Power, Culture and Diversity
Cultural differences and similarities exist between new arrivals and the receiving community. Our culture influences our behaviors, values and ways in which we learn and process the world around us. Please value and recognize the importance of your own culture, while at the same time valuing diversity. Honor the similarities that you share with newcomers while also honoring those differences that you do not identify with.
Many volunteers speak the dominate language (English) and are a part of the dominate culture of the United States. When you work with a newcomer, it is important to understand that your relationship is one of unequal power, as you are in a position of greater power. In order to work in partnership with the new arrival we ask that you acknowledge your power and enter this work thoughtfully.
‘Power Over’ and ‘Power With’
Acknowledging Your Power
- ‘Teaching to’ and ‘doing for’ can be explored through the lens of ‘power over’ and ‘power with.’ In the context of working with new arrivals, ‘power over’ means that between the two of you, you hold the knowledge of how to navigate the systems and structures in your community. ‘Power with,’ is the process of working to balance that power through teaching. When you show someone how to care for a need themselves, you are giving away some of the power that you held over them and leveling your relationship. Take, for example, navigating public benefits and filling out reporting forms for local government offices. Finding the answers for the refugee and telling them which forms to sign is power over. Going with them to the office and teaching them how to connect with a case manager there to assist with forms is ‘power with.’
- There are many ways in which your ‘power over’ another might impact the way that they interact with you. Be aware that it might be hard for the person you are accompanying to say ‘no’ to you. If you extend an invitation to your place of worship or to another event, the person might feel like they must attend because you are assisting them.
- Similarly, your ‘power over’ can influence how the person responds to questions you might ask. At the start of your partnership, please refrain from asking questions about their past experiences. If you ask to hear their story, they might feel obligated to tell you. Understand that some new arrivals are very willing to share their story of fleeing and how they arrived in the United States, while others might never wish to.
Perceptions of Success
The decisions that new arrivals make in creating their lives here in America are their own, and we must encourage their autonomy in doing so. It is easy to apply your own definition of success onto a newcomer and worry that they are not ‘doing well’ or ‘succeeding’ in their acclimation to a new community. Consider the act of parenting school-aged children. Your version of successfully engaging in this time of life might be to enroll your children in after-school activities and attend them out of support for your child. Another family might choose to not support extracurriculars. This does not denote a lack of success. Newly arrived families typically work hard and long shifts in order to provide for themselves. Because a new arrival does not make the same choices as you in their lives does not diminish their success.
An imbalance of power can contribute to paternalism in this partnership. Paternalism is when you limit someone’s autonomy based on what you think is for their own good. It is easier to make decisions for someone than you might think. It is not so easy to see someone make decisions that you feel are ‘bad,’ ‘unnecessary’ or are simply different than those you would make. Imagine this initial transition to a new culture and community as a river that newcomers must cross. The role of ‘teacher’ that you and the resettlement agency play is to point out the steppingstones across the river. Your role is not to choose the path, carry across or hide the paths that you would not utilize yourself.
Although it is natural to share what is important to you with others, we require that our partners not engage in proselytism. Many new arrivals have spent years fleeing persecution because of their faith, and this may be their first chance to live without fear that someone has an agenda to change them in some way. Proselytizing is defined as inducing someone to convert to one’s own religion. In all that you do, make sure the person understand that your help is not contingent on their participation in your church or religion; we do not want them to feel they have to become like us in order to receive our care and assistance.
Arrivals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex may have faced many unique challenges and be reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to affiliate staff or their own family members. It is critical that LGBTQIA+ individuals are aware of support networks available to them to ensure they do not face isolation within their own ethnic or national communities here in the United States.
Trauma-Informed Care is a framework which focuses on positives and strength-based approaches in order to empower an individual and prevent re-traumatization. It is important for us to recognize that things we may view as character flaws might be coping mechanisms as reaction to trauma. These might be:
- Being late to meetings/appointments
- Not answering phone calls
- Asking multiple people for help on the same problem
- Holding information back from someone trying to help
Language and (Mis)Communication
The language that we use in everyday life has power. Avoid possessive language when working with refugees, asylum seekers, and evacuees, such as ‘adoption’ or ‘our family.’ These possessive words can inadvertently signal paternalism and ‘power over.’ Instead, ensure that the language that you use is mirroring your empowering actions. ‘The family,’ ‘The (surname) family,’ ‘our group is accompanying an asylum seeker,’ ‘we are welcoming an Afghan family,’ ‘the refugee we are partnered with,’ are all good ways to speak of this engagement.
There are many people, organizations and structures involved in a newly arrived Afghan’s life. A few might include the resettlement agency, a volunteer team, the government benefits office, the doctor's office, the Department of Health and the school district. Each organization might then connect the family to more local agencies who have specialized programs. Those could be childhood development specialists, counselors, after-school programs, women’s/men’s/youth groups, cultural agencies and support groups. A newly arrived Afghan’s life is full of people and agencies! This increases the chances of miscommunication between those helping the family.
When Miscommunication Happens
- Reach back out to the resettlement agency for guidance
- Work with the individual/family in order to make a clear ‘map’ of the agencies working with them
At times, you might be welcoming a family who speaks very limited English. They might know who called them and why, but not know the English to confidently relay the information to you. This is okay and preferable to you receiving calls for the family and then finding interpretation to relay messages along. The family must remain in control of managing their lives.
Communicating Across Language Barriers
Communicating with one another across a language barrier is challenging. Interpreters are not always going to be available to assist, and this can lead to miscommunications and frustrations, particularly at the start of your volunteering. You may find yourself surprised after weeks or months that you and the refugee/family find ways to communicate beyond fluent spoken language. Your friendship might be built less upon shared conversations and more upon shared experiences while teaching how to navigate the community.
- Speak clearly, not louder.
- If you are not understood, try to use different words.
- Use your phone to show pictures. For example, pull up photos of a grocery store when asking if the family would like to go.
- Be aware that phone translation apps are not perfect and can sometimes be confusing.
- Write messages down-- many new arrivals have friends or relatives in the community who will help translate for them later.
- Know if the person you are speaking with has a relative or friend who you can call for assistance when you MUST have interpretation.
- Be mindful that this is a labor for the person you are asking.
- Be mindful to not ask a child to interpret