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Cultural awareness and volunteering: how to help without causing harm

For volunteers who work with people from different backgrounds, becoming more culturally aware is essential to ensure they do not cause harm.

 

Culture often refers to a community’s ethics, beliefs and lifestyle. Culture can refer to both a broad, national culture, like British culture, or more specific groups, such as a LGBTQ+ culture or a religious culture.


Recently, the Baytree Centre ran a Cultural Awareness workshop led by Clare Allsop, a learning and development trainer. Attended by volunteers and mentors, the small workshop offered a clearer understanding of culture, so that our volunteers can provide better services to the communities they work with.


What is cultural awareness?

The goal of cultural awareness is to recognise the differences between cultures and respect them. It means being aware of the impacts these differences might have on our interactions with others. It requires making an effort to communicate and collaborate in a way that leaves a positive impact.


Clare explained that cultural awareness can help volunteers to communicate more effectively with the people they support. It helps us reflect on how our own cultural background influences the way we work.


In an introductory exercise, we discussed our cultural similarities and differences. In sharing our responses, we realised that cultures often overlap. We all shared something in common and belonged to many cultural spheres.


How can we have discussions around culture?

Having nuanced discussions around and about culture is often uncomfortable. Clare’s workshop drew on an approach called “Philosophy for Children” (P4C). Created by Matthew Lipman, P4C is a dialogue-driven method where a facilitator, like Clare, guides the discussion. The aim is to end up with a philosophical question, which the group then attempts to answer.


This method helped us break down complex notions into manageable conversations. Using props and photos, we discussed what cultures we belonged to and how they are different to many others. The philosophical question we chose was: do we have to be a part of a culture and understand it, in order to celebrate it and help others? This was relevant to volunteering, since many of us work alongside people from different cultural backgrounds to ours.


We argued that being a part of a culture and understanding it could mean different things. Whilst someone might know about a culture that they are not a part of, they might not understand it. Also, people within the same culture can experience it differently. For example, if you are part of a religious culture, you might experience it differently if you also identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.


This guided discussion helped us understand that the key to cultural awareness was self-reflection and identifying our own biases. People have to be open to listening, asking questions, and being interested in other cultures in order to be aware of them. These actions are necessary if we wish to work with others who do not share our cultural background.


How does WONDER use this practice in its work?

At WONDER, cultural awareness is important and practiced in various ways. WONDER projects are born through local partnerships, meaning that members of the local culture are the driving force behind them. We use local expertise to deliver culturally sensitive and community centred education projects.


WONDER also adopts a whole-person approach, where we work with each partner differently according to their needs. This enables us to respect and value cultural differences unique to each partner.


Finally, we centre people who belong to the communities we work with. For example our Being and Belonging conference titled “Invisible Minorities, Building Communities” platformed Latvian and Polish speakers who had lived experience of the matter.


Cultural awareness has to be a key component of any organisation’s framework if they hope to bring about change and avoid causing harm. Working in multicultural settings requires a commitment to continuously reflect on cultural differences and how we can address them in a positive and respectful manner.

Author: Fflur Jones