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Youth Work training encourages self-awareness

WORTHINGTON -- The question is simple enough: Why would those seeking to understand other cultures spend so much time discussing their own?

As it turns out, they are one and the same.

"The research in cultural understanding tells us you have to know your own identity to interact with people from other cultures," explained Ann Walter, a facilitator from the University of Minnesota Extension Youth Work Institute.

Walter is leading about 25 area youth workers, educators and community leaders through an 18-hour, three day Culturally Responsive Youth Work Matters training at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. On Wednesday morning, participants were asked to draw circles of cultural identity and discuss how their positive and negative experiences had shaped their self-image.

The attendees shared a range of self-descriptors with the group that included more obvious traits like gender and national origin and more subtle cultural elements like upbringing and experiences. One woman recalled growing up in the '60s; another newly single mom found a shared experience with a single mom who had never married. Others shared how hobbies or family size had shaped their perspectives.

Participants completed the phrase "I am ___, but I am not ___" with responses like "I'm the working poor, but I am not white trash," and "I am blond, but I am not dumb."

"I'm from Minnesota, but I'm not nice," joked Walter.

The program aims to help those who work with youths to gain a better awareness of their own cultural and social identities, recognize the value of learning about the cultures of the children with whom they work and create ways to make student programming more inclusive and empowering.

"The idea is that we prepare and promote children for success instead of intervening (later)," said facilitator Josey Landrieu.

Leroy Vetsch, a teacher at Brewster Elementary School, related an activity in which the group "juggled" multiple balls to his own experience dealing with students.

"There are times when four kids want your attention, and you might have to deal with one before you can move onto the others," he said, in reference to the activity's lesson in multitasking.

Those attendants who work with juvenile justice know all too well what happens when children aren't set up for success.

"We try to teach them life skills so they don't keep coming back on probation," explained Erin Top of Rock-Nobles Community Corrections.

"We sort of deal in an intervention/response mode with children," added Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore. "We deal more with the real world as opposed to the ideal world."

He said the training allows him to ask whether an individual's actions were intentionally wrongful or may be partially explained by unknown cultural factors.

"In many cases, there's not cultural explanation for it. ... But sometimes there is a cultural component of (behavior)," he said.

Nobles County social worker Angie Willers said that when dealing with clients, "We get to choose how much we want to learn about their culture. We figure out what went on and how we could change that for the future."

The course is being sponsored by the University of Minnesota Youth Work Institute, Minnesota West and the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.