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Section 10. Understanding Culture, Social Organization, and Leadership to Enhance Engagement

Learn how to understand people's culture, community and leadership to enhance engagement.


In order to work effectively in a culturally and ethnically diverse community, a community builder needs to first understand how each racial and ethnic group in that community is organized in order to support its members. It is not uncommon to hear a community leader, a funder, a political representative, or a service provider say, "We were not able to engage that group over there because they are not organized. They have no leaders. We need to organize them first." This statement is not always accurate; most groups have their own network of relationships and hierarchy of leaders that they tap into for mutual support. These networks or leaders may not be housed in a physical location or building that is obvious to people outside of the group. They may not even have a label or a title. There is an unspoken understanding in some groups about when and whom they should turn to among their members for advice, guidance, and blessing. Once a community builder understands the social organization of the group, it will become easier to identify the most appropriate leaders, help build bridges, and work across multiple groups in a diverse community.

What do we mean by "social organization?" Social organization refers to the network of relationships in a group and how they interconnect. This network of relationships helps members of a group stay connected to one another in order to maintain a sense of community within a group. The social organization of a group is influenced by culture and other factors.

Within the social organization of a group of people, there are leaders. Who are leaders? Leaders are individuals who have followers, a constituency, or simply a group of people whom they can influence. A community builder needs to know who the leaders are in a group in order to get support for his community building work.

In this section, you will learn more about the social organization and leadership of different cultural and ethnic groups. The material covered in this section focuses primarily on African Americans and immigrants for two reasons:

  1. Tensions tend to occur among groups that are competing for resources that are already limited and not always accessible to them; and
  2. Most of the struggles facing community builders and other individuals have been with recent immigrants whose culture, institutions, and traditions are still unfamiliar to mainstream groups.

As recent immigrant groups integrate into their new society, their social organization and leadership structures transform to become more similar to those of mainstream groups. This process could take decades and generations; all the more reason why it is important for community builders to understand the social organization and leadership structure of the new arrivals and to build on their values and strengths. While some traditional social structures may prevail, others may adapt to those of the mainstream culture.

Take a moment and think about the most recent group of newcomers to your community.
Who are their leaders? Where do their members go to for help?

Think about the group you belong to. Who are the leaders? Whom do you go to for help? How is your group organized to communicate among its members?

Obviously there are too many groups in this world to include in this section. We will try to share information about as many groups as we can. While the section may not inform you about the social organization and leadership of groups other than the ones described here, we hope it will help you understand enough about the influence of culture on social organization and leadership to ask the right questions of any group.

How do culture and other factors affect the social organization of a community?

There are many definitions of culture. Culture typically refers to a set of symbols, rituals, values, and beliefs that make one group different from another. Culture is learned and shared with people who live or lived in the same social environment for a long time. Culture is captured in many, many ways -- in the way members of a group greet and interact with one another, in legends and children's stories, in the way food is prepared and used, in the way people pray, and so on. Since it is difficult and not always appropriate to change someone's culture, how do you then use culture as a positive force to aid community building?

In the Chinese community:

The Chinese community is the largest and the fastest growing group among Asian and Pacific Islander populations.

Keep in mind: The Chinese community forms a very heterogeneous group that includes people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other parts of South East Asia. There are many dialects spoken among Chinese people and not all Chinese persons can understand one another's dialects. Therefore, make sure you know which Chinese dialect requires translation if you have to provide translation services.

The Chinese culture places heavy emphasis on taking care of one's family. Chinese people believe that taking care of their families is a contribution to civic welfare, because healthy families lead to a healthy society. This belief is based on Confucian values, which emphasize filial piety, or a respect for family. The concept of filial piety is instilled in Chinese children from a very young age. In other words, familial relationships form the basis for Chinese social organization and behavior.

Chinese parents place a heavy emphasis on their children and their ability to become successful. Confucian values include reaching for perfection, and perfection can be achieved through education. This is why Chinese parents invest a lot of resources in making sure that their children excel academically.

How does this value affect the way Chinese communities are organized and participate in their communities?

In Chinese communities in America and other countries, it is common to find local associations or huiguan formed by members from the same province or village in China and Taiwan. These local associations provide capital to help their members start businesses. They also perform charitable and social functions and provide protection for their members. These associations play a key role in community building efforts, particularly in Chinatowns. They are formed because of the Chinese emphasis on the importance of family; in China, you consider the people from the same province or village as your extended family. Therefore, in order to engage any Chinese community in a community building effort, it will be useful to identify and involve the leaders of these associations. How do you find out about huiguans? Look in the Chinese newspapers (if you don't read Mandarin, ask someone who does); attend Chinese events and find out who sponsored them; walk around Chinatown (if there is one in your community or city) and look at the advertisements posted in grocery stores, restaurants, and shops.

