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On World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, Christelle September, one of our programme facilitators, looks at how we can use our similarities as a way to embrace our differences.

21st May is the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. It is an opportunity to help communities understand the value of cultural diversity and learn how to live together in harmony.

It is also an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding of different cultures and religions and to interrogate some of the stereotypes which often stand in the way of genuine relationship with the people that surround us.

Stereotypes are over-simplified, generalised ideas that we apply to people we don’t know. In a world where we are bombarded with information, they are a handy way to efficiently process the large volumes of data coming at us – but perhaps not effectively. When we yield to stereotypes and the assumptions embedded in them, we make statements about people rather than asking questions about them. The experience of an everyday conversation teaches us that curious, open questions make for richer dialogue than statements and assumptions.

The best definition of the word ‘diversity’ that I have ever seen is that diversity speaks to the differences and similarities between people and how these differences and similarities are perceived, interpreted, and acted upon.

What I love about this definition is that it highlights that diversity is as much about similarity as about difference: we all too often focus on difference, which can be divisive. It is human nature to fear what is different and to gravitate towards what is familiar. A good starting point for better managing diversity may therefore be to start focusing on our similarities.

Regardless of our cultural backgrounds, we are all human beings who share in the common human experience. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how deeply affected we all are in the face of uncertainty; in Cape Town, which has often been described as “the Divided City”, this same pandemic gave rise to a wonderful initiative from Cape Town Together – Community Action Networks (CANs). CANs are self-organised groups of individuals with different skills who are connected via the network and empowered to take action to solve the problems created by this global pandemic within their communities and across Cape Town.  One of the most effective starting points was to partner CANs in affluent communities with CANs in the neediest communities in Cape Town. This allowed for individuals on the one side who reside within the poorer communities to assess and articulate the needs of that community to those who are further removed from the realities of that community. This model leverages similarities and builds a bridge across the cultural divide to solve a problem, empowering all stakeholders to exercise agency, thereby creating no victims or handouts. It is a great example of coming together and starting dialogue around one cause (similarity) and then using the diversity (difference) of skills, access, resources, sensitivities and capacities to develop a way forward.

The lockdown imposed in South Africa on 26th March 2020 disrupted the Routes to Resilience Sustainable Futures Programme (SFP) workshops at Afrika Tikkun in Mfuleni only three weeks into our three-month programme. Mfuleni is one of the most disadvantaged communities in Cape Town; SFP aims to prepare 60 unemployed youth there to find and maintain sustainable employment. We were determined to find a way to continue despite Covid-19, which only highlighted the urgency of sustainable solutions to alleviate poverty. By linking our curriculum activities with the work that CANs were already doing, we were able to successfully continue achieving on the SPF objectives. You can read more about this in our June newsletter – sign up here.

As a facilitator who has been required to continue technology-enabled training outside of the classroom, an important part of my journey has been to understand how learning from homes which are culturally dissimilar to my own, has impacted the ability of the learners to continue their own learning journeys. I realised early on that I could not simply ‘download information’ and expect the learners to absorb it. Our learners come from predominantly Xhosa homes; being at home under lockdown conditions meant that they were expected to contribute to the household chores and as such, could not always participate in group discussions during the appointed times of the day, especially in the morning. Sharing a two-bedroom home with an average of seven people in an area with a poor mobile network was not conducive to teleconferencing. As a facilitator, I have therefore had to adapt my teaching to recognise the cultural differences and still reach the goal of supporting the students through to completion of the programme. In the process, I am opening myself up to different ways of teaching which could enable me to be effective even if things ever return to normal. This adaptation would not have been available to me if I held onto stereotypes like, ‘learners who do not attend group discussions are lazy’ or ‘millennials should easily be able to adapt to technology-enabled learning’.

What I have learnt from my experience teaching, as well as from what I have seen in the CAN initiatives, can be summed up as follows:

  • It is easiest to begin to understand differences when starting from a secure base of connecting with what is similar. Start by seeing the human in the other person.
  • Working towards a clear common goal often focuses people in solidarity, which paves the way to being open-minded to different possible ways of achieving the goal, and creates tolerance for different perspectives.
  • Dialogue is key to traversing the cultural divide and unlocking new ways of working. Stereotypes are expedient and have their place, but they are not always useful.

Some of these learnings may feel impossible to incorporate into our already busy lives. For me, therein lies the significance of setting aside a day like today to recognise how understanding and celebrating cultural diversity can contribute to living together in peace. So just for today, take a moment to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What information is available to disprove one stereotype I have?
  2. What is the one question can I ask today that helps me to understand where the next person is coming from?
  3. How can I unite in solidarity towards a common purpose with someone who is different to me?

The first step towards change is awareness. I hope that these questions can ignite in us all an awareness that will transform our world into a better place.

The Cape Town Together Community Action Network is an initiative that has been established to help communities respond to Covid-19. Its purpose is to create a database that will help organise non-medical responses in different communities and areas.

 

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