CYC-Online 78 JULY 2005
ListenListen to this

culture in practice

Our next big challenge: Genuine cultural SELF self awareness

Janet Newbury

The key to delivering culturally competent services to the children and families we care for lies in accepting that just being diverse is not enough, and that we never really can become fully culturally competent.

Introduction: The Missing Piece
In the Foreword of a wonderful book entitled A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families, Leon Fulcher praises the complex work of our profession, but also voices a very legitimate concern. He identifies the fact that we are still “largely Eurocentric and monocultural" in our orientation (Garfat, 2003, p. xix) and cites several examples of how this perspective fails to provide sufficient services to many of the youth with whom we work.

Entering the world of Child and Youth Care has indeed been an exciting process for me. Having always gravitated towards this sort of work, when I found that there was an organized network of Child and Youth Care professionals, I was thrilled to discover a handful of incredible mentors and peers, all going about their work in a way that is client-centred and relationship based. In this field, those values are largely seen as necessary, not naively idealistic. It is for those reasons that I love the work we do.

However, in the short time that I have been a part of this field, I have repeatedly observed that we are somehow still not quite hitting the nail on the head. Reading Mr. Fulcher’s comments about inclusiveness brought the missing piece home for me. We haven’t quite established a way to incorporate the cultural element into our work in a truly cohesive fashion.

As it stands
Here in Alberta, eight hours per year of diversity training are mandatory. I see this as a very tentative first baby step in the right direction at best. At least the need for cultural awareness is being acknowledged. The problem remains, however, that we are still viewing it as something that happens outside the scope of our day-to-day work.

For instance, flipping through my agency’s policy and procedures manual, I learned that having an ethnically diverse team of employees only seems to be of concern if we happen to be caring for a youth who is of a visible minority. Putting this policy into practice, I imagine, would be an awkward process to undergo.

My instinct is telling me there has to be a more real and effective way to integrate cultural considerations into our regular practice.

What is culture?
Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the dictionary definition of “culture”. Interestingly, this is what I found:

a the customs, civilization, and achievements of a particular time or people (Mi'kmaq culture).
the mode of behaviour within a particular group (corporate culture). (Bisset, 2002, p. 231).

I read it again.

Breaking it down and brainstorming all the “cultures” I could think of, it soon became apparent to me that every culture I could think of could be further reduced even more specifically.

Let’s look at a culture that is probably familiar to all of us: North American culture. That, clearly, can be narrowed down to something more specific: Canadian culture. And from there ... I’m from Newfoundland, which certainly has its own distinct culture. But the city of Corner Brook obviously offers a different cultural experience than the numerous smaller outport communities. Even within Corner Brook, each area has a different name and identifiably different “culture” according to our definition. And what about my family, as compared to my neighbours?

I read the definition again.

Yes, it is true. How trivial, really, yet somehow we forget it: we are ALL – every one of us – coming from a completely different culture from everyone else. By definition, our culture consists of several elements, elements which for each of us are all ever so slightly varied.

What does this mean for our work?

Applying the definition within Child and Youth Care practice
While I don’t dispute for a moment that day-long seminars such as “Aboriginal Awareness" are crucial for Child and Youth Care Workers, I would argue that they are simply the tip of the ice berg. Continuing along our current Eurocentric vein until we are required to adjust for the sake of a client who is from a “different” culture is far too reactive to be a part of effective Child and Youth Care practice.

Moreover, it is not possible to accommodate every unique culture in this fashion once we truly understand what culture means. All of our clients have their own cultural needs. These needs are so diverse that the current model obviously cannot meet them all. Rural, urban, male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, eastern, western, Anglophone, Francophone, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, First Nations, African, European, Asian, the list goes on. There are not two of us that view the world through exactly the same lens. We are all, even according to the dictionary definition, from different cultures. So, yes, learning the intricacies of particular cultures that we come in contact with is an absolutely necessary part of qualifying ourselves. However, it is not practical to assume that we could do each distinct culture justice in this way.

Take, for instance, the youth who has spent 8 months prostituting herself on the streets before coming into our care. The customs, language, style, habits, behaviours, and social norms that she is accustomed to will be vastly different from what we are offering. As different, one might argue, as someone who grew up in another country perhaps. As Child and Youth Care practitioners we are all nodding our heads now thinking, “of course”, because we have seen it many times.

