Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Value of Cultural Brokers

In Rome, the opening dinner was hosted by the Council for the United States and Italy, and featured a talk by Dennis Redmont, the Head of Communications, Media, and Develoment. Mr. Redmond is an American who has lived and worked in Italy for a long time.

That was very significant. As an American, he knows that we, the Americans, get most of our information about Italians from TV and movies and the stereotypes of Italian-Americans. I may be oversimplifying, but the point is that he is bicultural, shares our cultural background and perspective, and was best able to explain Italy to us in terms that we Americans would understand.

Sometimes, in our meetings, the Italian presenter would talk in depth about European history that I had learned once but forgotten a long time ago. They assumed we knew more about them than we did.

They would say "As you know, in year..... this thing happened and then ......." and I would think "Actually, I don't know anything about that thing in that year. We didn't learn that in world history. And I'm an international relations major! But in the US, if it didn't impact America, generally we didn't learn it." I needed a bicultural broker.

That resonated with me because that's what we do at Refugee Women's Network. We are very deliberate in working with refugee and immigrant women to become the bridge between new arrivals and the larger American society. For example, when new Somali refugees and immigrants need to figure out something about American culture and society, they will ask other Somalis for advice because they share a cultural affinity. That's why ethnic self-help groups and ethnic enclaves are crucial in helping new Americans become integrated.

Just pronouncing names and places in an American accent was helpful. Our Italian city coordinator was Flavia Liberati, an Italian born and raised. She would say "We're going to the Scuderie del Quirinale museum."

What I heard was "We're going to the scuderiedelquirinalemuseum." It was one long unintelligible word to me because she said it in Italian. Mr. Redmont would say "We're going to the Skooderry del Kwerinall museum." He said it in American and then I understood.

By the way, the Scuderie del Quirinale used to be the stables for the pope's horses. It had a huge staircase with shallow steps so the horses could walk up to the next floor. It now is an art museum. We had a presentation about art as an economic asset for the city. Then we had a guided tour of their Albrecht Durer exhibit. He was a German printmaker, painter, and sculpter who studied in Italy over the years.

No comments: