Differing cultures in U.S. require a tactful approach

NONPROFITS INC.

April 12, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Last week, I mentioned the work that The Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies is doing with the nonprofit sector in Eastern Europe. Dr. Lester Salamon and his staff are helping to build that sector and to train a new generation of nonprofit leaders -- crucial factors if these emerging democracies are to succeed.

But the language barriers, different customs and other problems encountered working across cultures apply within the United States, too.

A recent meeting with the institute's latest group of Eastern European interns gave me a chance to reflect on how well-meaning people work with different cultures here in our own country. One doesn't have to travel abroad to work with Third World nations. Unfortunately, we still have our own versions of Third World nations here at home.

Too often, we well-meaning "experts" come in with a set of preconceived notions about the group we're meant to help. We know little or nothing of the norms that drive them.

We may also have a barrel-full of solutions that we have successfully applied to problems throughout our careers.

Then, we are suddenly called in to advise a grass-roots group in a disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood. Or, we may be part of a team consulting to a group of Native Americans.

"One of the most important things is to not go into a different culture assuming anything," says Dr. Matthu Santosham, a pediatrician and researcher at The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "To be effective, you have to go in and do a lot of listening and a lot less talking."

Dr. Santosham should know. As director of the Center for American Indian and Alaskan Native Health, Dr. Santosham has pioneered effective treatments for illnesses that once ravaged Indians throughout the country.

He lived among the Apache for more than six years, earning their respect and trust.

"You need to be willing to be patient and listen to their priorities," Dr. Santosham emphasizes. "Then you can put your priorities into their context. Only then can you succeed."

That advice flies in the face of impatient advisers, who often arrive with their own versions of the magic bullet.

What sets the successes of the center apart from the failure of others is the willingness of researchers to learn the norms of the host cultures. Then they apply solutions developed by a team that includes significant representation from the host group.

Including more than token representation from the host group is critical for success. Externally imposed solutions can be devastating.

Time after time we hear of a program failing in our inner cities or with a minority subculture, such as Indians.

And the repercussions last far beyond the immediate program failure. Soon we begin to blame the victims, portraying them as people unwilling to accept help.

But what's really at stake? Frequently, it's our unwillingness to learn the group's norms and to use local talent in designing solutions. It may take a bit longer to achieve results, but those results will ultimately have permanence.

We needn't look any further than Baltimore's own Sandtown-Winchester project to see the application of culture-based change and community enablement principles.

Including grass-roots people and organizations in every aspect of planning and implementation has put Sandtown-Winchester's urban renewal project on the right track. All participants are committed to working together, listening, understanding community norms and applying solutions based on input from all affected parties.

(Lester A Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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