CYC-Online 48 JANUARY 2003
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Multicultural practice in youth work

Nathan Whittaker

With our passion for multiculturalism as a journey, or process, and our love of young people, a peer and I in my particular Master’s program have been working to build a new initiative for young people based around multiculturalism and reconciliation. What follows arises from my ten years of multicultural education and five years of youthwork and is an individual philosophy, based on my own beliefs and assumptions, of why and how multiculturalism should and could be done with young people.


When age is detached from its social significance, it (age) is simply a measurement of how many times we have traveled around the sun. Yet age, as we know it, has become an abstraction of the “life-course”, a sequence of events that dictate the timeliness of a certain human development, action, and/or behavior – the progression towards “adulthood.” Yet when every adjective in the English language (arguably every language) cannot only describe adults but young people as well, what are the dissimilarities?

Nancy Lesko, a professor at Columbia University, has written extensively on the cultural construction of youth and adolescence. In her book, Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence, Lesko (2001) argues that, “Since adolescence has been defined as not adult, this opposition to adults, or at least the assumption that adolescents are distinctive from adults, will influence all cultural and class groups” (p. 12). Furthermore, Lesko examines the racist and sexist influences on the formation of the idea of adolescence.

In the late nineteenth century, the ultimate, enlightened, and crucial purpose of humanity in the Western world was to become “civilized” or to topple “savagery” or “barbarism” to reach “civilization.” Alas, the “civilization”, or moral and political state of enlightenment, belonged solely to white Christ-devoted men and was sustained by scientific and philosophical truths of that period in history. The two most potent theories of what it meant to be “civilized” came from “The Great Chain of Being as well as Recapitulation theory" (Lesko, 2001, p. 22-30).

Lesko (2001) defined the great chain of being as, “the hierarchy of animals, people, and societies that portrayed evolutionary history and a sociological ranking extending from European middle-class males and their republican government on the top, through women to savage tribes, with the lower animals at the bottom” (p. 22). Thus, those who were “civilized” where at the top of the chain (white men), while the “uncivilized” found themselves at the bottom of the chain (women, non-whites, and children) – the lower down the chain, the greater decline in civilization. The conception of the “great chain” was not without reason; the white male, powerful and the pinnacle of what “should be,” were threatened by the growing and changing world in which they found themselves. The xenophobia of white males, and the threat to their ways of being, gave them overwhelming reason to protect their “Olive Tree,” their cultural significance.

The great chain of being was a foundation to the underlying philosophies and racial-sciences of the time and “adolescence” became a piece to the hierarchy through Recapitulation Theory, “which was widely held among scientists and the general public until the early 1900's,” which stated “each individual child's growth recapitulated the development of humankind” (Lesko, 2001, p. 31). In sum, ancestral lineage measured a child's growth. A baby was paralleled to a pre-human or amoeba; a child was paralleled to the tribal period of history; a boy was paralleled to the medieval period; an adolescent was paralleled to the monarchical period; and, only Man was paralleled to “civilization.” Age then, became a racialization. Since women and non-whites would never be men, they could never reach civilization. And so, history creates “adolescence.” Lesko (2001) offers this:

The centrality of recapitulation theory in the history of the ideas of the modern adolescent alerts us to several important understandings: First, the modern concepts of child and adolescent development have a color and a gender. Second, recapitulation theory links ideas about developing children and adolescents to a paternalistic and exploitative colonial system, which endlessly reiterated the inadequacies of the natives and the need for Western rule. Finally, recapitulation theory’s intimacy with colonialism suggests that knowledge will provide a continuing gloss of and cover for the exercise of subordinating power that speaks of immaturity, emotionality, conformity, and irrationality (p. 35).

The perpetuation of these theories throughout our history (amongst much more), into the now, give meaning to all that we think we know about young people. Further examinations into these theories also give us an understanding to genderized norms, racism, and the like. Either/or oppositional thinking, “structured to influence perception and thinking so a person is forced to see the world in polar opposites and to choose one as better than the other,” natural to humans, allows us to believe that “they are adolescents” and “we are adults,” which often gives way for attached meanings, stereotypes, and labels (Gardner, 1997, p. 6). Adults should spend some time on the rethinking of adolescence.

I believe that adults must be extremely mindful of the ways in which they can abuse power. A realization of young people as a “culture” is an important piece to the Multicultural journey. Adults must move beyond the racial boxes, the class boxes, and the gender boxes, and without forgetting the importance of those very real pieces, must include “youth” as a collective group of humans to protect, to be heard, and influential members of our communities. Adults can either attempt to break down walls themselves or invite young people to do it with them; adults ought to have young people by their side because if they choose not to, they will most likely fail to notice the walls that stand in the way of young people.

