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How do program staff respond to culture-related incidents?

By Kate Walker

Program leaders regularly confront issues of culture and race in youth programs. I was part of a a research project that examined culture-related incidents and how leaders responded. Based on interviews with 50 leaders from 27 programs for middle and high school-aged teens, my colleagues identified four types of incidents and three ways that leaders responded. What they discovered has implications for our work toward equity.

Culture-related incidents involved race, ethnicity, immigration, religion and language. In these incidents, program leaders saw conflict, discomfort or potential developmental harm for youth. They included micro-aggressions and discrimination, as well as young people’s expressions of negative attitudes toward others or their own group:

Offensive remarks. These incidents involved youth making hurtful comments, including ethnic slurs, racist remarks, derogatory jokes, degrading stereotypes and verbal bullying. Leaders were concerned about the effects on targeted youth, as well as the effects on creating a welcoming, inclusive space for all youth.

Discrimination. In these situations, adults with authority acted unjustly toward youth of color. For example, an African American profiled by police, a Latina told by her teacher she was not smart enough to take advanced classes and a hate crime involving a youth’s immigrant mother having flour thrown in her face. Leaders were concerned with the injustice of these incidents and the powerlessness felt.

Discomfort with intercultural contact. These were incidents where youth felt anxious, intimidated or out of place with people from other cultures. Leaders were concerned about the effect this could have on youths’ future educational opportunities and jobs.

Cultural identification and identity. These episodes centered on young people expressing negative attitudes toward their own racial or cultural group. Leaders were concerned about youth internalizing negative societal images and that they weren’t recognizing the rich cultural heritage, strengths and diversity within their groups.

Program leaders varied in their desire and ability to deal effectively with these challenging incidents. Their responses fell into three categories:

Race blind. These program leaders said that culture didn’t matter in their programs. They perceived few or no issues of race or culture in the program or in the youths’ futures.

Limited response. In this group, program leaders recognized that culture-related incidents were important and affected youth. They described limited responses because they lacked confidence, commitment or skills.

Engaged. A third group appeared to represent best practices: They engaged directly with the incidents and facilitated reflective dialogue in which youth drew on experiences, analyzed situations and learned through group discussion.

Do you recognize these types of incidents from your own experience? What types of responses have you had or seen? How can we support staff to engage with the issues, challenges, and learning opportunities presented by culture-related incidents? I encourage you to read the full article for rich examples and a list of implications for staff practices, for organizations and for future research.

-- Kate Walker, associate Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice, and editor of the Journal of Youth Development

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  1. I would like to offer a word of caution about this particular post.
    1. Culture-related incidents paints culture, as a concept, in a negative way. All humans are cultural beings, therefore most (if not all) our interactions are cultural.
    2. As I read the post it was clear that it was focused on either Bias-Related Incidents, Discrimination, and Inter-cultural Development.

    Responding or addressing issues of bias requires a response that might be different from issues of cultural identity and development. Bias-related incidents (especially those outlined under the “Offensive Remarks” and “Discrimination” examples) require an organizational approach. The youth program or organization can pro-actively have protocols and resources in place for their staff to know how and when to respond. Providing such resources put the youth work in a better position to address the issue. More importantly, the youth making the remarks and those receiving the remarks might have to be addressed in different ways. Programs, especially if within a school, are responsible for protecting their participants from civil rights violations (Title VI, Title IX, etc.).

    On the other hand, both the “Race Blind” and “Limited Response” examples illustrate the need for inter-cultural competence among youth workers. At a time when youth programs are more diverse than ever (in terms of gender, gender identity and expression, race, ethnicity, national origin, and so forth), youth workers need to be equipped to work with youth in these environments. How are we fostering positive youth development if the workforce is not equipped to address some of the most salient needs of its programs participants?

    Thank you for bringing light to issues of culture in the field of youth development. I suggest reconsidering the title though, there is a different between bias-related incidents and cultural development and competence. Both should be addressed, but they require different approaches.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Josey! You’re right, in this paper they defined “culture-related incidents” as situations involving race, ethnicity, immigration, religion, and language, in which adult program leaders encounter conflict, discomfort, or potential developmental harm for youth. The focus is on dilemmas of practice, but I see how the language of “culture-related incidents” is problematic. I like your suggestion of “bias-related incidents, discrimination and inter-cultural development” and agree that an organizational approach as well as staff development are needed.

  3. Kate, this is such an important topic and I appreciate you raising it. I agree with Josey's feedback on the critical distinction between culture-related incidents and incidents of bias. One thing that occurred to me is that it would be interesting to play out the interface between the responses to these situations of bias and the positive youth development aspect. So much of the learning, for both the individual youth and youth worker but also for the organization as a whole, comes in how we respond to these situations. As Josey pointed out, it is critical that our organizations establish policies and protocols for how to respond to bias. But how does that translate into an actual teachable moment for the youth and adults involved in the situation? What are some strategies for responding in a way that become transformational? This is an area that I am very interested in.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Kathryn!

    The authors cite educational research that suggests that the most constructive responses to culture-related incidents are aimed at a set of interrelated goals: directly addressing the incident, creating and sustaining an inclusive environment, and helping youth develop knowledge, attitudes, and skills. They note that responses are most effective in achieving these goals when they included two core elements: active engagement and cultivating reflective dialogue.

    In terms of strategies for responding transformationally, the article concludes with this set of recommendations for frontline staff:
    1. Cultivate a safe space for discussions about ethnicity, race, and power. Communicate the importance and principles for such discussions from the start of the program.
    2. Interrupt situations immediately if needed to maintain an inclusive, respectful environment. Be prepared to put aside “business as usual” in order to address issues that are raised.
    3. Acknowledge, listen, and assess incidents to recognize the varied issues that may be at stake.
    4. Respond to incidents by fostering reflective dialogue. Use incidents as opportunities to promote a culture of open discussion, facilitate collective learning, and support youth’s development of positive cultural identities.
    5. Support youth’s ownership and agency in these dialogues. Honor their voice and viewpoints. Support youth’s development of skills for active listening, attending to emotions and different cultural perspectives, and speaking out in response to incidents. Use questions rather than directives to facilitate discussions.
    6. Think developmentally. Offensive and self-deprecating comments by youth may be unintentional and result from lack of knowledge. Strategies for facilitating discussion need to be adapted to the developmental capabilities of youth.

    And to your point on the role of organizations, the article further highlights that organizations need to:
    1. Actively prioritize cultural issues; communicate this priority to staff, youth, and parents.
    2. Build staff skills for responding to culture-related incidents. Training should include helping staff examine their own assumptions and build their confidence in discussing issues of culture, race, and power. Examples of culture-related incidents can be used for reflective training, following procedures used with dilemmas of practice. Development of these cultural skills should be placed at a level of parity with other practitioner skills.
    3. Cultivate an organizational culture in which staff are supported in discussing the complexity of incidents and the effectiveness of different responses.

    I'd be curious to know if these strategies resonate with you.


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