“Every encounter is an intercultural experience”: Linking Social Justice and Intercultural Communication

When I attended the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) I was excited to meet likeminded people from all over the world and to gain perspective on the sheer necessity of intercultural learning (ICL) in every area of life. Although I learnt a lot in this course I still feel like a beginner in so many ways (but conscious incompetence is a step up from unconscious incompetence, right?). I suppose the beauty of intercultural learning is that the process is ongoing; you can never quite know it all. SIIC exposed me to so many knowledgeable and fascinating people who have such a hunger to always know more about intercultural learning, as both a field of study, but also life lessons to live by. And I think I caught the interculturalist bug while I was there!

I am still processing what I experienced in Kathryn Sorrells’ and Amer Ahmed’s classes. To give you background into the kind of teachers we were blessed with at SIIC, Kathryn is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge, and she teaches Intercultural Communication, Performance, Language and Cultural Studies, Feminist Theory, Gender and Communication and Global Peace and Justice. Amer is a scholar, diversity consultant, social justice educator, hip-hop activist and the Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at UMass Amherst. And I could go on!

Linking Social Justice and Intercultural Communication” is a course designed to delve deeper into the dimensions of intercultural learning by becoming aware of the cultural intersections that make up societies and individuals. A lot of what we teach in AFS is about knowing, understanding, acknowledging and adapting to the differences between dominant cultures. Dominant cultures hold most power and that are most widespread and influential within a society – they are the “norm” as it were. Our expertise stems from student exchange and therefore often the “obvious” intercultural experience that happens when two national cultures meet. We tend to focus much less on the cultures or identities that aren’t of the majority. But people just aren’t that simple, power and privilege are always at play.

This course opened my eyes to being more aware of the non-dominant cultures and identities within my own society and the importance of leveraging these cultures in my volunteer work in AFS. AFS is already an accepting and wonderful organisation, trying to foster change and world peace through intercultural learning – and we are doing great work! But what Kathryn and Amer taught me is that there is room to go further and facilitate greater change to the status quo by applying a social justice lens to our work and focussing on what is around us, not just the interactions between persons of different countries.

Gender, race, indigenous status, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and wealth empower some and disempower others. As volunteers, if we are hyper aware of this, as well as our own privilege, we can use our relative positions of power to:

  • inform our practice (i.e. workshops, weekends, support cases, host family interactions), and,
  • leverage those who are from non-dominant identities.

It is great that we can use the tools we already have – our intercultural learning models are perfectly suited to tackle issues of social injustice, because they are issues of culture! Take our infamous iceberg model of culture for example. We can break down the issues of social justice that we face or see on a daily basis. Scenarios of gender discrimination, for example, can be broken down to understand the cultural backgrounds and values of the people involved.

Australia is a multicultural society and AFS Australia celebrates this. We run workshops on Aussie culture that create an awareness of the fact that not all our Aussies were born in Australia or have parents or grandparents from Australia. But we can go further than this because we Aussies are more than just multicultural in race, ethnicity or linguistic grouping. We are a multiplicity of the categories mentioned above.

Giving voice to these identities by acknowledging them in our practice (i.e. our workshops, or in our activities) will empower these individuals and create a safer, more open space where AFS' intercultural learning message can thrive in our modern world. Such changes can be modest. For example, a simple introduction in a group session where I also explain which pronouns I go by (i.e. "she" and "her") allows for others in the group to do the same too. 

We are all learners, but we are also all teachers. We can learn so much from another person regardless of their age, as every individual is made up of a wealth of identities – and they aren’t always the dominant “white, heterosexual, cisgendered (identifying as the biological sex to which you were born)” version of reality. Our cultural makeup is multifaceted meaning every encounter is an intercultural experience.

A complete overhaul of how we run things in AFS does not need to happen, but let's use our platform in a more inclusive way that considers power play and non-dominant identities. We tend to be blinded by the fact that "the norm" for us is the status quo, because we are usually the ones benefitting from the current system. Allowing for dialogue and further inclusivity will foster change and create volunteers adapted to the modern world who can understand social injustices at home and abroad. We can be further ambassadors for social justice and peace by standing with and giving voice to non-dominant identities all over the world. And the first step is awareness.

 

 

This blog post was written by  of AFS Australia. She is a volunteer, National Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, and a Director on the Board of AFS Australia.