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More than culture – Diversity awareness in international youth work

By Anne Lepper

For organizers of and participants in international youth encounters, cultural exchange and meeting people from other countries are often their main interest. In the process, the nationality of participants may unintentionally take center stage and obscure individual characteristics. Modern concepts of intercultural youth work therefore attempt to achieve so-called diversity-aware education. The educational processes thus initiated are supposed to show that not all people in one country are the same or embrace the same norms and ideas. Rather, diversity-aware educational concepts aim to clarify how people benefit from or are disadvantaged by a "national culture." The mechanisms behind static understandings of culture that are reproduced daily – whether consciously or not – are to be reflected upon in conversations, in practice and simply in spending time together.

What is "diversity-aware educational work?"

In her newly published manual "More than culture – Diversity-aware education in international youth work," author Anne Sophie Winkelmann provides insights into the theory and practice of diversity-aware education. The approach she sets forth has multiple perspectives. For one thing, it enables people to start dealing with the topic in a way that is adapted to their own experience and their personal questions; for another, it enables them to experience the substance of the work in a multi-faceted way. The manual thus offers opinion leaders the opportunity to reflect on their own work, to shape it anew and to place it within a theoretical context, independent of their own pedagogical knowledge.

Learning about differentiation, power, prejudice and discrimination are always key. Youths should learn to perceive and accept experiences of complexity and difference. After all, the perception of diversity confronts many youths with their own insecurities. Reflecting on this should help them understand and dissect their own prejudices. In this way, youths can come to perceive themselves and their counterparts as complex individuals and avoid one-dimensional oversimplifications during international youth encounters.

Making anti-discrimination a topic of discussion

It is not enough to merely accept diversity: This alone does not solve problems confronting the "others" in a homogeneous society. If one conveys the ideal of a colorful world without confronting the marginalization and disadvantage faced by some, then existing structural problems are pushed to the side and ignored. For this reason, the author points out that diversity-aware educational work must always be coupled with anti-discrimination work. In this way, youths learn about the advantages of a heterogeneous society and also gain an awareness of the significance of positioning within a society and how this may affect how a person is perceived.

Avoiding pigeonholing

A person’s positioning and his or her alleged membership in one or more groups creates the image of a society divided into clear categories. The goal of diversity-aware education is to reflect on this "pigeonholing" and to show that the dominant categories are artificial – created by people in the more powerful position. In this societal order, a person must often choose one position over another. Such differentiations often involve value judgment and classification as "normal" and "not normal." Diversity-aware education involves recognizing mechanisms of dissemination and helping people escape the pigeonholes in their own minds.

"Classically" intercultural and/or diversity-aware?!

Pigeonholing and discrimination are often based on the notion of a "national culture," according to which individuals are seen as representatives of their culture without consideration of intra-societal power relationships. People are thus defined solely via their supposed belonging to a culture, and their behaviors are interpreted accordingly. Therefore, the goal of "classical" intercultural approaches is often to impart understanding for what is "foreign," to create encounters between various cultures and to strengthen intercultural competence. In contrast, critical intercultural concepts as well as diversity-aware approaches attempt to present "national culture" as a "culture of dominance" with all its contradictions, and to sharpen awareness of commonalities. The culture of a particular country thus does not appear to be a fixed, unchangeable entity but rather a dynamic and participatory platform. In other words, diversity-aware education can make clear to youths that a uniform understanding of "culture" does not exist in any country but that many different perspectives and notions coexist. Focusing on the subject and its individual experiences and belongings also counteracts the danger of culturalizing one’s counterpart. In this context, international youth encounters provide a good opportunity for jointly recognizing the complexity of societies and cultures and for asking critical questions.

Through this or that lens

In other words, the goal of the diversity-aware approach is to enable youths to look through different "lenses." The point is not to deconstruct differences between people from different countries but to place the differences and commonalities in different contexts, thus developing starting points for reflection, exchange and joint learning. According to the author, this makes clear that the causes for challenging situations and conflicts must often be seen in the context of structural aspects rather than through the cultural "lens."

Theory and practice

Besides an extensive theoretical introduction to the topic, concepts and various scientific discourses, the manual also provides a multi-perspective approach to a diversity-aware stance in practice. The author makes clear how important the three pillars of the diversity-aware approach – self-reflection, process orientation and self-organization – are, especially for seminar leaders. That includes not only reflecting on one’s own actions but also constant and open debate between the various team members. In the manual, questions at the end of each paragraph enable readers to confront their own emotions and attitudes. The chapter "The role and self-understanding of seminar leaders" also enables readers to grapple with their own roles in relation to colleagues and participants. In this way, inherent power structures can be reflected that arise from the sometimes-discriminatory relationship between adults and youths, also called adultism. In order to counteract power structures within an international youth encounter, the author recommends unconditional appreciation of everyone involved as well as strengthening the position of young participants by promoting participation and self-organization. In addition, if seminar leaders consider themselves "learners," this reduces power imbalances within the group. Intentionally permitting conflicts to play out and actively slowing down processes of learning and working can also have a positive effect on group dynamics.

Methods

In addition to the various theoretical and practical approaches to the topic, the manual describes numerous methods suitable for diversity-aware education. The exercises, which are described in detail, can be adapted individually to the needs and interests of the group in question. Various factors such as age, group size, language competence and individual ability to concentrate are taken into account. The methods provide a good opportunity for supporting process-oriented work within a seminar; however, they do not replace it. For this reason, methods should be selected and used deliberately.

Conclusion

The manual is an up-to-date, critical and multifaceted approach to modern, diversity-aware educational work in the context of international youth encounters. The combination of theoretical deliberations and understandable "translations" into practice enables readers to work through the manual with practical applications in mind. The interactive structure permits readers to take on the contents according to their own level of knowledge and their individual interests without having to follow the chronological sequence of the chapters. The manual, which Anne Sophie Winkelmann developed in collaboration with a four-person editorial team, makes a clear case for combining theory and practice in pedagogical work.

 

Further Literature

Anne Sophie Winkelmann (2014): More than Culture - Diversitätsbewusste Bildung in der internationalen Jugendarbeit, Bonn, published online in German and thereafter in English.

 

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