Education also becomes an issue that can be used to mobilize the Chinese community. With the heavy emphasis on academic excellence, it is more likely that you can convince Chinese parents to show up for a meeting about the quality of their children's education than for a meeting about a recreational center for the community. This means that you should look for ways to link education to the issue that you are trying to address in your community building effort.

Recent Chinese immigrants fear very much that their children or the next generation will lose touch with their culture. Hence, they do whatever they can to teach their children how to speak and write Mandarin or other Chinese dialects. This desire has led to the creation of many Chinese schools in areas that have large populations of Chinese immigrants. Sometimes, these schools have their own buildings; at other times, they are conducted on the weekends in a public school. These schools can play a critical role in reaching out to the Chinese community.

In the African American community:

A group's history of oppression and survival also affects the way it is organized. The networks and organizations that form to protect the rights of their members influence the way in which members of the group organize for self-help. Enslaved Africans, who were "Christianized" by their European enslavers, used spiritual symbolism to preach freedom and to give their people hope and strength. As a result, in the African American culture, religious institutions, primarily Christian (e.g., the African Methodist Episcopal church), have functioned as mutual-aid societies, political forces, and education centers. While Christian churches are predominant among African Americans, the existence and leadership of the Nation of Islam and Muslim leaders in organizing the African American community should also be considered. Today, African American spiritual leaders are among the most influential leaders in African American communities. Therefore, in order to engage any African American community in a community building effort, it will be important to identify and involve that community's spiritual leaders.

How does this value affect the way African American communities are organized and participate in their communities?

In most African American and Black communities, it is common to find one or more churches that are the focal point for social, economic, and political activities. Spirituality, especially Christianity, provides an effective bridge among African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans.The Allied Communities of Tarrant (ACT) in Fort Worth, Texas, is an example of using spirituality to organize a coalition among leaders from these three communities. African American Baptist ministers, European American Lutheran and Disciples of Christ ministers, as well as Latino and European American Catholic priests who were connected to one another through their spiritual interests decided to work across racial lines in order to improve the quality of life for their members. With the help of the Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF), they struggled to identify their commonalties, differences -- especially related to race -- power, and assets. Eventually, they established ACT and took on the issue of school reform, starting with the African American community. African American church leaders came together to develop initiatives within their own churches to empower and support parents to participate in the effort.

In the Central American community:

Many Central Americans fled the poverty and oppression in their countries to seek a more secure and better life in a new place. As one person settled in the new location and saved enough money, he or she would help family members to migrate. Because of the informal and extended family networks that are part of the Central American culture, natural support systems develop to assist new arrivals.

Aside from culture, what other factors affect the social organization of Central Americans?

The close proximity of Central America to the United States (compared to other continents) plays a role in the social organization of Central Americans. Regional associations that are typically named after a town, a city, or a region in Central America emerge in the immigrants' new geographic setting to provide support in cultural identification, security, and maintenance of connection with their families and friends who remained behind in Central America. These associations are usually affiliated with religious groups, soccer clubs, political parties, revolutionary movements, or social service organizations in Central America. Because of this form of social organization, the Salvadoran community in the United States has been able to raise a large amount of funds to assist earthquake and hurricane victims in their homeland.

How can you build on these forms of social organization to engage the Central American community?

Soccer ("football") is a favorite activity among Central Americans. It is not unusual to see adults and children from Central American countries playing soccer in public parks and school compounds. Central American countries are very proud of their national soccer teams. It's similar to the way American football or baseball is valued in the United States, but it is more than just a game for immigrants. Soccer becomes an avenue for meeting other people from the same country or region and forming a social support network. If you are a community builder who is trying to bring various Central American groups together, try using soccer as the common ground!

The Catholic Church is also a key institution that holds members of the Central American communities together. Even in Central America, the church has played a leading role in political advocacy and organizing. In the immigrants' new country, the church continues to play this role, in addition to providing services and social support, and maintaining a line of communication between the immigrants and their families and friends in Central America. Build on the strength and influence of the church to bring credibility to your community building effort and to reach out to Central American communities.

