Search form

Learn how to promote multicultural collaboration.


Photo of colorful graffiti on a brick wall.


As our society becomes more culturally diverse, organizations are understanding the need to work with other organizations in order to "turn up the sound," so their voices are heard and their issues will be addressed. This means that individuals and institutions can no longer deny the sometimes uncomfortable realities of cultural diversity. Organizers and activists are realizing that we have to come to grips with our multicultural society, or we won't get anything done. But how do we do that?

One Wisconsin labor activist says, "We want to include communities of color, but we just don't know where to begin. We hold open meetings, but no people of color even show up."

A neighborhood organization member in South Los Angeles, says, "Last year, we decided to move toward organizing in the Latino community for the simple reason that we have a lot of new immigrants from Central America in the neighborhoods. We wanted to make an authentic multicultural organization, but we learned an important lesson -- it doesn't just happen."

Many organizers have begun to come to grips with diversity issues, even though they may not have all the answers. These organizers realize they have to develop new strategies and tactics to attract multicultural interest in their collaborative initiatives. They also know there will be problems to solve if their collaborations are to be effective. This section will discuss how to help organizations collaborate effectively with people of different cultures.

What is multicultural collaboration?

First of all, what's the difference between a coalition, a collaboration, and a multicultural collaboration?

A coalition involves two or more organizations working together around an issue or a common set of interrelated issues that they can't address on their own. The purpose is to harness enough influence and resources to have an impact on an issue beyond the grasp of one group alone. The life of a coalition is usually shorter than the life of the complex issue or issues it faces. When the issue or issues are resolved the coalition disbands and the organizations go their separate ways. Coalition members understand that there will be shared risks, responsibilities, and rewards. The level of commitment is moderate. Diversity in a coalition is a strength as well as a problem because there is often dissension.

A collaboration involves two or more organizations working together on multiple issues and goals in a long-term commitment. This is the highest and most difficult level of working with others, involving formalized organizational relationships. There is a long-term commitment and a focus on a range of issues of wide concern. Turf protection can be high and the ability to let go of control over the direction of the group is critical. Involved organizations share resources (develop, implement, and evaluate programs), establish policy, and jointly conduct educational programs. The core values of collaboration are mutual respect, a valuing of difference, and a high level of trust.

“Turf protection” is guarding what you see as your rightful control over an issue, a funding source, a job function, or other area, even when sharing that control could both make your job easier and make your efforts more effective.

A multicultural collaboration is between two or more groups or organizations, each comprised of members from different cultural backgrounds and orientations (e.g., Latino, Indigenous, White) or with goals or missions oriented to populations with differing cultures (e.g., Black, Asian). The cultural differences among groups may consist of ethnic heritage, values, traditions, languages, history, sense of self, and racial attitudes. Any of these cultural features can become barriers to working together. Unless they become part of the relationship, the collaboration will probably be challenged.

Culture is one of the most powerful forces in our world. It's central to what we see, how we make sense of our world, and how we express ourselves. As people from different cultural groups work together, values sometimes conflict. When we don't understand each other we sometimes react in ways that make a partnership ineffective. Often we're not aware that cultural differences are the root of miscommunication.

In an effective multicultural collaboration, as with any other collaboration, the participants must have a sense of common purpose. But they must consider that different cultural groups may have differing ideas about how leaders are chosen and exercise power, and about how conflict and disagreement should be managed. For example, someone from an American Indian tribe may believe that a leader can be respected only if they are an elder, while this may not be an important factor to someone in another group.

A multicultural collaboration requires a plan, lots of patience, and determination to confront old attitudes in new ways by pulling in partners usually not involved. In order for a multicultural collaboration to be effective, the groups involved must overcome differences to promote a unified effort. Because of different skill levels and expertise, the collaboration may seem uneven at first. And, initially, participants may come for different reasons. For example, some may have been invited to take on responsibilities others don't want; others may want a scapegoat in case things don't work. But if the focus is on the common goal, shared decision making, defined roles, and setting time lines, the organizations involved can make it work.

