudice a thing of the past?
- Why can’t we all just get along?
What do you think about these questions? Which issues do you struggle with? What other issues are important to you or your cultural group?
As you envision the kind of diverse community, you and your neighbors may want to consider these kinds of questions. These are some of the real and tough questions that people grapple with on a daily basis. These questions point to some of the tensions that arise as we try to build harmonious, active, and diverse communities in a country as a complex as ours. There are no easy answers; we are all learning as we go.
So, what kind of community do you envision for yourself? How will diversity be approached in your community? If you could have your ideal community right now what would it look like? If you can’t have your ideal community right now, what will be the next steps you will take in building the kind of cultural community you want?
Here are some questions that may help you think about your community:
- Who lives in your community right now?
- What kinds of diversity already exists?
- What kinds of relationships are established between cultural groups?
- Are the different cultural groups well organized?
- What kind of struggles between cultures exist?
- What kind of struggles within cultural groups exist?
- Are these struggles openly recognized and talked about?
- Are there efforts to build alliances and coalitions between groups?
- What issues do different cultural groups have in common?
These are some of the questions that can get you thinking about your how to build the kind of community you hope for. What other issues do you think are important to consider? What are your next steps?
So, you may ask, “How do we get started?” Here are some ideas that will help you set the stage for creating your vision of a diverse organization or community.
Helpful tips to start building a diverse community
In the book, Healing into Action, authors Cherie Brown and George Mazza list principles that, when put into practice, help create a favorable environment for building diverse communities. The following guidelines are taken from their principles:
In order for people to commit to working on diversity, every person needs to feel that they will be included and important. Whether the person is a Japanese-American woman, a white man, a Jew, a gay person, an African-American, a Arab-American, a fundamentalist Christian, or speaks with an accent, has a disability, is poor, or is wealthy–each person needs to feel welcomed in the effort to create a diverse community. And each person needs to know that their culture is important to others.
Guilt doesn’t work in fostering diversity.
Blaming people as a way of motivating them is not effective. Shaming people for being in a privileged position only causes people to feel bad; it doesn’t empower them to take action to change. People are more likely to change when they are appreciated and liked, not condemned or guilt-tripped.
Treating everyone the same may be unintentionally oppressive.
Although every person is unique, some of us have been mistreated or oppressed because we are a member of a particular group. If we ignore these present-day or historical differences, we may fail to understand the needs of those individuals. Often people are afraid that recognizing differences will divide people from each other. However, learning about cultural differences can actually bring people closer together, because it can reveal important parts of each others? lives. It can show us how much we have in common as human beings.
People can take on tough issues more readily when the issues are presented with a spirit of hope.
We are bombarded daily with newspapers and TV reports of doom and gloom. People have a difficult time functioning at all when they feel there is no hope for change. When you present diversity issues you can say things like, “This is an excellent opportunity to build on the strengths that this organization has,” or “There is no reason why we can’t solve this problem together.”
Building a team around us is the most effective way of creating institutional and community change around diversity issues.
You will be more effective if you have a group of people around you that works together closely. People often try to go it alone, but we can lose sight of our goals and then become discouraged when operating solo. It is important to take the time to develop strong relationships with a core of people, and then work together as a group.
Recognize and work with the diversity already present in what appear to be homogenous groups.
In working to combat racism and other forms of oppression many people become discouraged when they are unable to create a diverse group. Starting by recognizing differences in religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, parenting, and class backgrounds will help create a climate that welcomes differences; it will also lay the groundwork for becoming more inclusive.
The American dream beckons us. In the words of James Banks, “Our nation’s motto is e pluribus unum–out of many, one.” The changing ethnic texture of the United States intensifies the challenge of educating citizens and creating an authentic unum that has moral authority. An authentic unum reflects the experiences, hopes, and reams of all the nation’s citizens. An imposed unum, the kind that has existed throughout most of the nation’s history, reflects one dominant cultural group. Our challenge, as a new century begins, is to establish an authentic unum that has moral authority and yet create moral, civic, and just communities in which citizens from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural communities will participate and to which they will have allegiance”
In this section we’ve gotten started. We’ve talked about what diversity is, why it is important, how to begin envisioning your ideal diverse community, and how to set up an environment that fosters diversity. This is only the beginning.
In working towards your diverse organization or community there is much more to do. In the next sections we will talk about how to become aware of your own culture, build relationships with from different cultures, become allies to people discriminated against, overcome internalized oppression, build multicultural organizations and coalitions, and other topics as well.
Each of us can build the kinds of communities we dream of. In our families, organizations, institutions, and neighborhoods, we can insist that we won’t remain isolated from those who are different from ourselves. We can transform our neighborhoods, institutions, and governments into equitable, non-oppressive, and diverse communities.
Brown University Training Materials: Cultural Competence and Community Studies: Concepts and Practices for Cultural Competence The Northeast Education Partnership provides online access to PowerPoint training slides on topics in research ethics and cultural competence in environmental research. These have been created for professionals/students in environmental sciences, health, and policy; and community-based research. If you are interested in receiving an electronic copy of one the presentations, just download their Materials Request Form (found on the main Training Presentations page under “related files”), complete the form, and email it to NEEPethics@yahoo.com.
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