CYC-Online 16 MAY 2000
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Multiculturalism in Child and Youth Care Programmes

Jack Kirkland and Lesley du Toit

'Multiculturism” means being aware of cultural differences, appreciating the reasons for their existence, understanding the nuances of culture, and respecting lifestyles different from one’s own.

In an institutional sense, it is recognition and acknowledgement of cultural pluralism. However, it also is the knitting together of those differences into a quilt-work of order and symmetry, the orchestration of differences into a common mode of effective unity. Blending these ethnic and cultural differences in a larger unity which combines the universal attributes which we share in common, while sustaining a view of one’s own cultural self, is to infuse and inspire the strength of an entire people.

All ethnic groups pull with their full potential towards a national goal when they can see themselves listed among the national benefactors of the effort. They are motivated when they can see that social mobility exists in every sector, and that one is rewarded on the basis of achievement, in fulfilment of the promise of one’s ambition and potential.

Integration vs desegregation
When one seriously embarks upon multiculturism, one is not approaching a “desegregated” but rather an “integrated” society, in which there is mutual respect for all cultures, where each individual’s heritage is held in equal esteem. How this knowledge is transmitted into the curriculum of life is the determinant of multicultural harmony. Whether this knowledge is reinforced in the home, whether it is accomplished in one’s peer group, or whether it is practised and highly visible in the nation and institutional structures, is evidence of such commitment to (or contempt for) the proposition. The momentum of such behaviour propels one throughout life into a way of life and life style.

Multicultural child and youth care practice demands from child care organisations an ability to establish and live a “culture” of core values, with mutual respect for each child and family’s heritage. In this way the curriculum of life within the programme is able to model multicultural harmony, and offers an opportunity for the well-known “contagion factor” in child care to operate positively. Just as racism and discrimination can be “taught and caught”, so, too, respect and cultural empathy may be taught and caught.

Respect for individual differences, for dignity and worth, and for potential, has always been at the core of any effective child and youth care milieu. As residential programmes take on the challenge of multiculturalism, it should not be a new consideration to wonder how differences with regard to culture may be incorporated. Respect for differences does not pull ethnic groups apart; it is, rather, the mortar, the cement, the glue which gives variety, diversity and depth to the whole. It balances the bland and spicy to give zest and zing and richness. Knowledge of differences minimizes (and most often virtually eliminates) the suspicions, fears and animosities, as well as the stockpiling of those debilitating attitudes and prejudices about “other” groups, the vicious concept called racism.

The illness of racism
Racism is an illness. It is endemic to those who are ethnocentric. It is progressive and does not diminish. It is terminal. While it is the cause of many untimely deaths, it is never registered as such – or identified as its many pseudonyms, the multiple stress-induced illnesses which it precipitates, as the honest reason for one’s demise. The causes of physical, spiritual, psychological, aspirational death are always given as those which absolve society, and which place the onus of prevention or rehabilitation on the individual.

Socially, racism is a pathology: it grows exponentially malignant when one is not against it. It grows, likewise, constantly when one is neutral or when one takes no position on its obnoxious presence. It is systematic as it flows through the life-support or the political circulatory system, and impacts on institutions, organisations, communities, families and individuals. If present in the children and their families, or the staff team, it will advance through the system of any multicultural organisation, impacting negatively upon the very programmes established to facilitate healthy development.

While racism is, of course, not hereditary, there tends to be a strong argument for such a position, as it is traditional and unrelenting, and tends to be passed along in families which seem disposed to this malady. However, it is generally believed that environment plays the greater role in the transmission of the disease.

The child care analogy
If a youth struggled with the problem of verbal and physical aggression, that problem would become the focus of the child and youth care task and would be dealt with within the framework of managing, caring, assessing, and treating the youth and his family. The youth would not be dealt with punitively or with prejudice, for we would recognise that it is not our task to judge, but to act with care, compassion and insight. We would know that to return the youth to the community without having provided the opportunity, environment and resources to deal with his problem would be to place him, his family, and their community at further risk. The pathology of racism deserves the same objective, caring, and systematic attention within a residential programme, for it is a disease which causes destruction, hurt and division “the antithesis of child and youth care objectives.

Truth as antidote
The best treatment for racism is a psychotropic medicine called “truth”. It eliminates the early signs of hallucination, the distorted perceptions of people of other ethnic groups who are not considered quite the equal of the observer. It clears up the trauma one might experience in multicultural relationships, and establishes the acceptable uniqueness of an individual “and of a people.

Multicultural programmes for children and youth provide an ideal environment for the “treatment” of racism. Herein are young people from all cultural walks of life, who are living, working and learning together with the common goal of re-entry into their communities. They can take back with them powerful reminiscences of their positive relationships, candid snapshots of their interactions, as well as vivid psychic impressions of fun and frolic. They can carry back these memories and inform others of their exploits, experiences and exchanges, and can use this newly acquired knowledge about one another in searching and seeking out further opportunities to relate to someone culturally different.

Where else can youth plan, practise and play in a social arena in which they are helped to think through and work out racially corrosive attitudes and feelings? For such an atmosphere to prevail. staff must also jettison their own racist baggage, because young people become what they observe. The staff must live out in their daily work the models they want for youth, along with the attitudes they want to inculcate, as they search for an integrated society. Their experience and discoveries could be transmitted and infused into other institutions, to encourage the significant changes needed in the endeavour to bring all to first class bona fide citizenship.

Models for the community
Children's institutions are located within communities, and as such are accessible to all of the areas they serve as social laboratories for cross cultural experiment – and as beacons of hope which demonstrate that such growth and change is possible and (although somewhat painful) workable, durable and commendable.

In this way, children's facilities could also provide a forum for workshops for business, professional and labour groups to come to understand how they can enable diverse ethnic populations to work together, perhaps even providing literature depicting the many areas of racial contention and the ways in which these can be resolved through mutual respect and understanding.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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