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Section 6. Creating Opportunities for Members of Groups to Identify Their Similarities, Differences, and Assets

Learn how to create opportunities for people to identify common ground, respect differences, and appreciate strengths.

 

  • Why is identifying similarities, differences, and assets important?

  • How can opportunities to identify similarities, differences, and assets be created in your community?

  • How do you initiate a process to help individuals from different groups find common ground and share their assets?

  • What types of events can you coordinate to celebrate the community's diversity and assets?

  • What activities can you conduct to educate people about conditions and forces that help shape a group's identity and current situation?

  • What are the challenges that you should be aware of and how can the challenges be overcome?

Why is identifying similarities, differences, and assets important?

"They are always speaking in a different language. I don't understand them. What could I possibly have in common with them?"

"We all care about our children, no matter where we come from. I don't have a problem getting an appointment with the school principal. Why should you?"

"There is a high rate of alcohol abuse among Latino men. It's because they like to hang out and do nothing."

Have you heard these comments before? They typify the perceptions that people have about others because they assume that they are different or similar.

If we assume that we are different because of our culture, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, we may end up perpetuating stereotypes. But if we focus only on our similarities, we risk ignoring the differences that make our groups special and that are important to us. And if we look only at what is wrong with someone else's group based on what we think is right and wrong, we are ignoring their strengths and values. This section will provide you with guidance on how to create opportunities to help members of different ethnic and cultural groups find common ground, respect their differences, and appreciate their strengths.

Let's consider an effort to bridge differences between African American residents and Korean merchants in a neighborhood. If the effort focuses only on helping both groups understand their cultural traditions (e.g., wedding rituals, celebration of a newborn), we leave the effort with a better understanding of why Koreans and African Americans do what they do, but knowing still that they are different. The next time we meet another Korean family, we may assume that they are typical of any Korean family and without realizing it, expect them to behave a certain way.

If the effort focuses only on helping both groups understand their similarities, then the initial gap between them may actually appear smaller. For example, Koreans and African Americans consider "family" not just to be the immediate family, but also the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We leave the effort with a better understanding that Koreans and African Americans share similar values but not fully realizing that a Korean may have an easier time getting a job than an African American due to institutionalized racism.

If the effort focuses only on what is wrong with the two groups, for example, African American children are at risk because they don't have enough male role models or Korean children are at risk because they are caught between the traditional and the American worlds, then we leave the effort with little understanding about the assets of these two groups. Consequently, we might try to force these communities into a mold that is not right for them.

  • Interact and develop trust, friendliness, warmth, and empathy
  • See what they have in common as members of the same community and as hardworking individuals who want a better life for their children
  • Reduce the myths about each other's groups
  • Learn about the things that shape a person's life and cause differences among groups, especially differences related to political power and socioeconomic status
  • Minimize the external influences that perpetuate stereotypes based on physical traits and other qualities

Keep in mind though that helping people to see their similarities, differences, and assets is only one step in the community building process. Unless this process is linked to actions that change the behaviors of groups of people and institutions, change will only occur at the individual level.

How can opportunities to identify similarities, differences, and assets be created in your community?

Think of your approach as a multi-prong strategy with activities that allow people to share their similarities and to learn about the differences.

One example may be to design a discussion process to allow people to share their similarities, coordinate events that celebrate diversity, AND design a public education campaign to educate people about conditions that help shape a group's identity and current situation.

Build on issues that you know affect everyone in the community, such as healthy children, safer streets, clean parks, elderly care, or more recreational centers. Use these issues to create a common goal toward which everyone can work.

Identify the individuals who need to be engaged from each sector of the community that you are trying to build. If you are trying to build a community that has diverse ethnic groups, be sure that each group is included. If you are trying to build a community between people with different sexual orientations, be sure to include all of them.

Keep in mind: Be very careful about how you build on existing events or programs of existing organizations. For example, in one community, the neighborhood organization had a bad reputation of being exclusive and internally conflicted. Building on an event sponsored by the neighborhood organization or inviting more than one representative from this organization could lead others to think that nothing will change. Don't bypass this organization, because it has an important role in the community, but be explicit about its role and who the representative should be at the meeting.

On the other hand, building on an event or organization that has a positive image could give your effort more credibility. For example, ask a credible leader from a particular group to announce your effort at his/her event. This will provide you easier access to that particular group in the future and to demonstrate the blessing that your effort has received from that group.

Do your homework. Find out about events and organizations before you use them for your community building purposes.

