What is multiculturalism and how does it work?

I had a wonderful conversation with our Executive Director, Sheila Capestany today. It was about multiculturalism and the workplace.

Open Arms is a highly multicultural organization and strives to keep that foremost in the minds of staff, doulas and board as we do our work. I learn something every day when I am in the office in terms of what that means, and the impact it has on not only how we serve our clients, but how our organization functions internally as well. I realize that as much as I might think I know about multiculturalism, I still have much to learn.

Our staff primarily comes from the Latina, Somali and American cultures. First and foremost, our staff speak different languages with varying degrees of fluency in English – some have English as a first language, and others learned it later in life. So when one is speaking about deep issues, some – but not all – are communicating in a second language. This gives uneven communication skills at the most fundamental level and offers lots of opportunity for misunderstanding. Additionally, we face issues of religions – sometimes with conflicting values and cultural traditions that must be worked through.

Then communication styles and protocol must be bridged. Consider if every day you must examine – and articulate your answers to – questions such as these: How do I look when I disagree? What is an appropriate response if someone disagrees with me? Are questions appropriate and how do I ask them? How do I show respect? How do I give direction? How do I say no? How do I recognize that you have a problem? What do I do if I don’t understand what my manager has told me? As a manager, how can I tell if I’ve effectively communicated to this person on my team? How do I differentiate a suggestion from a directive? These questions go both ways, so regardless of whether one is staff or manager, all must be equally responsible for communication. No one way trumps any other. Even something as seemingly simple as what is served for a staff lunch or whether you choose to partake in the food and how much can inadvertently give offense or carry messages.

Our staff must keep an inquiring mind and welcoming spirit to be able to face and embrace these challenges every day. I hesitate to use this word because it’s so overused, but to truly celebrate the differences and respect each other and our core philosophy of multiculturalism, we must be mindful at every turn of the impact of culture on the issues and tasks to be done.

Not only does everyone have to continually learn about each other, each has a responsibility to share. And by sharing, we must first identify what our culture is and what we really feel – and then express it to others. Talk about risk! And the process of self-examination and subsequent change of something so fundamental as culture, bias, prejudice and tradition can be painful. Our staff must trust each other to continue the conversation, to turn towards communication and resolution instead of shutting down or ignoring it. It takes a staff who trusts each other enough to stick with the inevitable conflicts that arise.

I am proud to work for an organization that so consciously and deliberately practices their values, not only externally but internally as well.

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