In the Caribbean community:

Migration patterns can provide important information about a group of people. Typically, most immigrants come because they already have a relative or a friend that lives in the United States. They move in with the relatives or friends who also help them find their first job. In the Caribbean culture, there is a tradition of helping the new arrivals through rotating credit associations or saving clubs, otherwise known as susus. According to this tradition, a group of people pools their money and then loans it to someone who needs it. The borrower pays back the loan over a period of time and commits to stay in the susu until the payment is complete.

How can you build on these forms of social organization to engage the Caribbean community?

If your community building effort focuses on economic development, then it is important for you to identify the person who manages the susu. You could ask a Caribbean business or a mutual aid society for Caribbean immigrants for the contact person.

What do all these organizations and institutions have in common?

They support the social organization of a community. Depending on the community's culture and the context that the community has to survive in and adapt to, they all serve different functions.

How do culture and other factors affect the leadership of a community?

The information above showed that culture and other factors (social, economic, historical, and political) have an effect on the way a community organizes itself for self-help and support. The same can be said about leadership. There are different levels and types of leaders that support the social organization of a community. Sometimes, we make the mistake of assuming that there is only one leader in a community or that a leader has to look a certain way. Just as we respect and value the cultural diversity of communities, we have to respect and value the diversity of leadership.

What qualities do you think a leader should have?

In every ethnic or cultural group there are different individuals who are regarded as leaders by members of the group. Every leader has a place and a role in his or her community. Leaders can be categorized by type (e.g., political, religious, social), by issue (e.g., health, education, economic development), by rank (e.g., president, vice president), by place (e.g., neighborhood block, county, city, state, country), by age (e.g., elderly, youth), and so on.

Let's use the same communities described before. In Chinese communities, the leader is typically the head of the family. If family refers to a grandfather, father, mother, sons and daughters, and grandchildren, then the leader is the grandfather. If family refers to the congregation of a church, the leader is the pastor. If family refers to a clan, the leader is the President of the clan's association (or hui guan).

In African American communities, the leader is typically a spiritual leader. A leader can also be someone who is successful in overcoming the barriers of institutionalized racism and provide opportunities for other African Americans to be treated equally by others in the mainstream society (e.g., a business person, an educator, or an elected official).

In Central American communities, the leader is also typically a spiritual leader. It can also be the coach of a soccer team or the president of an association that links a city in Central America with one in another country.

What do all these leaders have in common?

They provide guidance, they have influence over others, others respect them, they respond to the needs of others, and they put the welfare of others above their own. Every leader serves a specific function within the social organization of a community; however, the same type of leader in one community does not necessarily have the same role in another community. For example, a spiritual leader in a Chinese community is not regarded as a political leader, as he might be in the African American community.

What did you learn from the above information and examples?

How can you, the community builder, learn about the social organization of other ethnic and cultural groups?

  • Go into the process with an open mind.
  • Don't assume that the same leader, organization, or institution serves the same function across groups.
  • Keep in mind that the social organization and leadership of a group is influenced by its culture, history, reasons for migration, geographic proximity to its homeland, economic success, intra-group tensions, and the way it fits into the political and social context of its new and surrounding society.
  • Look for the formal and informal networks.
  • Interview members of a group and ask where and whom they go to for help or when they have a problem.

Keep in mind : Among different groups, the church has different functions. For example, Korean and Chinese churches do not have strong political functions compared to Latino or African American churches. Korean churches serve their members socially by providing a structure and process for fellowship and sense of belonging, maintenance of ethnic identity and native traditions, social services, and social status. Korean pastors consider their churches as sanctuaries for their members and do not wish to burden them with messages related to political or economic issues. Instead, they focus on providing counseling and educational services to Korean families as well as clerical and lay positions for church members. Korean immigrants hold these positions in high regard.

What are examples of social networks and ethnic organizations that a community builder can use to learn about the social organization of a group, to identify and engage its leaders?

The section before emphasized the importance of learning about the social organization and leadership of various groups in a community so that you can tap into the appropriate resources and assets of each group. You understand that different organizations, institutions, and leaders play different roles in each group. Where do you start? How do you go about getting that knowledge?

Identify natural gathering points and traditions related to social gatherings. Tapping into natural gathering points and traditions related to social gatherings are excellent ways to identify and engage the local leaders and build community relationships. For example, in the Filipino community, tea time is a common practice due to historical European influence. Therefore, "tea meetings" in restaurants are useful for attracting community members to discuss issues and to ask how to involve them in community building efforts. Ethnic grocery stores also play a major role in distributing information to large numbers of people. These stores frequently have bulletin boards where notices are posted about all kinds of activities in that community. In addition, cultural celebrations draw large crowds and provide an effective avenue for outreach. Attend these gatherings. Find out who sponsored and organized them. Talk to the people who attend them. Ask them how they found out about the gatherings. Ask them who you should contact if you wanted more information about the gatherings.