Don't let someone from a particular group be an after-thought and invite that person after the second meeting has occurred. That person may think that he/she was secondary to the rest of the participants. If a key person from a particularly important group has not yet been identified or cannot make the first meeting, it may be wise to delay the meeting.

Additionally, adding a new person after the group has already met could threaten the trust and relationship-building that the group starts to have among its members. If it is difficult for you to decline a new person because this person is critical or a current member of the group insists on bringing a friend, make sure that you take the time to ask the group permission and to orient the new person before the next meeting.

Tip:  The number of persons you invite from each group matters. You don't want one group to dominate. If you are inviting groups that have never come together before, it may be a good idea to invite two representatives from each group to reduce the fear of being a lone voice.

When scheduling the first meeting or discussion, be sensitive to people's schedules and traditions. For example, if you are trying to engage the Muslim community and it happens to be the month of Ramadan, schedule your meetings after they break their fast, or build in a break for them to say a prayer before they can eat. Once you have everyone at the first meeting, you can check future meeting schedules with them.

Pay attention to the meeting location, and make sure that it is not a location that is traditionally perceived as exclusive or representative of certain groups.

How do you initiate a process to help individuals from different groups find common ground and share their assets?

Find a phrase that appeals to all the groups in your community. For example, everyone is likely to want to have "better communities" or "a better quality of life."

At the first meeting, build in some informal social time or structured icebreakers before "getting down to business." For example, you could ask each person how and where they got their names. This exercise will help people learn to pronounce one another's names correctly (e.g., names of people from India, Thailand, Vietnam, Iran, Ethiopia, etc.). It will also be rich exchange as people learn about the value and meaning behind each name.

Then select a phrase or term and ask each person to describe the meaning of the selected phrase (e.g., healthy community) to him/her. Here is a list of questions that can be used to facilitate the discussions. Not all the questions can or should be asked or answered in the first discussion, but the facilitator needs to be very strategic in developing discussion guides and agendas that build on the previous discussion.

Through these discussions, the assets of each group will become evident. For instance, a Latino resident may describe how her church is an existing resource because it coordinates activities to help Latino women develop English and other professional skills. This church and the trained women become assets for the community.

The Hope Community in Minneapolis, Minnesota has developed listening projects that bring together diverse residents in the community to "dream of what a neighborhood can be when children matter." They have used the information gathered through such projects to develop community development strategies.

For more information contact:
Mary Keefe, Associate Director
Hope Community, Inc.
2101 Portland Avenue, South
Minneapolis, MN 55404.
Phone: 612-874-8867

Facilitation questions:

  • What does "community" mean to you? You can also use visual aids and ask the participants to draw a picture of their idea of a community. (This information will help show the participants how much they have in common in terms of their aspirations for a better place to live.)
  • Where do you see yourself in the community? What role do you think you play in the community? (This information will help indicate how each person and the group they belong to contributes to the community.)
  • How does your community reflect and not reflect your idea of a community? (This information will help participants learn about each person's perception of the community they live in, and how and why the community meets or does not meet their expectations)
  • What do you think needs to happen in order for the community to be better for you and your family? (This information will help participants learn about the changes that each person wants to see in the community.)
  • What existing cultural resources, assets, activities, or structures can you build on to make this the community you want? (This information will help identify the strengths of the community, assets of each group, and to recognize previous and current efforts to strengthen the community.)
  • What is missing in the community? Why? And what can you do individually and together to make the changes happen? (This information will help identify needs and to plan action steps that individuals and their groups can take individually and collectively.)

As one dialogue progresses and you learn about how you could improve it, you could start another dialogue with a new group of people. You could ask the participants in one dialogue to identify two other leaders or friends to join a new dialogue.

What types of events can you coordinate to celebrate the community's diversity?

At the same time that you are carrying out a process to help individuals find common ground, you can also plan events that celebrate the community's diversity. You could ask the individuals in the dialogues to help plan these events. These events should be open to everyone in the community. These events will also help to highlight the assets of each group in the community.

Festivals and important occasions are useful subjects for learning about and celebrating different groups' traditions. For instance, you could put together a calendar of new year festivities that each major racial, ethnic, and cultural group in the community celebrates.

Tip: Some groups (e.g., Chinese, Muslims) use the lunar, and not the calendar year. This means that the date of their new year may fall on a different day every year based on the calendar year. Double check before you make any annual plans.