Why is multicultural collaboration important?

  • It gets everyone to the table. Because most groups have some community-wide concerns, it's essential to get them to the same table, uneven or not. According to John Gardner, the biggest problem of having many groups in society is the war of the parts against the whole. Separately they don’t have the power to resolve a problem, but because they are all tied together, one part can hold up the others for ransom -- everything can be frozen if one group's efforts are focused on thwarting another's
  • It emphasizes common interests rather than differences. Though it's odd and self-destructive, in-fighting has increased dramatically in recent years. Becoming more aware of our similarities, along with cultural differences, doesn't have to paralyze or divide us. Through common interests we can learn to translate "different from me" and "less than me" into "like me in lots of important ways." As a result "difference" becomes less of a barrier to effectiveness.
  • It makes for more effective communication among groups. Understanding how people communicate is the first step toward understanding and respecting each other.
  • It enriches everyone's life when there is shared knowledge of others' cultures. Different communication styles reflect philosophies and worldviews that are the foundations of cultures. New understanding gives us a broader view of our world and the opportunity to see a mirror image of ourselves.
  • It takes advantage of "strength in numbers." History shows that when groups are organized through common purpose they can wield great power and succeed. Because no one group is responsible for a problem, no one group alone can solve it. Competition among groups doesn't aid survival in today's turbulent world.
  • It creates community. As our population becomes more culturally diverse, some cultural groups are experiencing more problems. If we learn to understand and value other cultures and to look at each other as neighbors with similar interests rather than adversaries, we will be more vested in the idea of taking better care of each other. Caring about our neighbors builds a sense of community and unites us in solving community-wide problems.
  • It leads to a more just society. Multicultural collaboration can build collective capacity to help make things better, and promote the consensus that it's important to do so. This offers a good chance at solving complex problems in an atmosphere of trust, cooperation, and mutual respect.

When should you commit to multicultural collaboration?

Vicente, a community activist, suggests a way to think about collaborating with people from different cultures: "To me what's important is where do we make connections? Where do our pasts tie in? We all come from agrarian backgrounds at some point in our past that are very rich with folklore, history, oral history, and values."

Another man, Estevan, says, "If I see that you're hurting, that there's something wrong with you, and I can help you out -- why do I have to care about what color of skin you have, what color of eyes you have, or where you come from? In New Mexico we say, 'Mi casa es tu casa.' My house is your house."

The comments above indicate that the human connection can be reason enough to work at overcoming cultural barriers. The following are other significant indicators of when you should commit to multicultural collaboration:

  • Those most affected by the problem are not participating in a solution. This could mean that one group (possibly the group in power) needs to commit to improving its cultural understanding and appreciation (its cultural competence) with regard to other groups, in order for those groups to feel welcome.
  • There is more at stake than individual organizations, but competing organizations are at each other's throats and coming to unilateral decisions that hurt themselves and others.
  • There are problems among many diverse groups that one organization can't solve alone or in a short period of time.
  • There are several groups willing to make a long-term commitment to work for a change in thinking and to establish a common language and effective communication.
  • Several organizations recognize a bad situation that could get worse if nothing is done.
  • There is a desire to identify others involved in the problem and bring them to the table. Everyone at the table will share a vision and be committed to the process of reaching out to new partners, explaining the rationale, and continuing to recruit group members.
  • All parties involved are clear about what they are getting into, see the tasks as meaningful work that will make a difference, and are strong stakeholder groups in the community.
  • The groups represent every cultural group involved in the problem, are well organized, and are able to speak and act credibly for the groups they represent.
  • The leadership of the process is committed to keeping the focus on the goals, keeping stakeholders at the table through periods of frustration and disagreement, acknowledging small successes along the way, and enforcing the group's agreed-upon rules.

It's important not to go blindly into a collaboration. Organizations should be aware of the potential problems and to realize that all collaborations may not be voluntary. Circumstances may place organizations in partnerships they may not have anticipated. For example, competition for increasingly limited funds, federal or state mandates for the establishment of initiatives, and social crises may create non-voluntary collaborations. Forces such as these may turn a step-by-step process of recognition, initiation, structuring, and definition into one giant leap. A giant leap without forethought can lead to a painful fall.