As scholars have noted, many youth feel they are powerless and also feel adults perceive them as powerless (Lesko, 2001; Way, 1998). If this perspective or attitude is true of many adults, it perpetuates the formation of walls, which our youth are either forced to climb, want to climb, fail to climb, or fail to see. This within itself is denying access to young people and ignoring the fact that they are full humans, just like adults, living in a United States democratic society that prides itself on the equality based construction, or reconstruction, of our world; to think otherwise is oppressive. Paulo Freire may not have been writing specifically on youth in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970, 1993), yet his words give great meaning to the attitudes adults may hold towards young people. “Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything “that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive“ that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness” (p. 45).

Today, this “unfitness” or “laziness” also plays a major factor in the academic achievements of young people. In her study of the everyday lived-experience of urban teens in New York City’s high schools, Niobe Way (1998), Assistant Professor in the Applied Psychology Department at New York University, found discouraging evidence on students' “laziness.” As it turns out, most students take the blame for their own “laziness” and fail to see the context of the schools in which they find themselves – overcrowded, spaceless, and tainted like a prison with white walls and no windows, with faculties and staffs who fail to see the kids (p. 186).

Furthermore, do most adults truly believe that youth, when empowered, have the ability to become full participants in society? Do adults believe youth can be teachers as well as students? What happens when youth begin to believe they do not have the characteristics needed to be full participants? Paulo Freire (1970, 1993) goes on to say, “Almost never do they realize that they, too, “know things” they have learned in their relations with the world and with other women and men. Given the circumstances which have produced their duality, it is only natural that they distrust themselves” (p. 45).

This notion of youth as powerless is also rooted in historical socio-political phenomenon. As Lesko (2001) has commented, “Teenagers cannot go backward to childhood nor forward to adulthood “before their time” without incurring derogatory labels, for example, “immature,” “loose,” or “precocious.” The dominant concepts regarding youth's position in the Western societies, “development” and “socialization,” make it impossible for youth to exercise power over life events or to represent themselves, since they are not fully developed or socialized” (p. 123).

When adults provide the space needed for youth to become empowered – and when youth have a voice in their educational experience through collaborative efforts with adults – empowerment is possible. New research on adolescent development shows that young people mature in a more affirmative manner when they have an opportunity to be in dialogue with themselves and a safe space to speak their mind. Niobe Way (1998) adds, “They also need help learning how to speak in voices that can and will be heard. This task, however, will be realized only when adults begin to listen to them. Their voices can be strengthened only if adults take these adolescents seriously. Such a response is a first step toward increasing the number of poor and working class adolescents who grow up to be resistant, healthy, and confident adults” (p. 111).

The pathos of ignorance, which is an ill-treatment to our youth, ourselves, and others, is the antithesis of what we all long for “acceptance, appreciation, friendship, and love. We must begin our journey with the “self.” From then on, we should seek out many ways of passing on what we have learned. We should also learn from each other, including young people.

Ignorance of the significance and worth of multiculturalism is a pathology. Ignorance, particularly of a violent nature, can grow to malignant intensities. We can effortlessly pass this ignorance on to our youth. We can allow our youth to bring this ignorance, these misconceptions, these falsities, back into their communities, peer groups, schools, social networks, and above all, allow them to burn the fires of violence and hate within. This violence has been outlined by Paulo Freire (1970, 1993):

Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons “not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized. It is not the unloved who initiate disaffection, but those who cannot love because they love only themselves. It is not the helpless, subject to terror, who initiate terror, but the violent, who with their power create the concrete situation which begets the “rejects of life.” It is not the tyrannized who initiate despotism, but the tyrants. It is not the despised who initiate hatred, but those who despise. It is not those whose humanity is denied them who negate humankind, but those who denied that humanity (thus negating their own as well) (p. 37).

It is important to first outline what I mean when I use the word “multiculturalism.” “Multicultural” can be defined as the more well known [multi + Culture] meaning “many cultures,” yet in the development of this article, I took on the meaning of “multicultural [ism].” The “ism” is very important. The suffix “ism” when added to “multicultural” means that we are no longer talking about “many cultures,” per se. We are talking about a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice. The “ism” is a suffix appearing in loanwords from Greek, “where it was used to form action nouns from verbs” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, 1996: p. 1,012). Thus, multiculturalism as an “idea” can be defined as such:

The attainment of a multicultural perspective is the achievement of a new mental and emotional consciousness that enables individuals to negotiate more readily new formations of reality. It entails internalizing the historical and contemporary contractions that are embedded in the human condition. The multicultural style of thinking and feeling is tolerant of cultural differences, the ambiguities of knowledge, and variations in human perspective. It rejects simple answers and fosters inquiry. The multicultural person questions the arbitrary nature of his or her own culture and accepts the proposition that others who are culturally different can embrace their experience. Thus to be multicultural is to be aware and able to incorporate and synthesize different systems of cultural knowledge into ones own (Wurzel, 1988).