You could then work with the local public library and other public facilities (e.g., YMCA, community center, city hall) to hang decorative items and post information about the new year event, and work with the particular group to plan one activity about its traditions during its new year celebration.

Another way to celebrate the community's diversity is to intentionally acknowledge and appreciate traditions that tend to be overshadowed by historically dominant festivities. For example, during Christmas season, plan events that also celebrate Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.

Things paired with primary reinforcers such as food can also take on reinforcing value themselves. Many groups can use the same ingredients and produce different dishes. These dishes are a form of diversity that is non-threatening and typically welcomed by everyone. One idea is to do research on a particular ingredient and then ask each group to share information and to demonstrate how it uses that ingredient.

Find out how each group celebrates, commemorates, or grieves over significant events in their history and culture. Take one common subject (e.g., birth, death, independence day, war, etc.), educate the community about the meaning and value of the related events, and then share the practices with everyone. Publicize the information and the events.

Some communities make a point of celebrating Black History month, Asian/Pacific Islander month, or Hispanic month as way to promote and appreciate different cultures. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but we must remember that appreciating different groups should be a constant practice and not just during certain times in the year. It is better to have different events for all the major groups in your community throughout the year rather than concentrate them during certain months only.

What do you currently do in your community to celebrate diversity? When do the events usually occur? How can you plan it so that the events happen on a regular basis throughout the year?

Initial questions to guide the planning of events to celebrate diversity include:

  • What are the major celebrations and events in your culture?
  • What do people in your culture do on that day/week/month?
  • What would you like to share with the rest of the community about that celebration or event?
  • Are there similar celebrations and events by the other groups in the community?

What activities can you conduct to educate people about conditions and forces that help shape a group's identity and current situation?

Activities to educate people about conditions and forces that help shape a group's identity and current situation can be conducted in small group settings or for the community-at-large (e.g., a public education campaign). These activities should also be conducted at the same time as the dialogues to identify common ground and the events to celebrate diversity. The main purpose of these activities is to help diverse groups understand the history, oppression, and injustice that form the basis for why groups are treated differently.

Are groups treated differently in your community? What quality or qualities separate groups from one another?

Visual cues, such as images of African slaves, Chinese railroad workers, or mosques could be used to prompt discussion among a small diverse group. Members could be asked to describe what the images mean to them. Someone knowledgeable about the history of the image could be invited to share the information with the group.

Another possibility is to select a significant symbol in the community (e.g., statue of a prominent person in front of city hall, name of a school, historical buildings) and ask each person to describe what that symbol means to him or her. This is a particularly useful exercise for newcomers in a community (e.g., refugees from Laos) to learn about the history of their new residence, and for long-time residents (e.g., African Americans and European Americans who have lived in the community for generations) to have a role in welcoming the newcomers.

Public education campaigns can be a useful strategy to raise the community's awareness about conditions that helped shape a group's identity and current situation. In such campaigns, use research data (e.g., cite statistical evidence about the tax contributions of immigrants to the U.S. economy to dispel myths about the large number of undocumented immigrants that are benefiting from public monies) and stories from actual residents (e.g., how an immigrant in the community started a small business that is now a source of employment for local residents) to make the point.

Examples of ideas for a public education campaign include:

  • A series of articles in the local newspaper about the plight of a group of refugees who recently resettled in the community
  • A series of articles about health disparities between African Americans and European Americans and the possible reasons for the gap
  • Table tents (e.g., for restaurants) and posters that celebrate the community's diversity
  • Planned trips to different faith institutions in the community and discussions about different religious symbols and practices
  • Planned and facilitated discussions in schools, block associations, chambers of commerce, and other community settings about topics such as institutionalized racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination

At the end of each article or in the table tents and posters, include a tear-out slip so that individuals interested in participating in your community building effort can send you their contact information. This way, you could expand the circle of people who want to do something about the growing diversity of their community and, at the same time, develop a list of potential volunteers. Postcards could be distributed at the end of discussions and field trips for the same purpose.

What are the challenges that you should be aware of and how can the challenges be overcome?

People could have had positive or negative experiences in the past with processes to get to know each other, build coalitions, or break down group barriers. For example, the Latino administrators in a school may have tried to work with Vietnamese parents in the past through a local Vietnamese organization. The attempt failed because of cultural barriers in communication style. Consequently, the two groups experienced negative feelings about each other.

Do your homework. Find out which individuals or groups have tried to work together before and what were their experiences. Interview key leaders, ask them what would encourage people to work together again or for the first time.

