INDIAN DAY SCHOOLS COMMUNITY SUPPORT: Bridging Cultural Differences with Intercultural Empathy

Drawing from their experiences on the Indian Day School Community Support Program, Argyle team members share what helps create team synergy that transcends cultural backgrounds, age, working styles and experiences, and nurtures the right mindset for their work.

In supporting Indigenous people and communities following their historic settlements with the Government of Canada, one of a communicator’s most critical capabilities is intercultural empathy.

It’s essential when adopting a trauma-informed approach to support Indigenous people, and even more valuable when a communications team has a diversity of ages, cultural backgrounds and both personal and professional experiences. Without it, the risks of miscommunication or insensitivity are high – with unacceptable consequences for the audience.

But what is intercultural empathy? We define it as the ability to understand experiences of people from different cultures. It means engaging with the world through the lens of someone with a cultural background different from ours. It means being aware of the communicator’s own cultural beliefs, values, and perceptions, as well as those of the person across the table.

Infusing an Indigenous worldview

In developing our community support program, we took a relational approach – one that sought to bridge the intercultural gaps that could affect its success. Our starting point was to immerse ourselves in the Indigenous worldview.

“A big part of my role was to create a strategy to ground the team. It was important to me to ground Indigenous knowledge in our program and how we do things.,” explains Krystal Summers, the Urban Community Support Lead. That’s how the Mishomis teachings became the guiding principles for the program – and for our team of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff.

“The Mishomis teachings are not meant to be pan-Indigenous,” says Krystal. “These values are for everyone.” Team members were onboarded through coursework on Indigenous history, treaties, the Indian Act, allyship, colonization’s impacts on Indigenous communities, inter-generational trauma, Indigenous relationship building, and San’yas Cultural Safety.

Culture’s influence on perception

While a comprehensive onboarding set our foundation, intercultural empathy is tapped daily in our team collaboration. “Everyone processes things differently and learns differently. Culture and social environment influence our perspectives,” explains Nilou Alizadeh, Argyle’s Regional Consultant and Claims Assistants Manager.

Getting to know each of the claims assistants helped Nilou understand their perspectives, and what each of them needs to succeed. She tries to find out how her teammates like to receive feedback and in what setting. “I also inform others on how I like to receive information. If they don’t know that, there’s room for misunderstanding,” says Nilou, adding that working remotely required her to be more conscious of building rapport with her team. “In virtual settings, you have to be open and share what is going on your life, as it can be hard to gauge feelings on a Zoom call.”

Building a support system in the workplace

As we grow and deepen our understanding of Indigenous communities, we also try to ground the team in a supportive foundation. It was an Indigenous advisor who supported Krystal and gave her the confidence she needed to do well in her role. The advisor was a mentor and helped her navigate the workplace.

“It’s really important to have leaders who can be champions supporting Indigenous employees. Leadership needs to understand Indigenous history and contemporary impact, and what it means to be an ally,” says Krystal. She adds that HR policies play an important role in building a supportive and inclusive workplace. “If I am sharing that I need time to practice my traditions, my supervisor needs to understand the cultural value of this and have a conversation with HR to support me,” explains Krystal.

Understanding intercultural empathy is one thing; practising it is another. We are still on a learning curve when it comes to openness, curiosity, suspension of judgment, and patience. The starting point is a focus on relationships – and on acknowledging and understanding our differences.

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