CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

How Do We Create Culturally Competent Civic Engagement Strategies For Young Activists?

October 24th, 2011
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Earlier this fall, Egyptian student leaders visited CIRCLE to learn more about civic engagement and political mobilization. One question that arose from the discussion was how to get people mobilized when the government does not support public participation. The community organizing literature suggests that there are multiple methods of mobilizing people for social and civic action from the ground up.

Depending on certain features of the community, such as its history, values and resources, organizers have to consider what methods would be best for what they want to accomplish. These considerations include, but are not limited to:
o First speaking with recognized community leaders to receive their “blessing” versus working directly with them;
o Using outside organizers versus working with community members/inside organizers;
o Committing to ideological beliefs and/or particular issues versus remaining neutral;
o Recruiting individuals versus building a coalition of organizations;
o Requiring membership dues versus keeping membership free;
o Decision-making based on majority voting versus consensus agreement;
o Organizing at a broad level and trying to include everyone versus recruiting specific populations or groups.
These types of methods do not represent a dichotomy of choices and decisions, but rather a range of options that organizers can choose from.

Yet one must ask the question of whether or not these tactics would work in a country such as Egypt, where they are in the preliminary stages of building a democratic infrastructure. Are there existing structures to allow for organizing or would organizers have to make it up as they go along? Additionally, there’s the issue of cross-cultural applicability. In other words, organizing methods may not be able to take into account cultural differences and practices, which could create more harm than good. For example, would it be culturally appropriate to enter a neighborhood and start asking questions about voting? How would you try to get participation across the board if women were not encouraged to be involved in politics? These types of questions must be taken into consideration when attempting to organize for civic participation in any community with different norms and values.

However, there are definite ways to develop cross-cultural methods. For example, in 2003, Central American Catholic Bishops invited PICO to develop an organizing project that would improve the quality of life for the people there. This movement became known as PICO International, which addresses issues in developing countries using relational/PICO methods; in this case, it was working with Catholic parishes and congregations. In El Salvador, seven parishes have trained hundreds of local grassroots leaders. In other countries, grassroots leaders focus on issues such as access to clean water, building positive relationships with political leaders and institutions, and improving health care. The communities were allowed to decide what issues to focus on and leaders came from within these communities, allowing for cultural norms and beliefs to be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, this example is not representative of Western organizations’ methods to helping developing nations.

The literature and research that touch upon cultural competency and mobilization include works such as “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War” by Mary Anderson. This work focuses on humanitarian aid during times of conflict, but the same principles can be applied to creating a plan for political mobilization. Organizers, while working with a different community, must remember that their best intentions may very well create more conflict later on.

What do you think would be a good method to organize in a setting completely unfamiliar to you?

-Whitney Henderson

2 Responses to “How Do We Create Culturally Competent Civic Engagement Strategies For Young Activists?”

  1. Rebecca M. Townsend Says:

    Using theoretical and methodological approaches that are premised on culturally distinct ways of communicating would be helpful a starting point. The ethnography of communication is such a theory. It’s been used in international post-conflict societies by Rudnick & Miller (see In my own teaching and research I have found it invaluable.

  2. Nancy Jonhansen Says:

    I think you make some valid points about cultural differences. Having said that, I believe that people are people. That our cores are all the same, whether you live in Florida, Egypt, Japan, or anywhere else. Activism should be analyzed, but not to this extent, in my opinion. Breaking it down this much might serve an opposite outcome. We must realize that, for the majority, we are all the same deep down. Emotion drives everything.

    I’ll give one example of what I am trying to get across…propaganda. It doesn’t matter where you live, propaganda, and all its elements are the same. It uses emotion as its driving force for change or to mold an opinion. The content may be altered based upon a geopolitical circumstance, but the core elements hold true.

    I am a strong believer that we think way too much. We analyze everything down to the sub-atomic level. But we don’t need to. Keep it simple for the best results.