Cultural Collaboration Trainings with Host Community Members: Lessons Learned in Colombia
As the Field Director for WorldTeach in Colombia, I will spend about fifty days this year facilitating trainings for international volunteers who teach English and live with a host family in communities across the country. Like many thoughtful international volunteer organizations, our program includes an orientation, mid-service, and end-of-service conference for volunteers. These trainings include practical topics like safety and English teaching preparation, but also dedicate significant time to cultural preparation and self-reflection. We believe that this kind of programming helps volunteers to be more successful in co-teaching alongside a Colombian English teacher and living with a host family. Our program also aims to create an experience where volunteers become more self-aware and gain intercultural collaboration skills.
As effort, time, and money are spent on this high quality programming for volunteers, I have recently asked myself the question-what about the host communities? They too will experience a year living or working alongside someone from a completely different culture and presumably could also benefit from cultural preparation and the opportunity for self-reflection. After five years working with community organizations hosting volunteers, my experience suggests- the greatest impact international volunteer programs have on a host community are the skills and mindsets learned through intercultural collaboration – for volunteers and hosts. (For research supporting my experience, see the International Forum for Development Report, “Measuring and Conveying the Added Value of International Volunteering”). And in a world that is becoming more interconnected each day, these skills are invaluable.
For these reasons, I see a great opportunity, and moreover responsibility, for global service learning practitioners to offer thoughtful cultural training for both volunteers and host community members. This year, WorldTeach Colombia, in cooperation with our in-country partner, Volunteers Colombia, has initiated several intercultural collaboration trainings with community members, including one training with host families and two trainings with different groups of Colombian teachers. The goal of this programming has been to give host community members the opportunity to think critically about cultural values: their own values, values that are different from their own, and what happens when these differing values come into conflict.
Two main challenges we faced in facilitating the trainings were: creating a session which would engage Colombian teachers and host families and gaining participation from community members. Here I offer what has worked well to address each of these challenges.
Engaging Community Members
I am fascinated by the theory behind cultural communication and cultural values, but this is not everyone’s passion. If I were to talk about the theory behind Kohls’ American Values, I would lose a lot of the participants (Kohls, 1984). Therefore, creating a training that host community members would find useful required a lot of preparation.
What has worked: Co-development, Co-participation, Multiple Languages, and Engaging Activities
Involving community members in development of the training
My co-worker from WorldTeach’s local partner organization, Volunteers Colombia, assisted with the creation of the training. She herself a Colombian, and a former teacher in Colombian public schools, gave her input on what activities and discussion topics would engage Colombian teachers and host families.
Getting community members and international volunteers in the same room
The trainings included both international volunteers and host community members participating together. This was powerful as it prompted real discussion, and allowed those coming from differing cultural values to explain why they feel the way they do.
Facilitating in both the local language and English
We facilitated the first training with co-teachers only in Spanish, as we thought the local language was most appropriate for a session aimed at engaging the host community. However, this resulted in a lack of participation from the international volunteers. Even though most of the volunteers speak Spanish and the Colombian English teachers speak English, when we led the second session in both English and Spanish many people felt more comfortable participating and expressing opinions in their native language.
Making it relevant
It was important that community members could relate the material to their own lives in a very direct way. Our training included a brief introduction to the cultural iceberg theory, providing a visual aid for exploring the reality that some cultural values are visible and others are hidden (Hall, 1976). We then gave the opportunity for participants to draw and label their personal cultural iceberg, which encouraged very direct self-reflection. And the focus of the session was a meaningful discussion around cultural values, which was prompted by case studies of real situations from our program in which international volunteers and co-teachers or host families came into conflict due to different cultural norms.
Our host community members are busy! They are working full-time jobs and supporting families, and many do not have a lot of free time to participate in an intercultural training session. We had to take this into consideration when developing trainings.
What has worked: Locally Led Recruitment, Quality over Length, and Fiestas
Enlisting support from a respected local community member
The invitation for the training with Colombian co-teachers was sent by the Secretary of Education to the school principals and co-teachers. Attendance was very high, with at least one teacher attending from each of the ten or so schools.
Focusing on quality and not length
The host family training was a half hour session as part of a larger farewell event for volunteers. In this short amount of time, we engaged in a thoughtful discussion with a group of seven volunteers and nine host family members
Making it a fun event
Everyone loves a party. The host family training also included silly icebreakers, sharing favorite moments from the year, pizza, and a presentation of certificates and flowers to the families from the volunteers.
After this first trial of trainings with host community members, I am left with many fascinating questions. Is this kind of self-reflective cultural training actually useful? Does it make communication with international volunteers easier? Does it allow for greater levels of self-awareness and facilitate intercultural collaboration skills? These questions are clearly difficult to answer, especially after only one training session, and are something that I would like to look into more specifically in the future. However, through the engaged participation, dialogue, and questions during the trainings, it is clear that we achieved the goal of giving host community members the space to think critically about cultural values: both their own and those that are different from their own. And I am happy to start here.
In the future, I want to challenge myself to think about ways to include host community members into training and self-reflection whenever we do this with volunteers. And I am very interested to know what other global service learning practitioners are doing in the area of cultural trainings with host community members. What are your challenges and what is working for you?
Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor Books.
Kohls, R. (1984). The Values Americans Live by. Meridian House International.
Caitlin Ferrarini is currently the Field Director for WorldTeach in Colombia. She holds a masters degree in Higher Education Administration from Boston College. For the past five years, Caitlin has worked in the field of global service learning in the United States and Colombia. Caitlin’s professional passion is to create meaningful intercultural immersion experiences for both volunteers and host communities.
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