April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // 2IAW4

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Charting a Course Through the Culture Storms: A Cautionary Tale

In our increasingly multicultural national and global societies, teaching about multiculturalism remains controversial and challenging. Based on experiences working with California's diverse population and current research in intercultural understanding, the authors describe an interactive diversity-training workshop for professionals and volunteers who work with children and youth. The workshop includes current research about intercultural understanding, an exploration of American cultural assumptions, and an opportunity for participants to identify strategies to improve their intercultural interactions. The model is based on sound adult learning theory, focuses on our capabilities rather than deficits, emphasizes our similarities rather than differences, and employs an ecological conception of culture.

Ann Brosnahan
Youth Development Advisor
University of California
San Joaquin County
Internet Address: babrosnahan@ucdavis.edu

Faye C. H. Lee
Youth Development Advisor
University of California
San Francisco County
Internet Address: fhlee@ucdavis.edu

There is a persistent backlash against multiculturalism in a nation that is becoming more diverse every day. By 2020, California, will be 42% Hispanic, 18% Asian, and 33% White Non-Hispanic (State of California, 1998). Even while multiculturalism is being hotly debated, diversity-training programs proliferate. These have become a full-fledged national industry with an emerging sub-industry devoted to clearing up the mess left behind by previous diversity trainers.

In this current cultural climate, even the terminology is politicized and polarized. Images and slogans replace reasoned discourse and travel at the speed of television sound bites and Internet postings.

Diversity almost always guarantees complexity, which, in turn, can lead to conflict. For the diversity program planner, there is little empirical data to guide program development. Research as to program quality or efficacy is in its infancy. What with the current climate of controversy around diversity, the lack of standards for objectives and content of diversity training programs, and the meager research base available, "why go there?" becomes a fair question.

Expressed training needs and an explicit mission statement are two answers to this question. As part of a regional team of 4-H youth development advisors at the University of California, we conducted an educational training needs survey of youth-serving agencies in our communities. Diversity training was the need most often cited.

In addition, the 4-H program in California has stated as its mission the creation of supportive environments in which culturally diverse youth and adults can reach their fullest potential. Thus, we are always seeking to provide fresh and meaningful approaches to help give youth the intellectual and cultural resources crucial for success in the multicultural national and global societies they will help form. Robert Hughes (1993) has reminded us that "the future belongs to those who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines. In the world that is coming, if you can't navigate difference, you have had it."

Reframing the Conversation

This project began with our commitment and the expressed training needs of the youth-service providers we had surveyed. Next, we polled a sample of our target audiences to find out both the breadth and depth of their previous diversity training experiences.

The adults, of mixed age, occupation, race, and ethnicity, all reported some previous training. All saw intercultural communication skills as important, but their own training experiences as inadequate. Typical descriptors were "prescriptive," "mundane," "criminally low brow," "stressful," and "divisive."

The youth in our sample have all benefited from the school-based multicultural education as mandated by California's Curriculum Guidelines. Although the youth are quite comfortable with the terminology around diversity, their communication skills remain shallow, and their understanding seldom goes beyond food, festivals, and heroes.

We then developed an interactive and innovative diversity-training workshop, which we piloted and field-tested throughout California. The specific outcomes we seek are:

  • An understanding of the recent research around intercultural communication,

  • An awareness of how our American cultural assumptions drive our behaviors and how they affect other people, and

  • A rough plan for improving the intercultural encounters in our own lives.

Describing the Workshop

The first activity in the workshop is a cooperative learning exercise designed to present recent research. Included are Bennett's (1986) developmental stage theory, Gardenswartz and Rowe's (1998) comparison matrix, and Wardel's (1996) anti-bias and ecological model. Bennett's theory posits a continuum of increasing sophistication in dealing with cultural differences, from denial to integration. Gardenswartz and Rowe's matrix compares affirmative action, valuing differences, and managing diversity. Wardel's anti-bias and ecological model emphasizes the tremendous variations to be found in specific cultural groups. In this model the focus is on the individual as a product of important factors, including but not limited to culture.

Next is a problem-solving activity for small groups, which focuses on our American cultural assumptions, their underlying values, and possible intercultural impact. To increase our awareness of cultural difference, we begin with our shared American experience. By explicitly focusing on American culture to increase awareness of different cultures, we are implicitly underlying our similarities. When we increase the interest in and knowledge of global viewpoints, we are at the same time increasing the awareness and knowledge of local cultural variations.

An exercise in cross-cultural dialogues follows. These are short conversations between speakers from two different cultures, and they illustrate a particular cultural difference. The small group's task is to study the dialogue, to try to identify what that difference is, to reenact the cross-cultural encounter for the group, and then to facilitate the interpretation.

In the final activity, the participants write a rough plan for improving their own intercultural encounters. These activities provide opportunities to apply knowledge to concrete situations.

Considering the Results

The workshop evaluations have been very positive. Our own retrospective pre/post tests and independent evaluations attest to the success of this model. We attribute the enthusiastic response we have received to the following.

  • This model is based on sound adult learning theory, which articulates a safe learning environment, active learner participation, and intellectual challenge.

  • The approach is positive. The emphasis is upon capabilities rather than deficits. The implication is that we can control how we see the world.

  • Our common American cultural behaviors provide the framework in which we explore cultural difference.

  • This model offers an ecological rather than a reductionist definition of culture. Each individual is not simply a product of but instead uniquely acts upon a given culture.

We have found that our global model not only is nonthreatening, but also raises the level of the conversation on this important subject of cultural diversity. We have reframed the conversation to emphasize enlightened self-interest, recognizing that our well-being and that of others are interdependent and intertwined. As trainers, we know we must continuously endeavor to walk that fine line between creating a comfortable climate and still injecting scholarship and challenge.


Bennett, M. J. (1986). A developmental approach to training intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 10(2), 179-196.

Gardenswartz, L., & Rowe, A. (1998). Managing diversity: A complete desk reference and planning guide. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hughes, R. (1993). Culture of complaint: The fraying of America. New York: Oxford University Press.

State of California (1998). Race/ethnic population with age and sex detail, 1970-2040. Department of Finance. Available: http://www.dof.ca. gov/html/Demograp/Race.htm.

Wardle, F. (1996). Proposal: An anti-bias and ecological model for multicultural education. Childhood Educator. Spring 1996, 152-156.