NCFY Reports

Using Culture to Say, ‘Violence Is Never Okay’

Silhouette of a group of youth standing together.

When Jessica Nunan, interim executive director of Caminar Latino in Atlanta, Georgia, asked the high-risk young people in her relationship violence prevention group whether Latinos experienced violence differently than other racial and ethnic groups, they considered her question thoughtfully and answered in a word.


They didn’t think violence was more common or more accepted among Latinos. And the reasons they saw for the violence—alcohol and money—were often the same for Latinos and their non-Latino peers.

“They said that culture didn’t really matter,” Nunan says. “That violence affects all populations equally.”

While stereotypes viewing some groups as more violent than others can hamper violence prevention, experts say that culture does matter when teaching young people to recognize and avoid relationship violence. Providing culturally competent interventions ensures that runaway and homeless young people get the strongest possible message that violence—whether physical, emotional, or sexual—is never okay.

Some tips for providing culturally competent care:

Find out who you are serving. Demographic information is key to tailoring interventions to the racial and ethnic groups prevalent in your community.

Avoid stereotyping. Studies show that no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group is necessarily more violent than any other. Chris Cox, director of Hoyleton Youth and Family Services in Hoyleton, Illinois, was surprised to find a similar number of young people reporting relationship violence in all of the communities in which his agency conducted focus groups. As a result, his agency developed a countywide intervention.

Focus on the positive. “We’ve found that it is better to work from an asset-based approach,” says Rosie Hidalgo, director of Policy and Research for the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence. “It is so important to recognize the resiliency within cultures, not what is wrong with a cultural viewpoint.” For example, spirituality within the African American community can be harnessed to encourage respectful relationships. Machismo, which is often associated with chauvinism and violence in Latino culture, can also be seen and taught as a man’s obligation to protect women and children.

Build trust. “Cultural competency is the same thing as doing good advocacy,” says Chic Dabby, director of the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. “To be an effective advocate, you have to spend time building the relationships.” For many cultures, that means waiting for several meetings to pass before bringing up violence issues. It can also mean shaking lots of hands, inquiring about family members, and sharing cups of coffee or tea.

Photograph of a young man sitting with his chin on his hands.Recognize that there are differences within racial and ethnic groups.

Within each racial or ethnic group, there are different nationalities and socioeconomic classes, different languages and English proficiencies, and different spiritual beliefs. Recent immigrants may have different perspectives on relationship violence than acculturated or U.S.-born young people.

Image of a young man facing the camera with his arms folded.Consider how the diversity or homogeneity of the group will affect communication. For example, the bilingual group of young people at Caminar Latino can speak in “Spanglish,” which makes it easier for youth with different language proficiencies to talk through issues comfortably. In that case, shared culture can bridge differences. But with a topic as sensitive as relationship violence, cultural norms can also impede open communication. In some Asian communities, Dabby says, victim-blaming can be so strong that young people may not open up around other young people from their neighborhood and may prefer to share their concerns in anonymous forums.

Have facilitators who know the culture. The young people at Caminar Latino say it’s not a must, but they prefer to have a facilitator who already understands where they are coming from. “It makes it easier when they are talking about their lives to not have to explain things,” Nunan says.

Get youth involved in developing or adapting curricula specifically for themselves and their peers. At the Hawaii Youth Services Network in Honolulu, an existing dating violence curriculum was adapted to include role plays and other activities targeted to runaway and homeless youth in the community.

Understand the role of family in the cultures of the young people you serve. Family can play both negative and positive roles in young people’s lives. In Latino and African-American communities, extended family and close friends can serve as strong protective forces. In her work with the Asian-American community, Dabby has found that some family members and close friends may hurt more than they can help. “It’s not necessarily protective to go to their parents,” she says. “So, who are their allies? A relative? An aunt? Another family member? A young teen who has an elder sister? You need to work on identifying who would be a confidant.

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