Understanding cultural differences through journey mapping

Last week, we gathered around a table with our refugee and immigrant partners on our FreshLo project in the Binghampton neighborhood to talk about their needs as food entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs, who have all lived in Memphis for several years now, shared strong opinions not only about support for food businesses, but also for newly arriving refugees and immigrants entering into a new, American culture.

While partnering with the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC) to support refugee and immigrant food entrepreneurs, we collected a lot of stories about cultural differences. Over the past few months, we worked closely with aspiring food entrepreneurs from North Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Nepal, Mexico, and Syria, each with unique stories about getting used to American culture. We heard about times when cultural differences were a source of humor, like the time Indra, from Nepal, invited an American friend to come over for a party. The friend, not knowing that Nepali concept of time is much different than the American concept, arrived on time and was surprised to see that the party wasn’t even set up yet. It wasn’t until another hour or two later that the Nepali guests arrived and the party officially began. We heard about food-related cultural differences, like how CC, from Kenya, cuts out the middleman to get fresh meat. To get parts of the animal needed for traditional East African dishes, she drives through the countryside in search of farmers willing to butcher livestock for her right then and there.

We also heard about times when cultural differences served as a barrier for refugees and immigrants in Binghampton. Our work through The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local & Equitable initiative centers around the phenomenon that many refugees and immigrants in Binghampton wish to start food businesses, but face unique challenges that are either insurmountable or take several years to overcome. To better address these unique challenges, we use the human-centered approach to problem solving that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. As part of this process, we plotted out the refugee and immigrant experience after resettling in the states into what we call a journey map. Plotting out every step from coming to the US to launching a food business allows us to identify and better understand the challenges, or pain points, that refugees and immigrants face along the way.

While several of those pain points are directly related to launching a food business, many trace back to cultural integration in America. Learning a new language is the most time-consuming barrier to starting a food business or otherwise achieving stability in the states. Cam Echols, Executive Director at Refugee Empowerment Program (REP) reports that it takes a refugee an average of five to seven years to become fluent in English. Second to English language learning is the challenge of building new social networks. While the concept of not knowing anyone in a new place is relatively simple, the effects are more complex. Social networks are a form of capital that can connect entrepreneurs to customers and other opportunities to grow their businesses. And food businesses aside, the absence of social networks is a source of pain for many refugees and immigrants for whom community is a fundamental cultural tenet. Third, differences in family dynamics between cultures can be a pain point for refugees and immigrants. For example, putting children in daycare is a completely foreign concept for many refugees and immigrants. Paying an outsider to care for your children is not the norm, which begs the question: who watches the kids while mom starts a business?

The struggle to learn a new language, build social capital, and uphold culturally significant family dynamics in the states only makes other aspects of assimilating to America more difficult. Before even considering entrepreneurship, refugee and immigrants must attend to immediate needs like housing, employment, and transportation, which can significantly delay longer-term plans like opening a business. Through the FreshLo project, we aim to cut down the amount of time it takes for refugees and immigrants to become food entrepreneurs. Not only because food opens opportunities for refugees and immigrants to generate sustainable income, but because it is a platform for sharing culture. Like the story Noah Gray, Executive Director of the BDC, told us about having to order in kilos for the first time in Italy and ending up with a steak larger than his plate, sharing culture can make us laugh. It can even improve our cooking, like how our partner entrepreneurs taught us to use fresh garlic instead of buying it in a jar. Best of all, sharing culture can help us understand each other better, which is where positive change begins.

Learn more about Caritas Village and its work to break down barriers between disparate groups in Binghampton here, and read about the Broad Ave Arts District’s commitment to create a more inclusive and accessible Broad Avenue here. Follow the FreshLo project here as we continue to frame our learnings into a strategic plan to support new Americans in Binghampton to launch and sustain their food businesses.

In collaboration with Little Bird Innovation, the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC) has been awarded a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation for their Fresh, Local & Equitable (FreshLo) initiative that seeks to foster economic vitality and cultural expression in low-income communities through food. Along with seven other local organizations, Little Bird and the BDC are exploring the specific needs of Binghampton’s refugee and immigrant populations to create a strategic support plan that will provide entrepreneurs with the tools necessary to grow their endeavors from concepts to thriving businesses.

Olivia Haslop works with the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC) on the the FreshLo project. She is a Design Strategist at Little Bird with an interest in recombining and reconfiguring already existing assets in urban environments to create positive impact. Olivia is a graduate of the Social Design MA (MASD) at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a huge fan of her hometown team, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

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