I believe that multiculturalism is the life-long journey and process of self-discovery, meaning, reflection, knowing, learning, and thinking. The underlying theme of my philosophy of multiculturalism is that multiculturalism is not a “state” we will ever reach yet an abstraction by which to live life.

So why do I believe young people must become a part of the multicultural journey? As I have illustrated throughout this philosophy, young people, I believe, are not “they” and we are “we.” Rather, young people are “we,” and everyone must be a part of the multicultural journey for it to be successful.

What are the benefits? Roderick Durkin (source unknown) once stated, “If what we are doing for children is so good for them, why do they fight us so much?” Is there an assertion (Durkin's statement) that can name, and help us to understand, the benefits more precisely? When will we stop “doing for” youth and begin “doing with” youth? A possible benefit may be that youth withdraw from fighting us and become the architects of their own lives, with the assistance of adults who are there to guide them and support them. Imagine a world shared with youth rather than a world dictated by adults, especially youth who have an understanding of our multicultural world or have an opportunity to think about themselves as multicultural individuals. All humans should partake in the positive construction of our world, yet as I have shown, youth may be one of the most oppressed human groupings – so why not start with them?

Professor Michael Baizerman at the University of Minnesota's Youth Development Leadership Master’s program has worked extensively on the lived-experience of young people. His outline of the lived-experience and the storied self gives way for an understanding. We can learn the lived-experience of another by listening – listening as an equal, not focusing on the pathology, but the little things that are important to an individual. We hear through an individual's story, an individual's narrative of self. We can learn about ourselves through others' stories as well. The storied self solidifies an understanding of the lived-experience. Being present during story telling is difficult for many academicians; the more wisdom we gain, the more we tend to analyze others, as to offer our “professional” advice; thus, we make assumptions about what is true, which may perpetuate myths about youthhood and adolescence. “Listening to adolescents provides an essential window into their experience and allows us to build theories that are more reflective of their lives. Once we begin listening, our theories about adolescents “all adolescents “will likely be challenged and we will be forced to revise and expand what we think we know about them” (Way, 1998, p. 7).

Only “they” are the experts on “their lives;” only youth are the experts on youth. To understand the lived-experience of young people, we must absorb what it means to “do youth” around “here – now.” What is it like “doing youth?” The lived-experience is the mundane, taken-for-granted, everyday goings-on of an individual, in this case, young people. We must look hard at ordinariness. Baizerman (2002) goes on to state:

Youth as an idea and as lived-reality are deep social realities, as are our very ways of perceiving and understanding and talking about youth, youthhood and actual young persons. This very socio-cultural embeddedness usually means that it is difficult to realize that one’s ideas, notions and feelings about youth are also social in origin. Since youth is so obvious a reality, neither the idea of “youth” nor our own notion and feelings are easily made available to us for our own and others” critical review. Those who want to work with and on behalf of youth must understand deeply the socio-cultural sources and realities of youth as an idea, as lived reality and as “client” (p. 1, WCFE 5411 Outline).

I believe that understanding the lived-experience of another is the most vital and essential first step towards Multiculturalism and Reconciliation. To know another’s story is to know him or her on a level beyond simple awareness and insight, beyond empathy. Knowing the other breaks down the fear we may have of the other; we begin to appreciate the difference and similarities interpersonally.

Howard Zinn, a history and political science professor at Spelman College in Atlanta and at Boston University, has written extensively on the importance of students learning history in schools. Zinn (1994) believes that studying history gives young people an opportunity to “go into history in order to come out of it” (p. 150); this, in my judgment, is an important statement.

Our past experiences, our history, give us a foundation to how we understand the world and ourselves. Experience is rooted in our history; an important piece to “culture” is that it is, in one way, rooted in shared experience, a shared history. Through experience, we begin to attach meaning to how we understand the world and ourselves; this is where we uncover our values and beliefs. We also begin to form ideas of how the world should look or could look. The life-long, never ending journey of Multiculturalism is defined by our philosophies – how we think the world should or could look. Having a philosophy of Multiculturalism gives us a “visual” to our journey’s end – what would be the perfect should or could of our world? Our philosophies of Multiculturalism then give us a starting point and an ending point to shoot for “we know where we are and we have an idea of where we should go. During the journey, our philosophies will most definitely change as we experience more.

How do we help students to understand that history is not just a thing of the past? Taking into consideration a connection of the past with the present, Zinn (1994) states, “When you press students to make connections, to abstract from the uniqueness of a particular historical event and find something it has in common with another event – then history becomes alive, not just past but present” (p. 151), which is precisely the concept within reconciliation. Coming to terms with the present may mean that we take responsibility for the past – in mind, spirit, and body.


To outline my assumptions, I draw predominantly from the works of Barbara Crosby, a professor and Senior Fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Professor Crosby has written extensively on leadership and public policy amongst other arenas. Her thoughts on global leadership, Ubuntu, and experiential learning are important.

