Monday, October 31, 2011

Diversity: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

The cover story of Sunday's Washington Post is entitled "The New American Neighborhood," and details the changing demographics of the Washington D.C. area over the last 30 years.  The basic premise is that majority white neighborhoods are becoming a thing of the past, with more areas welcoming a mix of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity.  This does not just apply to the city, but even to the far reaches of the suburbs of Loudoun County, Prince William County, and Montgomery County.  The county that I work in, Fairfax, is no exception.  You can read the full article here.

Additionally, the story discusses the way that children today are having different experiences than in past generations:
"The multiculturalism is shaping the way children interact in ways that even their older siblings did not experience.  When Lisette Pozo, 25, was in high school, most of her friends were Hispanic, like her. Her 12-year-old brother, Michael, hangs out with neighbors in Ashburn who are Middle Eastern and Indian. They have sampled his mother’s arroz con pollo and lomo saltado, and he has been to their houses for flat bread and chicken, and other spicy dishes whose names he doesn’t quite remember." (source:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
Children and students today, at least from my observations, have much more diverse groups of friends, and are more relaxed and willing to experience and learn more about their peers' cultural backgrounds.  In fact, it is projected that within the next 30 years, non-hispanic whites will be in the minority in the United States.  Across the country we can already see this transformation as the latest census data is made known. What does this mean for us as school counselors?

I happen to love working with diverse populations--I find people, in general, fascinating, and I enjoy learning about the cultures and backgrounds of my students and families.  In fact, the diversity of my school is one of the things that really spoke to me when I was in the interview process.  Hopefully, all counselors are now receiving some form of training in multicultural counseling--it was a strong component of my degree program.  It is important to develop an awareness and empathy for cultures other than your own and/or the dominant culture in the society, and at the same time avoid assigning broad labels to groups--this is one of the possible pitfalls of multicultural counseling. Rather, the strength of counseling from a multicultural perspective is that you are able to take each client, couple, or family and view them within their own unique culture.  That being said, please note that in the following paragraphs I am only speaking in general terms--every individual situation is different, and I do not propose any of them as more right or wrong than another.

In traditional American culture, for example, there is generally a strong belief in the rights of the individual to chart their own destiny, make their own decisions, and prioritize their own needs above the needs of the group or others.  An ailing mother may need her child to stay at home in order to help take care of her when he graduates from high school, but she may encourage him to leave and go away to college, working to make other arrangements to support herself when he is gone.  However, in some cultures, the needs of the family and the group are seen as being more important than those of the individual--it might be unheard of, in the same situation, for that child to go away to college leaving his mother to fend for herself.

Same situation, different cultural situations.  What do you, as a school counselor, do?

If the student is from the more individualized culture, it might be important to work with him on setting up ways to stay in touch with his mother on a regular basis, and on helping to connect him to resources in the area that might be able to assist.  You can work out an emergency plan with him in case his mother becomes truly debilitated.  You can help him to think about who is in the area that could also assist and check in with his mother so that she has people watching out for her on a regular basis.  Are there siblings?  Family friends?  Neighbors?  Can he work out a car-pooling system for regular visits home on the weekends?

In the case of the student who may be part of a culture that places a strong value on the family and the group, you might want to work with him on finding a pathway to college that would allow him to remain in his house.  Perhaps he needs to attend a university that is close to home?  Maybe he needs to take a reduced class load in order to help out with his mother's care?  Perhaps a two-year college is a good place for him to start with flexible class times so that he can share in the care of his mother with other family or siblings and still find time to begin his college education?

The place to start, though, is in confronting your own cultural biases.  If you read the above example and felt more sympathy with one scenario over the other, does that color your judgement when working with your students?  You probably are going to feel more comfortable with one path versus another--that is normal and to be expected.  Our own values are a part of who we are.  However, what is important is being aware of these predispositions so that you are able to prevent them from hindering your work with students and families who may have a different life-perspective.

There are many resources available to gain more skills in working from a multicultural perspective.  The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development has resources available on their website, and the list of multicultural competencies is available on the ACA website.  If you are interested in reading further into working with diverse populations, I would recommend taking a look at two books.  The first is edited by one of the gurus of multicultural counseling, Courtland Lee at the University of Maryland, entitled Multicultural Issues in Counseling.   The second book is published by ASCA and is Multiculturalism and Diversity by Sharon Ravitch, Ph.D.  Both of these publications are filled with resources, strong research, and case studies.  Moreover, there may be classes, workshops, or in-services available through your school district, local universities, or professional organizations to help develop your multicultural counseling skills.

2 comments:

  1. Great advice Darrell. While it is probably most pertinent to counseling, I think the same holds true for almost any profession.

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  2. Yes--it is not only applicable to professions, but also to life. As we become a more and more diverse global society, having the ability to be open to different cultural norms and traditions is necessary.

    Thanks for being my first comment!

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