What is culture?

As community builders, understanding culture is our business. No matter where you live, you are working with and establishing relationships with people--people who all have cultures.

 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.

In addition to the cultural groups we belong to, we also each have groups we identify with, such as being a parent, an athlete, an immigrant, a small business owner, or a wage worker. These kinds of groups, although not exactly the same as a culture, have similarities to cultural groups. For example, being a parent or and an immigrant may be an identity that influences how you view the world and how the world views you. Becoming aware of your different identities can help you understand what it might be like to belong to a cultural group.

Exercise:

Try listing all the cultures and identities you have: (This is just a list of suggestions to get you started. Add as many as you think describe you.)

What is your:

Religion
Nationality
Race
Sexual identity
Ethnicity
Occupation
Marital status
Age
Geographic region

Are you:

A female
A male
Disabled
From an urban area
From a rural area
A parent
A student

Have you ever been:

In the military
Poor
In prison
Wealthy
In the middle class
In the working class

 

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. 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. People see the world very differently, but they 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 our cultures and differences don't matter. We can't gloss over differences and pretend they don't exist, wishing we could all be alike, and we can't pretend 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 world is becoming increasingly diverse and 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.

How do you build relationships with people from other cultures?

There are many ways that people can learn about other people's cultures and build relationships at the same time. Here are some steps you can take. They are first listed, and then elaborated upon one at a time.

  • Make a conscious decision to establish friendships with people from other cultures.
  • Put yourself in situations where you will meet people of other cultures.
  • Examine your biases about people from other cultures.
  • Ask people questions about their cultures, customs, and views.
  • Read about other people's culture's and histories
  • Listen to people tell their stories
  • Notice differences in communication styles and values; don't assume that the majority's way is the right way
  • Risk making mistakes
  • Learn to be an ally.

 

Friendship is powerful. It is our connection to each other that gives meaning to our lives. Our caring for each other is often what motivates us to make change. And establishing connections with people from diverse backgrounds can be key in making significant changes in our communities.

As individuals, and in groups, we can change our communities. We can set up neighborhoods and institutions in which people commit themselves to working to form strong relationships and alliances with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. We can establish networks and coalitions in which people are knowledgeable about each other's struggles, and are willing to lend a hand. Together, we can do it.

 

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