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Fostering Intercultural Dialogue: The Argument for a Cultural Broker

The concept of “cultural brokering” has been part of our history since the beginning of time. It is an act of connection, linking groups of people from different cultural backgrounds helping to resolve conflicts, foster understanding, and implement positive change. Jezewski further clarifies this role as a mediator who advocates on behalf of the group or individual who face one or more conditions which diminish their economic, social, or political power. The role of a cultural broker can vary from program to program. A cultural broker is needed in health care, in-school programs, in any career, and most importantly in our community.

Where I live and work in Maine, we have a small but growing immigrant population. Although just 4 percent of Maine residents are immigrants, an additional 7 percent are native-born Americans with at least one immigrant parent. Contrary to the narrative about this population, over a third of immigrants in our state, like myself, have a college degree or higher, and nine out of ten report some level of English proficiency. Despite this, there are still significant gaps in acquiring resources and access to services that promote stability and mobility in their everyday lives, which limits the ability of immigrants to contribute and thrive socially and economically in Maine. This is where a culture broker comes in.

Curious where most Maine immigrants come from? See here


Art by Cristóbal Schmal


 

The Process of Cultural Dialogue

There are four stages of brokering, depending on the needs of the population and the institution or organization which they are working within.

STEP 1: Understand and identify the needs and barriers facing this population. The first step in any culture broker work is to understand the unique needs and barriers occurring in the community. No individual is exactly alike, and there are no universal approaches that work for everyone. Barriers differ greatly based on individuals and communities involved and recognizing this factor is a key aspect of this work. A culture broker must first understand what barriers exist by listening to community needs and educating themselves on cultural differences.

Upon their arrival, immigrants, refugees, and asylees can face any number of barriers in their attempts to build self-sufficiency. Among them is the extremely complex legal and regulatory system that too often directly impacts economic stability and paths to citizenship. Immigrants who come with professional credentials and degrees — able to offer highly skilled professional contributions to the labor market –often cannot practice their professions in the U.S. because of credentialing systems that bar their entrance into their chosen profession. The dearth of legal and educational guidance for newcomers who seek legal status or who try to pursue the pathway to permanent residence or naturalization hampers their ability to secure their stability in their “new home.” Yet it is these very systems of social support and governmental regulation that should be able to move them towards this path.

Beyond policies and institutional practices, other notable challenges that immigrants confront are systemic; these include barriers like language and cultural capital, housing and transportation, affordable childcare, access to dietary compliant food, and social stigmas rooted in implicit bias, xenophobia, and racism. While some of these challenges are similar to other BIPOC and working-class Mainers, growing anti-immigrant sentiment compounded with explicit legislation and policy creates a real urgency to address this population. In addition, community leaders and groups also confront their own lack of understanding or experience inadequately building systems of support for those newly arrived in their towns. And too often, the contentious national debate about immigration heightens local conversations and tensions. These conditions affect families and larger communities — both new and native. Thus in communities where people need to live, go to school and work together, cross-cultural understanding and education is a critical asset not only for immigrants but also for communities throughout the state.

STEP 2: Build trust and respect with the community. Many communities don’t immediately feel comfortable discussing their issues and concerns with strangers. For this to happen, Culture Brokers must have years of experience working with diverse communities and understand the beliefs and values of the people they work with. Verbal and nonverbal communication is a very important part in working with diverse groups of people. A cultural broker needs to be aware of the various types of intercultural communication that a community uses to make sure that they are well represented.

STEP 3: Act as a middleman between community and organizations. This role can shape the future relationship between a community and an organization. Cultural Brokers understand the strengths and needs of the community, but they are also aware of the structures and practices operating within society and the organizations they are partnering with. It can be hard for organizations to reach out to diverse communities due to language barriers, cultural differences, different beliefs, and trust issues. In these situations, a cultural broker can help an organization identify activities and outcomes towards meeting organizations’ goals and provide insight into best interventions in order to increase community organizations’ involvement.

Organizations and institutions need to make the first