Build on the informal networks of women. One way to engage a racial, ethnic, or cultural group is to tap into the informal networks of women. Go to places where women tend to go, such as the grocery store, the school their children attend, and the hair salon. Ask the parent coordinator at the school if you could speak to some of the mothers. It is likely that you will be able to identify one or more women who are respected by their peers and to whom everyone tells their problems.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a women's organization was born when a project that brought together women from various cultures showed that the women experienced similar concerns (e.g., public health issues related to their housing conditions, domestic abuse, concern for their children's education). After the project was completed, the women felt the need to continue to meet informally for mutual support. The network eventually became an organization that is involved in addressing issues that concern women.

Gain entry and credibility through traditional leadership structures. The approach is applicable to any group with a traditional leadership structure serving as a gatekeeper to its members. If you already understand the traditional leadership structure, use it to get support for what you are doing.

Keep in mind: Engaging the traditional leadership structures in some communities may perpetuate class, gender, or other differences. For example, the traditional leadership structure in Middle Eastern communities tends to be patriarchal. By choosing to engage the male leaders as a way to involve the larger community, you may be reinforcing that culture's treatment of women. Community builders must always be aware of the extent to which they might encounter and be required to address cultural traditions that reinforce inequities.

At the same time, you have to be aware that by bypassing or trying to expand the traditional power structure, you may be sacrificing credibility with the community or, at the very least, losing some of the most powerful community leaders. If you think there's a need to change some aspects of the culture in a community that is not your own, it makes much more sense to work through members of that community, rather than challenging the leaders directly. Over time, you may be able to convince them, but you have to approach them in a way that doesn't rob them of dignity or belittle customs that have been taken for granted for generations.

Identify and work with the "bridge generation." Young people are the ideal bridge in most communities, especially in immigrant communities, because they are raised in traditional ways but schooled in the ways of the dominant culture. Young people typically accompany their parents to the clinic, school, faith institution, and many other places. Sometimes, they translate for their non-English speaking parents. Therefore, they are likely to know where their parents go for help and who organizes the events in their community.

Ask national organizations that serve and advocate on behalf of different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups for assistance.

National organizations with special concerns have become powerful forces in linking immigrants to mainstream American institutions. Examples include the American Physicians of Indian Origin, Japanese American Citizens League, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund, Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging. These organizations play a more extensive role than faith-based institutions, community centers, or cultural programs do in bridging immigrant traditions with mainstream American institutions and values. As a community builder, you might want to engage these organizations if your community building effort is focused on advocacy for a specific issue.

Take advantage of programs that serve large numbers of immigrants. English as a Second or Other Language classes (ESOL) and citizenship workshops often attract large numbers of immigrants, particularly recent newcomers, and provide another way to reach them. Many of these programs are conducted on weekends and evenings.Even though their primary intent is to teach new immigrants how to function biculturally, they can also become social support systems. If you want to talk to or engage large numbers of people, try the ESOL classes and citizenship workshops.

Take advantage of ethnic neighborhoods. In places like Chinatown, Koreatown, and Little India, there are many businesses and organizations that serve the needs of the residents. Go to these neighborhoods, walk through them, and look for community centers, mutual aid organizations, and other businesses that advertise programs or attract larger numbers of people.

How else can you find out more about a community?

  • Find an informant from that community and utilize his or her contacts to guide you toward other community members and leaders.
  • Spend time at places that are frequented by members of the target group and talk to people there.
  • Scan the neighborhood and/or ethnic newspaper for articles about major events and activities in a community and the organizations that sponsor them.
  • Contact the editor of the newspaper to ask his/her opinion about who the leaders are in a community.
  • Go to the ethnic grocery or convenience stores to review the announcements about events and other activities and the organizations that sponsor them.
  • Look in the phone directory or search the Internet for a list of organizations that support a communinty.

Keep in mind: Relationship building and trust building are fundamental parts of the work, especially in cultures that may be less familiar to you and/or those that have experienced racism and other forms of oppression. Getting to know people and gaining their trust takes time, patience, and flexibility.

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

  • During the relationship building and information gathering process, the informant may have expectations about being invited to be part of your community building effort. The informant may think that he or she is the most appropriate person to engage. The informant may also seize the opportunity to talk about the merits or the weaknesses of another leader in the group.

