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NH: City seeks its inner cultural awareness

Monday, February 02, 2009

Ask yourself and respond honestly: Are you culturally competent?

No need to be ashamed if you don't even know what the term "cultural competence" means. Many people are not familiar with it, said Lynn Clowes, a cultural competency manager at New Hampshire Minority Health Coalition, during a recent seminar on cultural integration at Nashua City Hall.

Someone is culturally competent when he's alert and responsive to differences in attitudes, behaviors, beliefs and values. This concept works best when it's a two-way street, when residents are respectful to newcomers and, likewise, newcomers are respectful to residents. When coming to the U.S., immigrants and refugees are expected to assimilate the local culture, too.

The city's Division of Public Health and Community Services is investing in the Health and Wellness Immigrant Integration, an initiative that promotes collaboration between municipal, social and health-care agencies to better serve newly arrived immigrant and refugees.

Medical field professionals are at the forefront of cultural sensibility. Hospitals and clinics receive cultural competence training and get the support of language interpreters to avoid misunderstandings that can cost lives.

A situation shared by Mariellen Durso, executive director of Nashua Community Health Center, highlights how intolerance is still a reality.

"An American patient complained to one of our bilingual assistants that 'only an English-speaking person would be able to resolve the case in question,' " Durso said.

Still, some can be honestly ignorant to cultural differences.

"For example, in some cultures when the police pull you over, the driver gets out of the car. Here in the U.S., such a behavior would be seen by the police as threatening and can be dangerous," said Elena Acosta, an outreach coordinator at the Parent Information and Resource Center (NHPIRC).

For Germano Martins, community relations manager at the state's Department of Health and Human Services, cultural competence is not a stage that once you achieve it, you have it forever.

"It is instead fluid, a learning experience where the joy is in the journey," he said.

Although Martins acknowledges the need for cultural competence training, he believes New Hampshire has a rich history of cultural diversity.

"We are a great example of a people from different cultures, accepting of each other, getting along well and successfully working together."

At the cultural integration seminar, representatives from two immigrant cultures showcased their diverse backgrounds and basic needs.

"In terms of culture, Brazilians are very similar to Americans," said Gilson Souza, pastor at the Grace Fellowship church, which donated $2,000 to support the city's efforts. "But we still lack access to health-care services and are not as integrated as we could be," Souza added.

Through an English translator, Daniel Nyabenda, a Burundi refugee who arrived in Nashua a year ago, confirmed that language remains a major barrier to assimilation, and advocated for better housing.

"We're not used to paying rent. In my country every land was the people's land," said Nyabenda

To better understand Nyabenda's position, readers should know that he's lived in refugee camps for his entire life.

"When you isolate a newly arrived African family from their own people, it's the same as turning them into a refugee in the middle of the first world," said Samba Halkose, a public school teacher and native of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The debate about cultural competence in Nashua has just begun. Organizers are willing to discuss everything, from common misunderstandings, such as that not all Latinos speak Spanish, or that among those who do speak Spanish there is a diverse cultural identity, up until how to spot the environment that breeds hate crimes.

"By strengthening the coordination of services provided in the city we can help newcomers navigate the many systems, and improve the culturally and linguistically appropriate services," said Bobbie Bagley, manager of the Community Health Department.

The Health and Wellness Immigrant Integration initiative is funded by a $134,000 grant from the Endowment for Health, a foundation born in 1999 out of the sale of non-profit Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Hampshire to for-profit Anthem Insurance Companies.

In one of the 90 seminars Lynn Clowes teaches per year, she explains that Americans and newcomers show three levels of cultural interaction: avoidance, tolerance and acceptance.

But the good news, she said, is that today many Americans, ranging from age 30 to 60, are looking for ways to improving cross-cultural communication, something they were not exposed to in their youth.

The new city initiative holds meetings, open to the public, every third Wednesday of the month, at City Hall's auditorium on the third floor, at 8:30 a.m.

The next cultural competence trainings will be held March 18 and May 20.

Eduardo A. de Oliveira is a columnist for The Telegraph. Originally from Brazil, Eduardo is a Nashua resident. His column will appear every other Monday on the front page of The Telegraph.

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