"youth lead, inc."How Young People Can Learn to Connect Across Stark Cultural Differences (and Why They MUST)

The more culturally diverse our society becomes, the more adept we’ll need to be at collaborating with people who hold profoundly different beliefs. That means our kids may need to navigate some tough conversations. Janet Penn, executive director of Youth LEAD, a Massachusetts non-profit, offers some pointers for teaching them to do just that.

We parents spend huge amounts of time and money on raising well-rounded, prepared-for-the-real-world kids. We provide violin lessons to develop their brains. We send them to soccer practice to learn the value of teamwork. We encourage them to join multiple clubs to round out their education and to prepare them for college and the real world. But too often we forget one very important skill says Janet Penn—and it’s one they’ll have to have to succeed in an increasingly flat, culturally diverse world.

“With a rise in diversity comes a rise in the potential for disagreements,” says Penn, executive director of Youth LEAD (www.youthleadonline.org). “Chances are your kids will work with and live alongside people who have very different points of view on highly controversial topics. They’ll need to be able to have not only civil but productive conversations with these people—and the path to cultural harmony isn’t always smooth!

“People who can’t navigate tough conversations will be seriously handicapped in their ability to move ahead in tomorrow’s business world,” she adds. “Often we’re taught that certain subjects like religion and politics are taboo—but in a global society it gets harder and harder to avoid them. We must make sure our kids are equipped to respectfully disagree without getting angry or upset or feeling intimidated.

A key goal of Youth LEAD is to help bridge what Penn calls the “difference divide” between people of different cultures and faiths. That means getting to them at a young age and helping them understand each other.

This is where Youth LEAD excels. This non-profit organization based in Sharon, Massachusetts, engages a diverse group of area high school students to inspire them to reflect upon their cultural values and beliefs, connect with others across differences, and act together to address local and global challenges.

Penn says its overarching goal is for youth to develop the skills they’re going to need to operate in an increasingly global, culturally diverse world.

“If your kids are never exposed to people from different cultural or religious groups, they may begin to believe things that aren’t true about certain groups,” she explains. “They need to see firsthand that such prejudice is unfounded, that Jews or Muslims or Christians are human beings like themselves. They need to organically learn that people from different cultures share both similarities and differences. And they need to practice the art of holding tough conversations so they’ll be able to do so when they’re adults and the stakes are higher.”

How can you help your teen begin to build a better understanding of cultural diversity and learn to communicate with those with whom they have fundamental disagreements? Indeed, how can they apply these principles to conversations with people from their own culture with whom they hold opposing points of view? (Let’s face it: Disagreements on hot-button issues like politics and abortion can get just as heated when both parties grew up in the same hometown!)

Penn says it may help to share with them the following tips, based on skills taught by Youth LEAD.

Get in touch with personal stereotypes and assumptions. Before you can begin to have productive relationships and conversations with those from other cultures, you have to get real with yourself by considering your own personal stereotypes. For example, have you ever found yourself agreeing that women aren’t as apt as men in science and math, or that Jewish people aren’t good at sports, or that deep down all Muslims want to bring down the U.S.? It’s okay to admit that you have these secret feelings, says Penn—in fact, it’s a necessary first step in breaking down stereotypes.

Stereotypes are like pollution in the air,” she notes. “Sometimes it can be hard not to breathe them in. We are all capable of stereotyping and making false assumptions. It’s also important that we consider what stereotypes might hold a grain of truth. Being clear and honest with ourselves about our beliefs can help us manage these situations more openly and allow us to have more meaningful conversations.

Connect to the root of your beliefs. Are your beliefs about other cultures based in fear? Are you afraid of the culture itself? Are you afraid that you’ll offend someone of a different race or religion if you ask them a question about their beliefs? Reflecting on times when you were afraid, confused, or closed minded can help you understand your beliefs and help you relate to someone you don’t agree with.

“We have all felt afraid, frustrated, and confused and have acted on those feelings,” says Penn. “Understanding the why behind people’s words and actions can help begin a discussion in a new way. For example, let’s say you have negative views of Muslims. Get to the root of those beliefs. How have you developed those views? If your only experience with Muslims is through reading about terrorist attacks in the newspaper, then of course your views will be negative.

“It’s your responsibility as a global citizen to break out of those confines,” she asserts. “Make an effort to learn more about the Muslim religion. Have discussions with Muslim neighbors or colleagues. And I would say for everyone, we have to remember that we shouldn’t fear asking each other questions. We won’t get anywhere if we can’t have conversations about our fears and concerns.”

Consider your gray areas. There is nothing easy about becoming a well-rounded global citizen. One’s education in doing so will require a lot of self-reflection, and some of the most difficult self-reflection will be parsing out those issues that fall into the gray areas. Can you think of a time when the values you hold dear related to a certain issue bumped up against other values that are also important to you? For example, maybe you are having difficulty opening up to the religious beliefs of someone else because they conflict with certain aspects of your own.

“This is when becoming a global citizen can feel like a struggle between right and wrong for some young people,” says Penn. “They know they should be tolerant of others and their cultural and religious choices, but they have difficulties reconciling these issues with their own belief systems. And this is why self-reflection is so important.

“A Christian or Jew who is secure in his own faith, who is not just ‘going along’ with what he thinks he’s ‘supposed’ to believe, is less likely to feel threatened by hearing beliefs that are the polar opposite of his own views,” she adds. “In fact, a democracy depends upon a citizenry able to understand why they hold their beliefs and how to defend them, rather than blindly following the pack.”

