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Principles for Promoting Inter-Group Relations Among Adolescents Through Group Work

Group work is a wonderful way of reducing prejudice and bigotry, promoting inter-group relations and enhancing ethnic group identity in adolescence. With its emphasis on mutual exploration and discovery, group work is very well suited to address these issues. The following are seven principles for addressing diversity in group work with adolescents. The principles may also be easily adapted for confronting other forms of diversity in groups (e.g., religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability).

  1. Address diversity as a normative adolescent issue in the group. Encourage interaction about group identity, prejudice and inter-group relations as a normal part of adolescent development and not only in reaction to emergent conflicts or crises.
  2. Help the group to tune in to ethnically and racially charged events impacting on youth. This includes an awareness of local, national and international events with racial–ethnic overtones (e.g., September 11th terrorist attack on America; defacing of synagogues, churches and other religious institutions; 2008 attack and murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcello Lucero in Suffolk County, N.Y. by a seven teenagers). When such stories dominate the media and youth’s consciousness, stereotyping and polarization are often reinforced. A healthy and spirited exchange of ideas and opinions about controversial subjects in a safe environment enables young people to test their beliefs and attitudes, to practice listening to others’ views, to respectfully express differences and to discover common ground.
  3. Confront prejudice, stereotyping and oppression in the here-and-now of the group and workplace. Confront issues such as stereotyping and the use of racial/ethnic slurs as they arise in the here-and-now of the group. Facilitative confrontation involves addressing issues and problems in a direct, caring and forthright manner. When the group or workplace replicates the oppressive or prejudicial behavior of society, the practitioner must skillfully intervene to raise consciousness, stimulate interaction, foster understanding and motivate change.
  4. Use cultural self-awareness to model effective cross-cultural relationships. Tune in to personal feelings, experiences, attitudes and values related to one’s own group identity and views about different groups. Model respectful and effective cross-cultural relationships in the group and workplace. This is essential in post-9/11 America when profiling people of middle eastern descent as terrorists or as sympathetic to terrorists has been expressed more openly among youths and adults.
  5. Promote understanding and respect for the world view and values of culturally different members. Help group members to develop, if not an emotional affinity with different ethnic and racial groups, a cognitive empathy and cultural sensitivity that can lead to a deeper understanding of culturally different group members. This may be developed through a combination of self-awareness, eradication of stereotypes and unsubstantiated views and attainment of objective information about and real interaction with members of a particular cultural group.
  6. Tune in to the differential experiences of ethnic group members within their own particular cultures. Help group members to understand the different experiences of members of ethnic groups that may customarily be perceived through an undifferentiated lens (i.e., “They’re all the same”). In post-9/11 America, youths of middle eastern descent are more likely to be taunted with the label “terrorist.” So fearful was one Muslim mother, that she dyed her children’s hair a lighter color to prevent them from being profiled as “kin of terrorists.”
  7. Open pathways for intercultural communication and socialization. In addition to advancing an understanding of cultural differences, reach for commonalties experienced among adolescents across cultures to encourage inter-group pathways for relating. For example, it is not uncommon for groups of culturally different adolescent group members to discover some common ground in their experiences of negotiating with parents or other authority figures for greater freedom and more privileges.

In conclusion, a good group experience can provide adolescents with a good opportunity to explore the typically taboo areas of race and ethnicity, exposing deeply ingrained or loosely formed beliefs and attitudes. The mature group, through the development of its own history and culture, becomes a special frame of reference for its members, influencing their perceptions and behavior in the world outside of the group.

Group work is a special arena in which the problems of diversity may be confronted openly, honestly and safely where the richness of diversity can be celebrated.

Andrew Malekoff, LCSW, CASAC, is Executive Director of North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, New York and author of the popular textbook Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice (New York: Guilford Press).

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