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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Bridging cultures is part of giving humanitarian aid

By Mary Stamp

Opus Forum, GU 2014
Participants at the Opus Forum are challenged on cultural bridges.

As part of the Opus Prize process at Gonzaga University, a Sept. 16 panel of Gonzaga faculty led reflections on “Bridging Cultures: Intercultural Competence, Authentic Empathy and the Challenge of Accompaniment.”

Along with inspiring students by the example of humanitarians who help change lives, the Opus Prize process helps the campus and wider community consider how people help other people, and the need to bridge cultures to meet people where they are.

In introducing panelists, Rebecca Marquis, assistant professor in modern languages at Gonzaga, said the endeavor of humanitarian aid to change lives is more complex than it seems.

“Whenever we leave our home and travel to another place to work with others, we cross a bridge of cultural values, beliefs, practices and rules,” she said.  “The crossing can be beautiful as we look out at the new views, but it can be difficult to integrate ourselves into the newness.”

Using the bridge metaphor, she pointed out the importance of having the bridge anchored well, so each is dependent on the other and equally important.

She asked the speakers to look at how to build a solid footing for the cultural bridge that allows for supporting others and being supported.

“What is our role in international humanitarian work that asks us to interact with people who are culturally different?” she asked.

Speakers addressed dynamics of global ties and bridging cultures as humanitarians reach out to serve people.

“How is intercultural competence critical in the search for social justice?” Rebecca asked.

Josh Armstrong, director of Gonzaga’s comprehensive leadership program, is interested in developing intercultural competencies, global leadership, service learning, servant leadership, an ethic of accompaniment and experiential education that is transformational.  For eight summers, he has directed Gonzaga’s study abroad program in Zambezi, Zambia, which, he said, “always changes my life.”

James Hunter, associate professor of teaching English as a second language at Gonzaga for 17 years, is director of Gonzaga’s master’s in teaching English as a second language.  He has taught at Mukogawa Women’s University in Nishinomiya, Japan, at Abu Dhabi Women’s College in United Arab Emirates, and in Catalonia and the United Kingdom.  His travels include Hong Kong, Malaysia, Algeria, Ireland, China, Japan, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand and more. 

Joy Milos, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet from the Albany, N.Y., Province, is the Flannery professor in religious studies.  She has taught study abroad programs in Florence and London, and for several years took Gonzaga student groups on Habitat for Humanity International builds in rural Central Mexico.  She tries to broaden students’ cultural horizons and build their commitment to social justice.

Before taking students to Zambia, Josh interviews 30 to 40 students who want to make a difference in Africa.

“We are looking for people who will go to accompany people there, to honor people in their culture,” he said.  “We do not seek students who want to serve a charity, but want to come in mutual reciprocity; not to come to build homes, but to spend time in the community, and learn who the people are and what they want.”

Recently two engineering students spent five days asking people how they generate heat.  Then they helped them build brick stoves for their homes.

“There are power dynamics when students of privilege encounter people in need,” he said.  “There are cultural collisions if they miss each other.”

In Zambia, people ask about a person’s family and build relationship before setting about a task.

One example of a “cultural collision” occurred when Josh introduced students to the Luvale mukanda ceremony, an annual initiation ritual for eight-to-12-year-old boys being initiated into survival skills and sexual roles. 

As Gonzaga students participated in dances and observed the Makishi masked dancers, they began to view the experience critically from their own cultural lens. 

They questioned whether the dances instilled oppression of women and if the sexuality of the dances contributed to HIV and AIDS. However, the cultural mentors from the Zambezi community believed this ceremony was at the heart of their cultural beliefs.

Josh told of another experience.  He loves going on a morning run.  In the summer, he ran along the Zambeze River, enjoying the beauty of the African savannah.  He came to a swampy area and stopped, trying to decide if he should go back. 

A man in an oxcart came, trudged into the big puddle, came back, picked Josh up and dropped him on dry land. 

“The man noticed my need,” said Josh.  “He practiced accompaniment.

“I want students to know themselves when they go to Zambia, so they can learn about others and another culture,” he said.

He believes it’s important to develop an intercultural capacity to read people, understand their needs, be clear on their intentions, suspend judgment, give the benefit of the doubt, seek cultural mentors who will tell them if they do something that offends.

“Students need to see an individual as an individual, not think all people are alike,” Josh said.

James feels privileged to work with international students and to live in an intercultural community every day.  When he was growing up, his British father moved the family from London to Hong Kong to Malaysia.  James started life immersed in different cultures.  In third grade, he was in a French school. Then he was in a Benedictine school in England.

“To do social justice work, we need to leave our cultures.  Just to travel is not enough,” he said.  “We need to travel with open minds.”

This summer, after 17 years in the United States, James, whose wife is American, became a U.S. citizen. 

James said developing cultural competence entails awareness of one’s cultural rules and awareness that “we view experiences of others through our own worldview.”

After traveling or living abroad, he said, people start to understand different perspectives and begin to see through the eyes of others.

At first, international students experience “cultural dissonance,” or discomfort, and feel like two-year-olds. To understand other people and cultures, students need to be immersed in a language.  Then they can ask deeper questions and seek deeper interactions.

“It takes two years in another country and language to make friends,” he said.  “It takes hard work to gain multiple perspectives and understand problems in another culture.  The more empathy we have the better prepared we are to do social justice work.”

James listed some ways to bridge the cultural gap: study abroad, learn languages, cultural immersion and personal interaction with people from different cultures.  He also suggests that can happen through home stays, meeting refugees in Spokane or ESL conversation circles on campus with international students.

Joy told of a photo story in Life magazine 25 years ago.  Two women in their 80s were watching as a squalid housing project in South Chicago was being demolished.  Both had lived there all their lives. 

With tears in her eyes, one said, “It’s the end of my life.  My memories good and bad are in the building.” 

The other said, “Thanks be to God.  I’m out of that rat trap.  I’ve waited a lifetime to be free.”

When students enter another culture, Joy asks them to be aware of the “baggage” they bring, like the women, that they look at the same reality with different values.

Joy listed three Gonzaga values that invite growth in intercultural encounters:

Awareness is the main element of spiritual and personal growth. 

“If I am not aware, I am not reaching out, stretching and growing.  How aware are we of our own culture and values that make us who we are?” she asked. “If we are in a dominant culture, we may assume everyone looks at life as we do.  Are we aware of our biases, where they come from and how we act them out?

Every person has an inherent dignity and value. 

Gonzaga’s Catholic social teaching seeks to foster commitment to human dignity that assumes each person is made in the image and likeness of God, said Joy, pointing out that this assumption is a counter-cultural stance. 

Many in the society and world perceive some people as “the other.”  What voices or behaviors say some do not deserve to be treated as human beings? she asked. “Do we ever challenge our opinions of other people or cultures?”

Growth is about being open to be transformed. 

“We are all confronted with choices that have made us be who we are, ‘Aha’ moments when we look at ourselves and others differently,” said Joy, noting that the transformation Jesuit education seeks to instill is not once in a lifetime, but is to happen in all areas of life over and over. 

The hope is for education to open people to the world, to be aware of oppression and injustice, and to ask, “What will I do about it?”

“Accompaniment is presence with and for the other,” she said.

Joy believes that both exposure to diversity and global engagement transform people “to discover a bigger world within and around us.”

For information, call 313-6095. or email

Copyright © October 2014 - The Fig Tree