Set personal ground rules. When the time for reflection has ended and it’s time for the actual dialogue to begin, you must set a few ground rules for yourself. These will help keep you in check if a conversation turns contentious. Remember, you can’t control how the other party will handle a conversation, but you can control how you will handle it. In order to help their members create respectful conversations, Youth LEADers set the following ground rules for themselves:

1. I will speak for myself and from my own experience. (I will begin sentences with “I think” or “I feel,” as opposed to “You people” or “You think.”)

2. I will listen with an open heart and mind.

3. I will set aside the need to persuade others to agree with me.

4. I will not interrupt. (If someone else is speaking, I will wait until they have finished before I speak. I will not engage in “sidebar” conversations.)

5. I will “step up” to share my thoughts and experiences and then “step back” so others may share their thoughts and experiences. (I will try to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.)

6. I will not attack a person or their faith.

7. I will ask a “clarifying question” if I don’t understand something that has been said. A clarifying question seeks to understand (e.g., “What do you mean by…” or, “Can you explain that to me?”).

8. I will “pass” if I don’t want to speak.

9. I will maintain confidentiality. “What’s said in here, stays in here.”

Understand the difference between ignorance and ill intent. Let’s say someone has offended you and your knee jerk reaction is to lash out angrily at her. Before you begin a conversation with her, ask yourself, Is this person intentionally being hurtful or is she unaware of the impact of her words and actions? At Youth LEAD this is called thinking about Intent vs. Impact.

“People who are ignorant of certain cultures may not know how inflammatory what they are saying truly is,” explains Penn. “For example if you’re bi-racial and someone asks you, ‘What are you, anyway?’ This question will very likely seem insensitive, but it is possible that it is coming from a place of positive curiosity.

“Understand that the person may genuinely want to learn more about you, but he has phrased his question in a way that he isn’t aware is insensitive. When these issues arise, you have to be able to quickly assess the person’s intent and the impact they were hoping to have, and then act accordingly.”

Use “I” statements to personalize thoughts and feelings. Personalizing what you are thinking or feeling makes it about you. It prevents you from making generalizations about an entire group or about the person you are confronting. When you use “I” statements, you keep what you’re saying focused only on you.

“This method asks students to express how a given belief or events have affected them personally,” says Penn. “Through ‘I’ statements they share their own life experiences without attacking the beliefs or experiences of others. For example, let’s say there’s a conversation about conflict in the Middle East. You’re Jewish and don’t agree with the Palestinian approach to getting statehood.

“Rather than make a statement that attacks their efforts you might say, ‘I’m Jewish. I’m uncomfortable with the actions Palestinian leaders are taking. I think they are continuing to impede the peace process. While I support the existence of the Palestinian people, I don’t support the mentality of their leaders.’ Using ‘I’ statements prevents the conversation from becoming accusatory. You’re expressing an opinion, not making an accusation. Opinions can be discussed, but it is very difficult to keep an open conversation going when accusations start flying.”

Start with an agreement. At the beginning of a conversation with someone with whom you have a fundamental disagreement, try to find some common ground.

“That’s true even when you’re talking about an issue as polarizing as school prayer, for example. If both parties can agree that they believe in freedom of religion, knowing you have this core value in common will keep you from demonizing or dismissing each other,” notes Penn. “Finding this common ground will help you both approach the conversation from a more open, understanding place.”

Get to the heart of the matter. Youth LEAD teaches its members to get to the heart of others’ core principles and beliefs. In order to do that members are taught to ask the right questions.

“Most questions we might ask serve us and our positions,” explains Penn. “But if we can learn to ask questions out of genuine interest in another person, it can turn a conversation in a new direction. For example, you might ask, ‘Do you have a personal connection to this topic?’ Or, ‘What about your life experience has influenced your beliefs?’ These questions show that you’re genuinely seeking an understanding of that person, and they help you to have a more complete understanding of where they’re coming from.”

Remain silent. In order to benefit from the questions mentioned above, you have to listen deeply to the other person’s answers. And in order to listen deeply, you have to remain silent.

“You can’t listen deeply when you’re thinking about the next thing you’re going to say,” says Penn. “When you know you can’t speak, it’s much easier to listen. And when you are a better listener, you can ask better questions. Eventually the other person comes to see that you do care about what they have to say. You might not be able to reach a complete agreement, but you can reach mutual respect.”

Learn how to take greater action. Of course, there will be some situations that are instant, aggressive, or for some other reason it is not safe or effective to engage another person.

“In these kinds of cases at Youth LEAD, participants are taught to take their feelings and reactions and turn them into social action and local and global change,” says Penn.

“They do this through dialogue, community events, workshops, etc., but anyone can do it by becoming more educated on a topic or volunteering to work for a cause they believe in. This is what being a global citizen is all about: actively learning and participating in ways that make the world a better, safer place for everyone.”

“The skills taught at Youth LEAD and organizations like it are invaluable in the working world,” says Penn. “People who master them are able to resolve conflict more quickly and come up with better solutions, build stronger workplace relationships, and create more productive, enjoyable work environments. These are the kinds of skills employers will increasingly expect and demand—and the kids who develop them at a young age will thrive.

“Of course, it’s not all about business,” she adds. “These are the kinds of skills that help people get along with friends and family as well. They’re the yarn we use to weave the tapestry of a richer, happier, more interesting, and more harmonious life.”

About Youth LEAD: Youth LEAD, Inc., (YL) was founded in 2004 to inspire and motivate youth to reflect upon their values and beliefs, connect with others across differences, and act together to address local and global challenges. YL’s Leadership Program trains high school students to reach across religious, ethnic, and racial divides to increase understanding and to turn fear of differences into hope and positive action.