I believe that when we recognize the importance of not only working for others, but with others, and not only assisting others, but also learning from others, we begin a dance towards equality. The rhythm of teacher/student, helper/helped, will flow through our communities with every wave and the sound of the music will be addictive. But it will not simply be the community that is affected; the individual will strengthen his/her self-pride, sense of accomplishment, belonging, and being.

The global village has built bridges and will continue to, weather we approve or not, and possibly without our control; and, globalization may threaten our humanness once it limits human interaction and interpersonal dependence. International leaders and global organizations must be heedful of the progress, speed, and flow of globalization. Who is attending to its advancement? Are we destroying culture? Are we at risk of losing control? A disconnection with human interaction could chip away at what truly makes us human “complex, unbelievable beings. Yet, new advancements have the potential to bring us closer together as well. What is positive is the fact that people from many cultures and countries are beginning to come together, to strive for common goals (Crosby, 1999, p. 3). These are the issues our youth will be facing in the years to come. Youth who view themselves as global citizens and engage in global citizenship will be better prepared for the fast paced world in which we now live.

I do have a democratic bias. With the expansion and crossover of culture-to-culture, country-to-country, equality based constructions of our new world is essential. True leadership is pursued through a shared vision and Ubuntu, “for the common good.” Leading, or leadership, must be done for the common good, nationally and globally. “Democracies, of whatever form, rest on the assumption that ultimate power resides in the people, even though the people may grant considerable power to members of parliament, a prime minister, or a president” (Crosby, 1999, p. 10). When youth have the opportunity to build bridges of mutual-gain with other youth from across the world, they are beginning a journey of democracy, global citizenship, global belonging, Multiculturalism, and Reconciliation.

There are many definitions of Ubuntu; a term used throughout Southern Africa, yet the most common understanding of Ubuntu means “for the common good.” Nelson Mandela says – “The spirit of Ubuntu – that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of other human beings – is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.” Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and major player in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa helps us to further understand Ubuntu:

Africans have this thing called Ubuntu. It is about the essence of begin human, it is a part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own belonging (Tutu, 2000).

Learning through experience is essential. Engulfing youth in a culture other than their own has inexhaustible rewards. When young people can directly touch, smell, taste, and see the realities of our world, rather than reading about them in a book, or hearing about them, they may be better able to grasp those realities. While engaged in the experience, young people become the resource rather than utilizing resources; they become active rather than passive; they are the producers rather than the consumers; they offer help rather than needing help; they have the opportunity to give rather than receive; and, they become leaders rather than victims (Lofquist, 1987).

Crosby (1999) outlines general understandings of culture in her book “Leadership For Global Citizenship: Building Transnational Community.” First, cultures have a shared reality and truth. This involves the ways cultures analyze messages, verbal and written, to convey information to each other. Secondly, cultures have a shared meaning of time. Cultures vary on how they perceive time – paying more attention to the future, present, or past. Third, cultures have a shared meaning of space “living arrangements, workspaces, and interpersonal distance. Finally, cultures share a sense of human nature “the appropriate role of the human being (p. 23-24).

When cultures come in contact with each other and are unprepared for the natural human difference between them, xenophobia, the fear of difference, has a tendency to take-over. Visiting countries or cultures other than one’s own is helpful because it allows the visitor to gain new insight into cultural understandings (Crosby, 1999, p. 24). When truly engaged in an out-of-place experience, young people get an accurate sense of the everyday lived-experience of those different from them. It also allows young people to further understand their own culture, their own lived-experience. Crosby (1999) states, “Understanding one’s own national culture may be the most difficult contextual task because – intercultural scholars emphasize – it is very hard to understand something that is so pervasive and taken for granted in a society” and continues by saying, “By watching how another society deals with basic human tasks, such as the ordering of time or interpersonal relations, sojourners can see more clearly how their home society approaches these tasks and perhaps question the assumption that the home society’s approach is the only “right” way” (p. 25). To question the assumptions is to engage in the process of Multiculturalism.


I invite all youthworkers of the world to invite youth, and themselves, into the process and journey of Multiculturalism. I invite adults to critically analyze the life-course of young people and allow youth to become full participants in the development of our world. In my opinion, Multicultural practice in youthwork should be deliberate – more than “diversity” training exercises are needed; youthworkers and youth alike should engulf themselves in the process of Multiculturalism. When they do, it has been my experience that “diversity” is no longer a chore, but the everyday happenings of life. We multicultural educators preach the importance of Multiculturalism because it is our nature, our essence. It is up to the individual to decide whether Multiculturalism is important in his or her own life, yet I would argue that if everyone gave it a try, they would begin to discover the benefits that Multiculturalism have to offer – and those offerings are what we all long for.


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