Finally, organizations thinking about collaborating must ask themselves, given the potential problems, if they should collaborate at all. Is it an impossible goal? On the other hand, the problems shouldn't scare anyone off if there's potential to work them out with special effort. There won't be unanimous agreement on everything. That's OK because healthy disagreement can be productive and desirable. At the same time, there may be lots of ways to work together and experience the many rewards gained through building the relationships needed to do the work.

What are some guidelines for multicultural collaboration?

Cultural questions about who we are and how we identify ourselves are at the heart of multicultural collaboration. Consider these guidelines as you confront the communication barriers:

  • Learn from generalizations about other cultures and races, but don't use those generalizations to stereotype, write off, or oversimplify your ideas about another person. The best use of a generalization is to add it to your storehouse of knowledge, so that you better understand and appreciate other interesting, multi-faceted human beings.
  • Practice, practice, practice. That's the first rule because it's in the doing that we actually get better at cross-cultural communication.
  • Don't assume that there is one right way to communicate. Keep questioning your assumptions about the "right way" to communicate. For example, think about your body language; postures that indicate receptivity in one culture might indicate aggressiveness in another.
  • Don't assume that breakdowns in communication occur because other people are on the wrong track. Search for ways to make the communication work, rather than searching for whom should receive the blame for the breakdown.
  • Listen actively and empathetically. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes, especially when another person's perceptions or ideas are very different from your own. You might need to operate at the edge of your own comfort zone.
  • Respect others' choices about whether or not to engage in communication with you. Honor their opinions about what is going on.
  • Stop, suspend judgment, and try to look at the situation as an outsider. For example, when you notice blocks or difficulties in working with people, revisit your own beliefs or behaviors that may be holding you back. Also, think about how others view your work relationship and decide on ways you might change your behavior to make them more comfortable. For example, you might be speaking or dressing in a very formal manner. Being more informal in dress and behavior might improve the situation.
  • Be prepared for a discussion of the past. Use this as an opportunity to develop an understanding from "the other's" point of view, rather than getting defensive or impatient. Acknowledge historical events that have taken place. Be open to learning more about them. Honest acknowledgment of the mistreatment and oppression that have taken place on the basis of cultural difference is vital for effective communication.
  • Be aware of current power imbalances. And be open to hearing each other's perceptions of those imbalances. It's necessary to understand each other and work together.
  • Remember that cultural norms may not apply to the behavior of any particular individual. We are all shaped by many factors (ethnic background, family, education, personalities) and are more complicated than any cultural norm could suggest. Check your interpretations if you are uncertain what is meant.
  • To journey with fellow travelers we must prepare ourselves for customs and values that differ from ours. We must understand that we each have customs that may seem foreign to others. For example, in the United States, Midwesterners tend to call colleagues by their first name as a sign of friendliness. Yet in many Black communities, respect is shown by using last names and titles. People on the East Coast arch their eyebrows at the suggestion of a seven-thirty breakfast meeting -- nine is the preferred starting time. In the Midwest, however, early meetings are common. American Indian may begin their meetings by sharing food before business gets started. To others, eating before working seems unproductive.

How do you build a multicultural collaboration?

There are three steps to developing any collaboration:

  1. Define the setting of the problem
  2. Set a direction
  3. Implement your plan

Multicultural collaboration requires considerations that may not be involved in other collaborations. There are 6 components in building a multicultural collaboration:

Formulate and state clearly the vision and mission of the collaboration to model the multicultural relationships.

  • Make a commitment to create an organizational culture that embraces and grows from diversity. Assemble a multicultural team. A group may not appear to be serious about being multicultural when all staff members are from one group. This helps get across the message that you really mean it when your collaborative says it's committed to involving every group in all phases of the initiative. Practicing the principles you champion builds trust, so lead by example.
  • Become aware of what dimensions of cultural diversity exist in your coalition.
  • Respect and celebrate the various ethnic, racial, cultural, gender, and other differences in your group. Make the time and create the space for this to occur.
  • Cultivate a multicultural atmosphere. Incorporate language, art, music, rituals, and ways of working together that derive from diverse cultures. Have appropriate resources and educational materials available, and encourage people to use them.

