Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth
Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 3
Last week, on the Public Agenda blog, we discussed principles and methods for building coalitions and networks that support deeper public participation. We continue that theme this week, focusing specifically on cultural competence and youth engagement.
To work with a diverse array of coalition members, citizens or other stakeholders, participation leaders need to cultivate the skills of cultural competence.
The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice defines cultural competence as the “the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings … thereby producing better outcomes.”
Most trainings and workshops in cultural competence ask people to reflect on their own backgrounds and experiences, and hear more about the backgrounds and experiences of others. These interactions are structured to build awareness and knowledge of cultures and their differences. In some cases, these trainings delve into questions of bias, discrimination and aspects of racism, including white privilege, structural racism and internalized oppression.
These experiences provide safe spaces for people to ask questions and air concerns. Cultural competency trainings also foster the sorts of skills that get people listening to and learning from others.
Participation leaders can use the questions below, which were developed by Everyday Democracy, to apply some of the skills and thinking of cultural competence to their own work.
Cultural Competence Questions for Participation Leaders
Who are we?
Does our group represent all sectors of our community?
What efforts have we made to include all racial groups?
How well does the leadership in our group reflect our community?
How do we interact/communicate?
How do group members interact?
Describe the racial dynamics in the group. Are we honest about how things are going?
How comfortable are we discussing our own issues of race with one another?
How effective are we at working equitably across racial groups and other differences?
Do we need to set aside time for team building and deeper exploration of the issues?
Are we all participating fully, or are we holding back and letting others represent our interests/views?
How are we functioning and making decisions?
How are meetings run? Who decides?
How do we decide who will lead the group?
What are the implications when white people take the lead?
What dynamics are at play when people of color provide leadership?
When we plan our meetings, what consideration do we give to racial and cultural differences (location, flexible scheduling, social time/food, time)?
Whose voices are heard when we make decisions? (Do our leaders make room for all views?)
Where do we fall short?
How could we improve?
Working with Young People
In both coalition-building and recruitment, participation leaders should think explicitly about youth involvement. Engaging young people can galvanize all kinds of public participation efforts.
There is a tendency for participation leaders to reach out to a small set of young people — the top scholars, student government leaders and top athletes — who always get invited to take on leadership positions. This is unfortunate, since all kinds of students, including those not already in traditional youth leadership roles, show an interest in civic engagement, as CIRCLE demonstrates in their work and research. To attract a more diverse array of young people, participation leaders should tap into a variety of youth networks.
There are several considerations participation leaders should keep in mind when working with young people:
● Young people can be leaders of today, not just leaders of the future. Some of the most successful public participation initiatives have had high school or college students as high-profile leaders. However, there is a common attitude toward young people that often gets in the way of involving them productively. Cindy Carlson directed the Hampton Coalition for Youth in Hampton, Virginia, an early exemplar of what youth commissions could accomplish. She writes that adults view young people “as recipients of what adults have to provide or teach them” and do not “value youth for the contributions they have to offer.”
Participation involving youth is more authentic when young people are treated as leaders and problem solvers who can work in partnership with adults. Young people should be given opportunities to help develop the agenda (what kinds of issues do we want to work on?), help set the goals (how will we know if we are making progress?) and help find the information, resources and allies necessary to make an impact (what do we need to make a difference?).
● Tap into the technological aptitude of young people. The millennial generation is the most tech-oriented and tech-savvy generation so far in our history, and they are bringing those sensibilities and capacities into civic life. This technology orientation seems to span young people of different income levels and educational backgrounds.
This does not mean, however, that creating a website or a Twitter account is enough to reach young people, or that young people have no desire to get together face-to-face. It does mean that young people can be key allies for helping participation leaders understand where their peers are congregating online, how to use social media to reach them, and how to use online tools more generally.
● Relationships are fundamental. Relationships are important in virtually all aspects of public participation, but they are particularly critical when it comes to working with young people. As Cindy Carlson says:
Just about everyone knows the three fundamental criteria for success in the field of real estate are location, location, location. In the field of youth civic engagement, the mantra is: relationships, relationships, relationships. The relationships between young people and adults, and among youth and their peers, are the single most influential contributor to the success of any youth engagement initiative. Youth may be attracted to the work of local government because of their passion for an issue, but they will remain engaged because of their relationships with adults and other youth they encounter.
This piece was first published on the Public Agenda blog. Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.