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The Way Back Home: Advancing cultural competence
By Berkeley Harris, MSW
Published: 12/24/2007

Berkeley Harris is a program manager of Families in Transition Community Services Inc., an organization that provides technical assistance to youth-based educational and mentoring programs, 21st century emotional intelligence skills, Transitions Management training, workshops for adult and seniors transitions, and project evaluation.

In reviewing documentation on the most studied sectors of communities, it was revealing that children/ youth won out over the police. However, it’s my opinion that these two sectors in society appear to be forever under the “socio-scope” of research.

The William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, in 1988, released a report, which portrayed a cultural divide between adults and youth. The report concluded: “There is a portrait of youth that is not only misleading, but harmful. We ought to correct the record out of a sense of fairness, as well as accuracy. These young people desperately need a chance to get started in responsible careers. Instead, they are frequently saddled with the image of being disinterested, and unwilling to assume responsibility. Complaining about youth is all too common.”

The burning questions remain: What has changed since almost two decades of such inquiry? Has adult society transformed its thinking? Are young people better provided for? Are agencies providing services to teens and youth operating from a “strength-based perspective?” Moreover, what is being done to assist service-providers to bridge this “cultural divide?” These questions represent the crux of the matter in the realm of understanding and respecting that there is a youth culture, and adults need to respect this in youth development strategies.

Youth of 1988 and 2003, replicate the same answer, “We are misunderstood!” Understanding cultural competence goes beyond food and ethnicity. It is grounded in the environment in which young people reside. And young people reside where adults put them.

Adults should recognize the overwhelming power they have over the youth population, especially those considered as “vulnerable,” another adult-instituted name. Adults determine when they eat, sleep, how they dress, what they view on television, what recreational facilities, employment, if any, will be open for them, and when. Adults provide themselves with more after school options than they provide youth. Adults choose what needs to be “fixed,” whether its youth pregnancy, drug addiction, offender laws, or school dropout.

As Elliott Currie, (1998) reports: “Programs that focus upon the individual, rather than taking into account the full social environment in which their delinquency occurred, do not have an appreciative effect. Seldom do youth have their voices heard in these cyclical features. Research has shown that for programs to be effective, the interventions must reflect the stakeholders, cultures (current and retrospective) values, language, customs, skills, religion or faith, needs, and social supports. Adults, unwittingly subjugate youth to disconnect from their culture in order to streamline treatment or service delivery systems. Great opportunities of skills brought to the table by youth are lost in institutions serving youth. Such unrecognized opportunity and underused resources create resentment, anger and adult/youth disconnect within what should be a helping and partnership- building environment.”

Lost youth voices, inflexible service systems, untrained and insensitive staff can only add fuel to the fire of adult/ youth disconnect. The continued incompetence can only be broken with a “time-out,” called by those trying to bridge the divide.

Youth are rarely “in the red” across the board; the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health revealed that 81 percent of youth engaging in five or more risk behaviors were at the same time engaging in at least one positive behavior (Blum & Rinehart, 1998). And when youth are consistently in serious trouble, it is often that they have been in and out of systems that treat one problem, ignoring the others, or even worse, labeling, isolating and treating young people in ways that close off options for them to build and use skills in areas where they exhibit real strengths. Reflections in the “time out” to break the cycle of fear of youth empowerment must address the following:

  • Develop an understanding of youth culture. Reach out to young people by asking genuine and engaging questions relevant to their lives.
  • Demonstrate sensitivity in interactions. Be non-judgmental in approach and reflect on how adult value systems impede youth relationship (Why should they trust us when we fail to trust them?)
  • Make cultural competence a must have expertise in all of our interactions with this population. Value the unique talents and skills they bring to the system. Become steeped in strength–based approaches. They can be our valuable assets in youth development strategies.
  • Construct programs that are youth driven. Programs that have youth ownership gain greater youth investment .
While adults and youth need to be partners in the cultural divide, the dance of adult/youth engagement is a complex transition. It is psychological in design, and will take time.

However time of almost two decades is big time. As one young adult records: “It isn’t that I didn’t know where I wanted to be; it’s just that it took a while to figure out if I could get there.”

It’s time that adults figure out how to get there together (Jane Rhodes, 2002). No one institution – whether families, schools, church, or after-school programs – can completely compensate for the social isolation that many children and adolescents experience, and each institution is stretched by the limitations of the others. Let’s stop the madness and get it right with our youth beside us.


Blum, R., & Rinehart, P. (1998) Reducing the Risk: Connections that Make a Difference in the Lives of Youth. Minneapolis, MN: Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota.

Harris, B. (1995). Pathways To Change: Frequency Intensity and Time. The (FIT) Model. (e-publication) at FITCS.com; www.tstonramp.com (www.tstonramp.com/~berkeley/offer.html).

Harris, B. (2002). Holistic Approach Keeps Foster Youth in College.

Peer Resources: Studies and Resources Guide to Professional Practice.

Rhodes, Jane E., (2002). Stand By Me: the risk and rewards of mentoring today’s youth, Harvard University Press.

Wunsch, Marie A.(1994) Mentoring Revisited: Making an Impact on Individuals and Institutions. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Youth Transition Funders Group, Powerful Pathways, (Yohalem N. & Putman, K., October, 2001).

Jorge Velazquez, CWLA’s Cultural Competence Division, 2003.


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