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by Alvaro Moreno

WHEN JOSE CAME TO CANADA, he was eager to make new friends. He would do his best to be friendly and polite with everyone, just like in his hometown back in Central America. However, Canadians seemed so cold and distant, like his neighbour John, who always seemed to be in a hurry and never wanted to stop for a conversation. José felt very lonely and alienated.

John could not understand why this guy José had to be so friendly. He felt especially annoyed when José would shake his hand so long and so hard, and stood so close to him when talking. John felt so uncomfortable sometimes that he would pretend he was in a hurry, and leave.

One day, José heard about volunteering as a way of meeting new people and practising English skills. As part of the orientation and training, he attended a workshop on diversity awareness. Small world; his neighbour John was also interested in volun- teering with this environmental organization, and he was at the workshop too.

During the workshop John and José had a chance to gain some awareness of their own values and norms. They began to understand their customs and eventually, they got to know each other better. They didn't become best friends, but this experience helped both of them learn to overcome communication barriers. They realized they had values and attitudes deeply rooted in their upbringing and life experience that affect the way they relate to people of different social, cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Now John and José can look at each other without fear or anxiety.

An important step in the struggle against racism in the non-profit sector started in 1996. Volunteer Victoria, in cooperation with the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, began offering training and consultation in diversity awareness and cross-cultural communication to all volunteer organizations in Victoria. More than 50 organi- zations participated and some are in the process of introducing new policies and practices in their services, in order to be more inclusive.

Racism has many expressions in our community, and therefore, anti-racism work requires a great deal of creativity in order to effectively address each situation. Our approach to anti-racism education starts from the premises that individual values and attitudes are deeply enforced by society, and that we need to take personal responsibility for our own actions. We use popular education methodologies that make workshop participants feel free to openly share their experiences and knowledge in a safe and comfortable environment. A variety of experiential (and fun) activities during the workshops encourage people to examine their own attitudes and norms, and become more aware of their social behaviours.

This participatory learning usually brings more commitment for change at the community level, a very important commitment in the struggle against racism. Promoting diversity awareness and cross-cultural communication skills in the Victoria non-profit sector is a small but important step in the long struggle against racism in our community.

Alvaro Moreno has worked with NGO's in Mexico, Central America, and Canada doing community development, popular education, and education around human rights and diversity awareness.

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