Seeking cultural competence, by 8-18 Media

Young people form clubs to learn about other cultures

Neil Murray, seventeen, of Marquette is determined to learn more about different cultures.
“With the world so interconnected as it is today, we have more and more contact with other cultures, and cities are more and more a mixing of culture,” said Murray, a senior at Marquette Senior High School. “We have to be able to get along with other cultures and be able to deal with them because each culture is going to be affecting another culture, and they’re going to be combined more and more as the world gets easier to travel.”
Murray is not alone among his peers in his quest for greater cultural awareness in the Upper Peninsula. He is one of about a dozen members of the Fellowship of the Phoenix, a youth group sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Marquette, with the purpose of increasing cultural awareness. The Marquette Senior High School Culture Club, another youth-led group, also formed in recent years for the same purpose.
A 2006 survey by the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development shows that only thirty-three percent of eighth, tenth and twelfth graders in Marquette and Alger Counties believe they have knowledge of, and comfort with, people of different cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Fellowship of the Phoenix
The idea for the Fellowship of the Phoenix came in response to September 11, 2001, said sixteen-year-old cofounder Anna Burnett, a senior at Marquette Senior High School.
“My mom and a friend of mine came up with the idea the summer of 2002,” Burnett said. “The idea was the Phoenix rising out of the ashes. My friends and I are big Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings geeks, so it was the Order of the Phoenix and Fellowship of the Rings. So Fellowship of the Phoenix was a group that would do things to combat the kind of political and social atmosphere that created a society in which those attacks could happen.”
Murray, who has been involved in the group for almost a year, enjoys the activities.
“The group does various service activities where we fundraise to help charitable foundations,” he said. “And then we do fun things where the group just gets to know each other and meet other students from foreign countries or people from foreign countries with learning about their cultures and experiencing different cultural aspects from those people.”
Murray has learned the most about culture by interacting with exchange students who attend his school and are in the group.
“I’ve probably gotten more of a first-person relation to different cultures from exchange students,” he said. “It’s more on a personal level instead of learning about it in a textbook or in school or from a book at the library. You’re getting it from person-to-person and experiencing it directly.”

MSHS Culture Club
The MSHS Culture Club was started two years ago by recent graduates Anne West, Soo Smit and Ellen Schneeberger.
“We were kind of frustrated with our class opportunities for cultural learning because you can take a half year course for cultural geography, but some of us can’t even take that because of the way the schedule works out,” West said. “So we just wanted to form our own club for learning about cultural experiences.”
The club takes part in a variety of intercultural activities.
“We’ve had speakers come in from around the community,” West said. “We’ve watched foreign films. We’ll have a food day where we bring in cultural dishes. This year we’ve gotten a little more into volunteering around the community. In honor of Martin Luther King, we read to fourth graders at Graveraet Intermediate School. And we also volunteered at the Learning to Walk Together Powwow.”
In addition to learning about international culture, members of the Culture Club have learned more about their own cultural heritage.
“Last year, we had a traditional food day in which we made dishes that we use in our families or in our homes, so that was more like where you come from,” Smit said.
Culture Club members point out that Northern Michigan University is a good, though sometimes underutilized, source of cultural enrichment.
“I think they bring a lot to the community in terms of expanding our cultural awareness,” West said.
“It’s a question of actually seeking it out though, because a lot of people don’t take the opportunity,” Schneeberger said.

Why is cultural awareness important?
“I think a lot of the problems in the world are about not respecting because you don’t understand,” Smit said. “I think that when kids become more culturally aware, they’ll take that into their adult lives and have a greater respect for different cultures, and that will lead into good things.”
Smit believes cultural awareness brings out another side to current issues such as the war in Iraq.
“You hear the U.S. troop casualty count a lot and you feel very emotional about it, but then you also don’t hear about the Iraqi casualties, and they’re people, too, and they have wives and husbands and daughters and sons,” she said. “You don’t hear about that as much. And becoming more culturally aware you start thinking about both sides of issues instead of what you think is correct.”
Learning about culture has significantly impacted Smit’s life.
“You can take different lessons you learn from each different culture and maybe not directly apply it to your life, but it helps you become a more well-rounded person, which will lead to a deeper understanding of different situations, different things that happen politically, different current events,” she said.
Murray said if more kids were culturally aware, it would improve our country’s relations with the world.
“I think it would allow us to be more sensitive to the way that other nations feel, especially the Middle Eastern nations which have a lot of anti-U.S. feeling,” Murray said. “If we understood them better we could patch that relationship up more.”
Murray would like to change America’s outlook toward other cultures.
“We’re very jingoistic and seem to focus more on our culture and therefore it causes us to be sheltered about other people’s cultures, and sometimes irreverent,” he said.
Murray said he has learned a lot in the last year as a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix, but one lesson is most prominent in his mind.
“Culture is similar all around the world,” he said. “We don’t have all that many differences and we have a whole bunch of similarities.”
—8-18 Media

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Andrew LaCombe, seventeen, with contributions from Dennis Bao, ten; Beth Cipriano, twelve; Maggie Guter, nine, and Eric Wagner, thirteen.

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