The power of culture

Reciting Kabbalat Shabbat in rural Guatemala

In Short

Using 'cultural competence' to not only get the job done, but do it better

Growing up Jewish in a majority non-Jewish country came with plenty of small, daily challenges. Mostly, as a child, I was upset at being unable to swap the sweets in my packed lunch at summer camp. But the bigger picture is that I never expected to have my needs – kosher food, for instance – met by “mainstream providers.”

Thankfully, this never impacted my access to basic services, though I know that I am privileged to say this. For me, it was rarely more serious than the welcome surprise of colleagues ordering my birthday cake from a kosher bakery instead of the usual place around the corner. But in my current job, working with IsraAid and vulnerable communities all over the world, operating with an awareness of cultural and religious context is much more serious than cake.

“Cultural competence” has multiple definitions, but in my sector – the nonprofit sector – it comes down to this: Communities have diverse values, beliefs and behaviors. The services we provide must honor, respect and be tailored to the social, cultural, religious and linguistic needs of those we seek to serve.

I recently spent a week in Cobán, the rural capital of central Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz region. The population of Alta Verapaz is more than 95% Indigenous, and the region is one of the country’s most underserved and impoverished. Some community members speak Spanish – the official language of Guatemala – but the dominant language is Q’eqchi’, a Mayan language also spoken in parts of Mexico and Belize. Faith runs deep in Alta Verapaz.

Cultural competence is the foundation of every successful humanitarian program, especially those that serve minority and/or marginalized groups. In Alta Verapaz, this starts with language.

At several of the rural primary schools that IsraAid partners with, few children and parents are fluent in Spanish. The consequences for their education can be devastating. Children cannot access the full range of academic and emotional support they need, leaving them at a much higher risk of dropping out. This heightens other vulnerabilities – exposing them to greater exposure to abuse and neglect, lack of access to nutrition monitoring and programs, and limited future livelihood.

That’s why IsraAid’s team always includes native Q’eqchi’ speakers. While much of the school curriculum is in Spanish, we can ensure that our catch-up education programs for children at the highest risk of dropping out are delivered in Q’eqchi’. So are the informal games and activities through which we provide emotional support and protection.

It’s so important to meet people where they are for them to benefit from these programs at all, and this extends beyond language. One training session for school parents’ councils was repeated the next day for government officials. The difference? My colleagues adapted the activities for the parents’ council to remove any need for literacy. By using pictures instead of words and substituting writing with speaking, IsraAid’s team made sure that everyone felt competent and included and could benefit from full participation. This is cultural competence in a society where many adults have not completed more than three years of primary education.

Perhaps the most poignant example for me was that every session I attended opened with a prayer. With heads bowed and hands clasped, we all stood respectfully for a few moments while a volunteer spoke. Sometimes the room was full of mothers – so many that they spilled out the door; sometimes they were teachers; sometimes government officials. In every case, their prayers always shared a common thread: “Lord, thank you for this opportunity… Everything we do is for our children, so please guide us to do it well. Amen.”

Certainly, these training sessions could occur without prayer. Individuals who wanted to pray could do so privately. But the cohesion and respect that comes from structurally incorporating and making space for these rituals hit me at the end of my week in Alta Verapaz.

I was standing on a balcony in rural Guatemala on Friday night. I had been unable to travel to a Chabad house before Shabbat started. In some ways, I felt incredibly alone. I sang Kabbalat Shabbat almost melancholically and terribly out of tune. But as I watched the sun set over Alta Verapaz and its communities, I also felt incredibly connected. We may not share a religion, but the importance and centrality of faith in our lives united me with so many people I met.

I was struck by the multitude of ways in which IsraAid Guatemala’s teams – many of them from the local community – worked to respect and incorporate the traditions, values, beliefs and experiences into every program. I thought about what it means, as a Jewish woman working for an Israeli aid group, to devote myself to accommodating the specific cultural context of remote communities. To respect their beliefs and traditions as I desire others to respect mine. It is not a simple case of adapting programs. The programs must be designed a priori with these groups aligned.

There are many practices in the humanitarian and philanthropic world that we do because we know they are effective, but often, through our own identities, traditions and personal experiences, we can find the deeper meaning of such practices and thus improve upon them. This is what forms the basis of cultural competence. This is what allows us to be trusted, accepted and impactful. This is how we use our unique beliefs, our diversity, to foster connection.

Hannah Sharron is a development officer at IsraAid, one of Israel’s leading nongovernmental humanitarian aid organizations.