Do You Have to Be One to Help One? Being Culturally Relevant in the Midst of Diversity
By Dr. Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP
Our world is increasingly complex – influenced by a global economy, satellite television, the Internet, and, in Canada, a “cultural mosaic” rather than “melting pot” approach to diversity. In Toronto, Ontario, 25 years ago only “one in seven residents was a visible minority while today the ratio is more than one in three. Fourteen per cent of GTA dwellers have some form of disability; an estimated 450,000 are gay or lesbian; 42 per cent are in the religious minority; and 2.1 million were born outside of Canada”.1 As career management professionals, to help diverse clients, do you have to come from the same ethnic or cultural background? Do you have to be one to help one?
Effective helping relationships are grounded in empathy, communication, and understanding – shared attitudes, values, and abilities to discuss complex topics can facilitate this. However, differences between clients and helping professionals can also be helpful, as it is often through exploring different perspectives that change occurs (Treviño, 1996). Because clients’ expectations for positive change impact their success, the credibility of a career management professional is important. Optimism is a significant predictor of career success (Neault, 2002). Career practitioners who inspire hope in their clients (e.g., through professional competence and credibility) may contribute more to successful outcomes than those who simply focus on client/professional cultural match.
Changing Times in a Global Community
To engage in a helping relationship with the assumption that we understand our clients because of their cultural roots would be to engage in “cultural overgeneralizations” (Hall, 1997). In so doing, we could miss the significance of their countless other life experiences. For example, I met a successful international business person from Mexico. Like many Mexicans, he has been influenced by his Spanish Catholic heritage. However, to stop there and assume that because we know Mexicans, we understand this man would be to underestimate other significant cultural influences. He married a Jewish refugee from Germany, immersed his children in Canadian culture, owns homes and businesses in other countries and travels extensively, mingles with international friends and associates, dines with presidents, and plants trees as a heritage for his grandchildren. He, like all of us, is a complex person, influenced by numerous cultures and idiosyncratic experiences – a simplistic labelling of him as Mexican would be insufficient.
Strategies for Enhancing Cultural Relevance
Multicultural authors describe “cultural encapsulation” that results in mainstream counsellors being blindly unaware of the cultural experiences of their clients (Lark & Paul, 1998). Becoming more culturally relevant involves engaging in ongoing learning, understanding and appreciating the impact of differences, avoiding simplistic generalizations, exploring cultural identity, and using theories and resources appropriately. The following sections will briefly address each of these steps.
Seek Learning Opportunities
Be curious. There are countless ways to learn about cultures – some are significantly more fun than others! To get started, visit local ethnic community centres and attend cultural events (e.g. Greek days, gay pride parades, Caribbean festivals). Be curious – ask a Muslim colleague, fasting for Ramadan, to tell you a bit about it. Ask a Jewish acquaintance to explain Chanukah to you. Ask a Sikh neighbour to explain the significance of his turban (dastaar). Once we begin to consciously learn about diverse cultures, our questions will be endless – the key is to be respectfully curious.Immerse yourself. Although helping professionals can draw from conventional approaches in their work with multicultural clients, they need to “apply what they know in a culturally sensitive way” (Fisher, Jome, & Atkinson, 1998, p. 551). To enhance this cultural sensitivity, several authors stress the importance of access to multicultural contact – in a sense, living for awhile in your clients’ worlds (Burnett, Hamel, & Long, 2004; Clarkson & Nippoda, 1997; Nelson-Jones, 2002; Ridley, Hill, & Li, 1998). Travel, studying or working abroad, welcoming international students into your home, learning another language, or even living in an ethnic community in your own city, can all provide rich cultural immersion experiences.
Read. The Internet provides an easily accessible window to the world. Consider accessing a news site that presents an ethnic or national perspective different from your own. Use search engines to find multiple perspectives on a topic – or to find preliminary answers to some of the questions you have about your clients’ cultures. Academic journals offer relevant articles and literature reviews (e.g., Arredono, Rosen, Rice, Perez, & Tovar-Gamero, 2005). Beyond the Basics (Neault, 2006) is a straightforward resource for career practitioners, offering basic tips for working with over 25 diverse client groups.2 Culture-Infused Counselling: Celebrating the Canadian Mosaic (Arthur & Collins, 2005) is an award-winning textbook that provides a variety of perspectives.
Take courses. Most training programs for counsellors and career practitioners include courses addressing multicultural issues (e.g., McCreary & Walker, 2001). Many organizations offer diversity training to employees and managers. Conferences and professional associations provide opportunities to enhance cultural competence (Constantine, Melincoff, Barakett, Torino, & Warren, 2004). The Career Management Professional Program3 (fully online) offers a specialty Multicultural stream with courses including Understanding Diverse Clients, The Immigrant Experience, and International/Global Careers. Take advantage of such opportunities to equip yourself to provide culturally relevant support to your clients.
Understand the Impact of Differences
Niles (1998) described the counsellor’s responsibility to facilitate clients’ readiness for their diverse life roles. As a career practitioner, do you fully understand those roles from your clients’ perspective? Systemic disadvantages have been reported for members of minority cultures (Constantine & Erickson, 1998; Meijers & Piggott, 1995). Focus groups, conversations, reflecting on personal experience as a member of a minority groups, and even reading books or watching movies which present an unfamiliar cultural worldview, can foster understanding of how clients’ differences may impact their day-to-day lives.
Avoid Simplistic Generalizations
Spengler (1998) cautioned against “the overreliance on cultural hypotheses” (p. 934). Fischer and her associates (1998) warned that “ethnic glossing” could result from simplistic approaches to multiculturalism, emphasizing that “cultural affiliation, although important to recognize and consider, still does not comprise the totality of information about a given person” (p. 544).
Exploring Cultural Identity
A “shared worldview” is considered a core element of counselling (Fischer, Jome, & Atkinson, 1998). Yet, career practitioners may mistakenly assume that their clients’ worldviews are similar to their own based on superficial cultural similarities. It is important to understand from the clients’ perspective how they define their cultural group memberships, considering “individual needs while incorporating the larger influences of group and cultural norms” (Arthur, 1998, p. 95).
Use Theories and Resources Appropriately
Paul Pedersen, one of the major scholars in the field, stated “all tests and theories are culturally biased as a result of the population on which the test was normed or the theory developed…The test of multicultural skill [is using] a biased test or theory appropriately in different populations or settings” (Sandhu, 1995, p. 207). This fits with a constructivist approach to career counselling – when clients are viewed as the experts on their own lives and counsellors as the experts on the change process, a cooperative working alliance can be better established (Constantine & Erickson, 1998).
Although it can certainly be helpful to speak the languages of diverse clients, share common cultural characteristics, and continue to learn about cultural differences, career practitioners could enhance their success by taking a multicultural approach with all clients and embracing their uniqueness. Being culturally relevant in the midst of diversity requires a shift “from gaining bits of information about cultural groups…to a worldview in which multicultural development is sought as a lifelong pursuit” (Rooney, Flores, & Mercier, 1998, p. 30).
Dr. Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP, is a counsellor educator and co-developer of the internationally recognized Career Management Professional Program, which has recently launched a Multicultural Specialist certificate stream. Her experience as a career practitioner / counsellor spans almost three decades and was recognized by her peers with the prestigious Stu Conger Award for Leadership in Career Counselling and Career Development in Canada. In 2006, Roberta served on the Canadian team at the International Symposium on Career Development and Public Policy in Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at Roberta@lifestrategies.ca.
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