Conduct strategic outreach and membership development.

  • If possible, include diverse groups at the inception, rather than later. This can ensure that your collaboration's development reflects many perspectives from the very beginning. It can also minimize real or perceived tokenism (e.g., bringing one person of color into a largely white organization and giving her a title with no authority or responsibility, setting her up to look ineffectual and bad), paternalism, and inequality among the people who join later.
  • Consciously give priority to increasing diversity. Consider all the different dimensions of diversity when identifying, selecting, and recruiting prospective collaborative members. Set ground rules that maintain a safe and nurturing atmosphere. Plan to invest significantly more up-front time in outreach and follow-up to build trust.
  • Tap into networks (yours and others'), and use word-of-mouth and personal references to enhance your credibility. Personal contact is important. Ask if you can go to meetings of existing groups -- faith groups, civic associations, coalitions, wherever people meet. Get on their agenda for a few minutes, and make a personal invitation. Then follow up formal invitations with personal phone calls.
  • Recognize that changing the appearance of your membership -- seeing variety -- is only the first step toward attaining an understanding of and respect for people of other cultures.
  • Welcome and highlight different sorts of contributions, special skills, and experiences.
  • Provide incentives and trade-offs to recruit diverse participants. Be prepared to operate in new ways, to share control, and build trust. Make an ongoing commitment of collaborative resources to issues of importance to the diverse group members.
  • Respect the right of member organizations to maintain their own separatism if they wish. Given their own political perspective or stage of organizational development, they may prefer to work strictly on their own, rather than to join a multicultural collaboration. Try to initiate a relationship that might lead to a stronger alliance in the future.
  • Develop and use ground rules for your collaborative that establish shared norms, reinforce constructive and respectful conduct, and protect against damaging behavior.
  • Encourage or help people to develop qualities such as patience, empathy, trust, tolerance, and a nonjudgmental attitude.

A Los Angeles neighborhood collaborative organization called Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives (AGENDA) did this to aid communication and attract new members. The group generally focused on the Black community in its work. Its staff and organizers were mostly Black. The group wanted to attract Latinos to the collaborative initiative, but when they brought monolingual Spanish-speaking members to the general membership and committee meetings it didn't get them involved. But when a separate organization (Latino Organizing Committee) was formed it brought in 90 new members. At the same time AGENDA began conducting separate educational sessions for Black members to talk about how all low-income communities of color face similar challenges and problems.

The members of all of the groups came together for general membership meetings and selected planning meetings. An interpreter sitting in one part of the room with Spanish-speaking members provided translation. AGENDA also planned to add diversity training to its programs. The separate initiation groups enabled the members to get past initial resentment and see the larger interest in uniting minority groups, with the long-range plan of merging the groups after recruiting and educating more members about the initiative.

Establish structures and operating procedures that reinforce equity.

  • Create a decision-making structure in which all cultural groups and genders have a recognized voice, and regularly participate in high-level decision making.
  • Make sure that staff and board reflect and represent the community in which you operate. Invite input from a representative group of participants, if not all of them, in the design of any event. Use their input in noticeable ways, so that they can see their "fingerprints" on the project.
  • Find ways to involve everyone. Use different kinds of meetings, committees, and dialogue by phone, mail, or e-mail as means of including everyone in as active a role, or as informed a position as they want. Give people multiple opportunities to participate.
  • Make sure that your commitment to multiculturalism translates into the public image of the coalition. When running meetings or presentations, be sure the presenters represent the diversity of your collaborative, and not just as tokens, but as substantial participants and leaders.
  • Structure equal time for different groups to speak at meetings.
  • Develop operational policies and programs that confront and challenge racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice.
  • Conduct reviews of meetings that articulate and build a common set of expectations, values, and operating methods for coalition functioning.