    You must remember NOT to make any promises to the leader about anything until you have had the opportunity to speak to as many individuals as possible and determined the most appropriate leader to involve in the effort. Also, don't get drawn into the discussions about the merits or weaknesses of other leaders. Don't share information about what other leaders might or might not have said already. Just listen.

  • There may be misperceptions in the community about which group you represent and who "owns" the community building effort. Such misperceptions would make it very difficult for you to build relationships in the community.

    You have to consider several factors before you begin to engage any of the leaders in the community. How were previous community building efforts, if any, initiated in the past? Who initiated them? Was the effort effective? If not, what happened? This knowledge would help you understand the attitudes toward you and the community building you are involved in. You might also want to consider establishing an advisory group made up of leaders from different groups to help announce and plan the effort

  • It is impossible for you, the community builder, to know everything about every group and its culture. You may be an outsider to a group.

    Don't be afraid to acknowledge your ignorance. Display humility, respect the influence of each leader, and ask to be educated. You might consider starting off the conversation with a statement such as, "I know very little about your culture, but I understand that it is important to learn about it so that the community building effort I'm involved in can build on your cultural strengths and will not make assumptions about your group's needs. I really appreciate the time you are taking to talk to me and I look forward to learning from you."

  • When working in a diverse community that is made up of two or more racial, ethnic, or cultural groups, it is unlikely that any one community builder will have all the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge needed to relate to all the groups. At the same time, you, the community builder may be a member of one of the groups. You must be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working with a group of people that share your culture (e.g., a Chinese community builder working in a Chinese community). You have the advantage of already knowing the culture and the language. A disadvantage is that the informant may expect you to play favoritism because you "owe" your community.

A team made up of community builders from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds would allow for the ability to relate to a wide range of experiences, to speak multiple languages, and to empathize with the variety of challenges that community leaders face. It would also help to avoid some of the expectations and misperceptions about whom you represent and who would benefit from your effort. Furthermore, working in diverse community building teams set an example for the leaders of a group and across groups.

  • There are usually several subgroups within an ethnic or cultural group that compete with each other because of differences in political affiliation, socioeconomic status, ancestry, or regional origins. As a community builder, you have to be careful not to create further tensions.

    Maintain a neutral perspective and don't get drawn into discussions about other leaders. Reach out to as many types of leaders as possible. Explain that you are just in the information gathering stage; however, make note of the tensions so that you can be prepared to facilitate any potential conflicts in the future if those leaders happen to participate more extensively in the community building effort.

  • The process of building relationships and gathering information may lead to the identification of needs in one or more groups. For example, suppose that local and informal leaders in a given group require assistance in strengthening their leadership, coalition building, or cross-cultural communication skills.

    You could identify outside resources and expertise to help them or you could serve as a coach to the local group. This process itself can be a useful community building strategy.

Kien Lee

Online Resources

Brown University Training MaterialsCultural Competence and Community Studies: Concepts and Practices for Cultural Competence. The Northeast Education Partnership provides online access to PowerPoint training slides on topics in research ethics and cultural competence in environmental research. These have been created for professionals/students in environmental sciences, health, and policy; and community-based research.

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.

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

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


Print Resources

Casinitz, P. (1992). Caribbean New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cordoba, C. (1995). Organizing with Central-American immigrants in the United States. In F.Rivera & J.Erlich (Eds.), Community organizing in a diverse society (pp. 177-196). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Feagin, J. & Feagin, C. (1999). Racial and ethnic relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Simon & Schuster.

Hamilton, N. & Chinchilla, N.S. (2001). Seeking Community In A Global City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Culture and organizations. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Karpathakis, A. (1999). Home society politics and immigrant political incorporations: The case of Greek immigrants in New York City. International Migration Review, 31 (4), pp. 55-78.

Lee, K. (2002). Lessons learned about civic participation among immigrants (draft). Report to the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, Washington, DC.

Lee, P. (1995). Organizing in the Chinese-American community: Issues, strategies, and alternatives. In F.Rivera & J.Erlich (Eds.), Community organizing in a diverse society (pp. 113-142). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Leonard, K. (1997). The South Asian Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Min, P.G. (2000). The structure and social functions of Korean immigrant churches in the United States. In Zhou, M., & Gatewood, J. (eds.). Contemporary Asian American: A Multidisplinary Reader. New York: New York University Press.

Perkins, J. (Ed.). (1995). Restoring at-risk communities. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Warren, M. (2001). Dry bones ratting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.