These group processes, particularly during discussions about power differences, could themselves create tension and conflicts. For example, a Jewish man may feel offended that he is perceived to have economic power because the stereotype of Jews is that they know how to make and save money.

The facilitator and the participants must agree on ground rules for handling situations when someone may be offended, hurt, or angered. For example, someone can say out loud, "ouch," or hold up an object.

Sometimes, groups tend to compare themselves based on the degree to which they have been oppressed. For example, members of the "untouchable caste" in India may feel that they have suffered oppression of the worst kind because they were discriminated against by people of their own nationality and ethnicity. African Americans may feel that there was no worse oppression than slavery.

The facilitator should call out this behavior when they see it, let the groups know that all forms of oppression are wrong. Help the groups understand that their collective effort could help reduce discrimination of all kinds and not just against one particular group.

It is difficult to link the process of getting to know one another to taking action. The strategy or process must ensure that such a link is intentionally created during the planning stage and not as an afterthought. For example, an African American leader once said to a group of funders and program managers that the African American community is tired of sitting around and talking. They know what they want and all they need is some funds to carry out their actions.

Be explicit about why you are asking people to the table, especially what is in it for them and what is the desired outcome.

There has to be adequate time, resources, knowledge, and skills to support the process. Initiating the process without ensuring enough support to complete it could create more harm than good. For example, one organization put a lot of upfront effort and resources into establishing a group to deal with the misrepresentation of immigrants in the media. This process got the group members all fired up, but by the time they developed the action steps, there was no more money to support the steps. This created a lot of frustration and increased the reluctance of this group to get involved in another effort in the future.

Take the time to develop a budget and a step-by-step action plan. This plan should be guided by the amount of resources available and reasonably projected. To implement the plan work in phases if you have to and evaluate process and affirm future actions at the end of each phase.

In Summary

Effort must be made and opportunities created to help members of different racial groups, and cultural groups to learn about, acknowledge, and respect their similarities, differences, and assets. If an effort emphasizes only one of these components the participating members will get an incomplete picture of one another and the groups they belong to. If resources are limited, you might want to consider ways to conduct a smaller-scale activity that conveys all the components, rather than a large-scale activity that emphasizes one of the components only.

Contributor 
Kien Lee

Online Resources

Study, Discussion and Action on Issues of Race, Racism and Inclusion - a partial list of resources utilized and prepared by Yusef Mgeni.

Print Resources

Center for Living Democracy. (1997) Interracial dialogue groups across America: A directory. Brattleboro, VT: Center for Living Democracy. (For a copy please write to The Center for Living Democracy, 289 Fox Farm Road, Brattlevoro, VT 05301, call: 802-254-1234

Chavis, D., Lee, K., & Buchanan, R. (2001). Principles for intergroup projects. Gaithersburg, Maryland: Association for the Study and Development of Community.

Lee, K. (2002). Building intergroup relations after September 11. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 131-141. (A copy of the paper can be obtained by writing the author at the Association for the Study and Development of Community, 312 South Frederick Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD 20877 or at kien@capablecommunity.com.)

National Conference for Community and Justice. (2001). Building bridges with reliable information. Washington, DC: The National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ). (For a copy please write NCCJ- National Capital Area Region, 1815 H Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20006; call 202-822-6110; e-mail: nationalcapital@nccj.org)

Quiroz, J. (1995). Together in our differences. Washington, DC: The National Immigration Forum. (For information on how to obtain a copy, contact the National Immigration Forum: 200 Eye Street, NE, Suite 220, Washington, DC 2002, call: 202-544-0004.

Reichler. P, & Dredge, P. (Eds.) (1997). Governing diverse communities: A focus on race and ethnic relations. Washington, DC: National League of Cities (NLC). (For a copy please contact NLC Publications Center: P.O. Box 491, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701 or call 888-571-2939.)

Stephan, W. & Stephan, C. (2001). Improving Intergroup Relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Organizations

Hope in the Cities National Office
Richmond, Virginia
1103 Sunset Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221
Telephone: (804) 358-1764
Fax: (804) 358-1769

Palmetto Project
P.O. Box 506
Charleston, SC 20402
Telephone: (843) 577-4122
Fax: (843)-723-0521

Study Circle Resource Center
PO Box 203
697 Pomfret Street
Pomfret, CT 06258
Phone: (860) 928.2616
Fax: (860) 928.3713