Practice new and various modes of communication and special support.

Find out if anyone needs special support to participate effectively. In any invitations to meetings or events (which could be written in more than one language) or follow-up conversations, ask if there is a need for translators, translated materials, sign language interpreters for the deaf, large-print materials, or audio versions of materials. Many groups automatically communicate through writing and speaking in English. This does not take into account language differences that make it hard for people to understand information or participate equally in discussions and decision making. Special efforts to communicate in multiple languages may be required in order to ensure the full participation of a diverse membership.

 A Providence, Rhode Island community group used this as an icebreaker: Group members were split into small groups. Latino members might be paired with English speakers, with each required to learn a phrase in the other's language. At first there was frustration on the part of Black members at not being able to communicate directly, but this subsided gradually as feelings of mutual support and community grew.

  • Use inclusive and valuing language, quote diverse sources, and readily adapt to differences in communication styles.
  • Learn and apply the cultural etiquette of your members.
  • Avoid false praise or other forms of insincere communication.
  • Learn to read different nonverbal behaviors, and interpret them as part of the dialogue.
  • Make sure that everyone understands words and references that are used. Do not assume common understanding and knowledge of unwritten rules of culture. Spell things out and answer questions so that everyone is up to speed.
  • Prohibit disrespectful name-calling and use of stereotypes. Respect and use personal names.
  • Use humor appropriately and carefully. Don't laugh at each other, but with each other. If someone makes an insulting joke or comment, the person it was addressed to should say it was hurtful. This alerts the group to their discomfort and signals that the joke was not funny. Never let this slide by. At a minimum, take the joker aside and alert them to the hurt feelings.
  • Bridge language barriers in various ways.

Create leadership opportunities for everyone, especially minorities and women.

  • Develop a variety of leadership positions and a mechanism for leaders to work together, such as a steering committee composed of different committee chairpersons. This enables many people to function as leaders and also encourages an interchange of leadership styles.
  • Include different types of people in leadership positions so that your collaborative organization can legitimately articulate a multicultural vision and values.
  • Help to cultivate leadership capacity in others, particularly minorities and women. Help people to gain competence in new areas. Build opportunities into the organizational structure for shared tasks, mentoring, and pairing leaders with inexperienced people so that skills are transferred and confidence is increased.

Engage in activities that are culturally sensitive or that directly fight oppression.

  • Integrate aspects of different cultures into all your activities (rather than holding isolated "multinational dinners," for example). Virtually all activities lend themselves to a multicultural approach, including: social events, sports, street fairs, talent shows, campaigns, neighborhood improvement projects, demonstrations, and lobbying efforts.
  • Hold events in mutually acceptable locations. Organizers should go to the community to hold events, rather than expecting the community to come to them. Some locations will implicitly reinforce power disparities. For example, if a meeting focuses on police/community tensions, you would not want to hold it at the police station. Attend to access issues for those with disabilities. Often an informal environment will help people relax and get to know one another more easily.
  • Consciously develop projects that people from different cultural backgrounds can work on together. Create mixed teams or small groups so that people gain more experience in working together.
  • Sanction the periodic use of single-culture caucuses or teams as a way of valuing the need for each group to solidify its position and fortify its own approach to working with the larger group.
  • Conduct special activities to educate everyone about different cultural concerns (e.g., forums, conferences, panels, organized dialogues).
  • If your activities are not attracting or involving a diverse crowd, try running special events that are geared specifically to different groups. Such events need to be led and organized by representatives of these groups. Let your collaborative organization or community population determine the issues and events that they feel are important. Don't presume that you know what is best.
  • Take responsibility for making sure that your group activities and programs address multicultural concerns. Begin with a needs assessment and review of your collaborative's track record on cultural sensitivity. Examine any racial incidents, insults, harassment, or violence that have plagued the organization or community you work in. Remember if and how the organization responded. Identify strategies or programmatic changes that would strengthen the multicultural capacity and enhance its response to incidents of prejudice or discrimination.
  • Conduct prejudice reduction work, such as diversity training or multicultural awareness training to change assumptions and attitudes among your membership or community. Using skilled facilitators/trainers. Such training can help your collaborative organization appreciate differences and understand how to reduce insensitive behavior.
  • Network and collaborate with other groups committed to multiculturalism, or those fighting discrimination/ promoting social justice.