My suggestion, however, is that if we acknowledge this as the CULTURAL “cultural” difference that it is (rather than just “poor lifestyle choices” or “bad behaviour"), our chances of bridging that gap between us and the youth will greatly increase. Too often we judge our youth’s culture as inappropriate and insist that they leave it at the door when they enter our facilities. Agreed, there are certain topics that may be dangerous to normalize in a group home setting. That said, I believe that if we make an effort to understand a youth’s culture prior to entering our facilities, and understand that this culture is a part of who they are now, we can ease their transition into what we view as a safer lifestyle for them without disrespecting or dismissing them as individuals.

Moving from one culture to another can be a very isolating experience, as anyone who has lived abroad or even moved to a new town can testify. Feeling prohibited to discuss it or use the language that is familiar to you can be an even lonelier experience. If we do not make an effort to get to know our youth – all aspects of who they are – then they may simply check THEMSELVES their selves at the door (emotionally speaking) along with the culture we insist that they leave behind, and progress will be nearly impossible to achieve.

In my opinion, it is because of our lack of understanding of this dynamic that most of the youth that excel in our programs are not from minority or fringe cultures. Despite the good intentions with “Aboriginal Awareness” in Alberta, for example, First Nations youth do not stick around in our programs. The system, by enlarge, does not work for them in its current state. Our programs generally work well only for youth who can identify with the European framework from which we are, in general, operating. Unfortunately, we are also short-changing a large number of other struggling youth with this our approach, even those who come from within a general Euro-Caucasian cultural framework.

Overcoming this Obstacle with cultural SELF Self Awareness
“Culturally Sensitive”, as I am describing it here, simply must become as intrinsic an element of our Child and Youth Care approach as “client-centred” and “strength oriented” already are – not as a catch phrase, but as an integral part of the way we interact with our youth and coworkers.

It’s tough. If we accept that every youth with whom we work comes from his or her own unique culture, then we must also acknowledge that every worker we encounter does as well. That’s us. It would be impossible and foolish, then, for us to attempt to tackle our jobs pretending we can approach them from an entirely culturally neutral place.

This harkens us back to the very beginning of our training: knowledge, skills, and SELFself. We have all spent a great deal of time fine-tuning our self-awareness. It has been identified as a necessary – and ongoing – part of becoming an effective worker.

It is my position, now, that we have to take this one step further. Within our development of self-awareness, we must also take a long, hard look at our “CULTURAL cultural self awareness" and hold ourselves to equally high standards in this arena as well. I am in no way saying that we have to become experts on every distinct culture we may come across. In fact, it is the impossibility of this task that leads me to argue that we have to adjust our approach entirely.

Before looking out, look in. If nothing else, we must become experts on our OWN own unique cultures. Rather than assuming that we can be objective observers of the world around us, we have to ask ourselves which of our assumptions are culturally created (quite likely all of them), and which (if any) are not. Then we have to analyze where they come from and why. Following that we should look around us and entertain the value of other options that don’t exist within our own personal cultures.

It is my experience that we rarely challenge our culturally created assumptions. That is, we are not, generally speaking, “culturally self aware.” This lack of cultural self-awareness results in an arrogance that has the potential to create some real obstacles in the way of progress in the type of work that we do. We need look no further than Davis Inlet, Labrador to see the damage that can be done when “helpers” forget that their own priorities are in fact culturally created and wrongly assume that they are universal.

On a less dramatic scale, I am sure we have all experienced misunderstandings with coworkers that may have resulted from a lack of cultural self-awareness. If we can all recognize that our interpretations of what we see are shaped by our cultures then we may eventually develop the language to communicate with each other effectively, while still respecting each of our unique cultural perspectives.

In conclusion: An optimistic view of the future
I do believe that we are well on our way. I take great pride in the fact that our profession is so adaptable by nature. Flexibility and adaptability are some of the greatest qualities in any great Child and Youth Care worker. So is self-awareness. As with self-awareness, CULTURAL cultural self-awareness is something that needs to be worked on and attended to regularly throughout one’s career, and this process must be highly reflective in nature.

I like to believe that as a profession we will be on the leading edge when it comes to incorporating cultural self-awareness as an intrinsic part of what we do – not just something we manage off the sides of our desks. I am excited to see the changes that are bound to be made toward this development, and the positive results that are sure to follow.


Bisset, Alex. (2002). Compact Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Fulcher, L. (2004). Foreword. In T. Garfat, Thom. (2003). A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. (xv-xix) Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App