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Why do adult volunteers need cultural competency?

By Molly Frendo

"Our community isn't really that diverse. When there are so many important skills for me to learn, why should I focus on diversity?" I've often heard this question as I've worked with adult volunteers in youth development roles.

So often, diversity is reduced to what we can see: race, gender, age, and perhaps ability. But culture is so much more than what we can see -- it includes the experiences, beliefs, and values that give us membership to a certain group.

Individuals belong to multiple identity categories. For instance, I am a White, heterosexual female member of the Millennial generation. I am highly educated, a transplant to Minnesota, and a middle-class single adult. All of these things together (and beyond!) make me who I am. Only a few of these identity categories are apparent by looking at me.

When we look beyond what we can see, so much more diversity in our communities becomes apparent -- family status, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, emotional and cognitive challenges, sexuality and gender orientation, and so much more.

Some individuals have privileges based on social and cultural capital because they are members of certain identity categories or cultural groups. Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people. It isn't given because of hard work or good deeds; instead, some cultural groups simply get better treatment because of who they are and how society views them.

Privilege can affect how volunteers relate to one another and to the youth they serve. It can cause tension, conflict or miscommunication. When volunteers aren't aware of their own privileges and how they intersect with the audience they serve, it's hard for them to develop meaningful relationships and empathic communication with youth.

On a broader scale, volunteers who work with youth (regardless of the diversity present in their communities) have a responsibility to prepare them to live in an increasingly diverse world. Global awareness and the ability to truly connect with one another across difference are important 21st century skills that all young people need to truly develop in order to become contributing members of society. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, young people cannot gain these skills if those who are teaching them don't have them. Volunteers must model respect for all perspectives and collaboration across difference if they are going to be able to help youth learn to do so.

In your experience, what is the role of cultural competency training in volunteer development? How have you seen volunteers benefit from learning opportunities related to diversity? What recommendations do you have for helping volunteers recognize and understand their own privilege?

-- Molly Frendo, former state program director, volunteer systems

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  1. Thank you for your well-written thoughts on this important topic, Molly. As we move forward in the coming year, I look forward to exploring this topic and the pertinent questions you ask. In one year's time, I see us having a lot to say in this area. And I look forward to learning from colleagues across the U.S. and beyond in the meantime.


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