Building a multicultural collaboration entails changing the way people think, perceive, and communicate. There is a difference between recognizing cultural differences and consciously incorporating inclusive and anti-discriminatory attitudes in all aspects of the organization. Embracing cultural differences is not something separate from your issue-oriented work. It is at the core of the group's perspective on issues, possible solutions, and membership and operating procedures. The organization's structure, leadership, and activities must reflect multiple perspectives, styles, and priorities. Changing how the organization looks and acts is just the first step in the ongoing process of creating a reality that maximizes and celebrates diversity.

In Summary

Collaboration is a process involving organizations working toward a goal they can't reach alone. The process requires long-term commitment and an understanding that there will be shared risks, responsibilities, and rewards. Successful collaboration must be based on mutual respect, a valuing of difference, trust, a plan, lots of patience, determination to adopt new attitudes and pull in partners not usually involved, and, most of all, a sense of common purpose.

Multicultural collaboration adds the challenge of overcoming the communication barriers of different cultures, ethnic heritage, values, traditions, language, history, sense of self, and racial attitudes. These barriers must be conquered in order for the collaboration to succeed. Participants in an effective multicultural collaboration must have inclusive leadership that understands and strives for diversity, while dealing with problems and conflict along the way. If the focus remains on the common goal and equal power for everyone involved, the collaboration will have a great chance of success.

Tim Brownlee

Online Resources

The Center for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services collects and describes early childhood/early intervention resources and serves as point of exchange for users.

Chapter 8: Respect for Diversity in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" explains cultural humility as an approach to diversity, the dimensions of diversity, the complexity of identity, and important cultural considerations.

Culture Matters is a cross-cultural training workbook developed by the Peace Corps to help new volunteers acquire the knowledge and skills to work successfully and respectfully in other cultures.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Nonprofit Organizations by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther, from the International Encyclopedia of Civil Society.

The International & Cross-Cultural Evaluation Topical Interest Group, an organization that is affiliated with the American Evaluation Association, provides evaluators who are interested in cross-cultural issues with opportunities for professional development.

The Multicultural Pavilion offers resources and dialogue for educators, students and activists on all aspects of multicultural education.

The National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University increases the capacity of health care and mental health programs to design, implement and evaluate culturally and linguistically competent service delivery systems. Publications and web links available.

SIL International makes available "The Stranger’s Eyes," an article that speaks to cultural sensitivity with questions that can be strong tools for discussion.

AMPU Guide: Study Circle Session Two. Bonds and boundaries: looking at our communities

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

DuPraw, M., & Axner, M. (1997). Working on common cross-cultural communication challenges. AMPU Guide.

Print Resources

Anner, J. (1995, June/July). Working together: Building successful multicultural movements. Neighborhood Works, 18, 16-21.

Chrislip, D., & Larson, C. (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Collaboration handbook: Creating, sustaining, and enjoying the journey. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. 1996.

The Collaboration Project, Donors Forum of Chicago & John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (1995). A review of literature on collaboration: a language for collaboration [Brochure]. Chicago, IL.

Gardner, J. (1990). On leadership. Chapter 9: Fragmentation and the common good. New York, NY: Free Press.

Gray, B. Collaborating: Finding common ground for multiparty problems. Chapter 2: The impetus to collaborate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Kaye, G,. & Wolff, T. (ed.). (1995). From the ground up! a workbook on coalition building and community development. Chapter 2: coalition building: is this really empowerment? and Chapter 5: worksheets. Amherst, MA: AHEC Community Partners. (Available from Tom Wolff and Associates.)

Kritek, P. (1994). Negotiating at an uneven table. Chapter 2Approaching an uneven table. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Making the grade: community workbookNational Making the Grade Committee, National Collaboration for Youth. Washington, DC, 1991.