how can i advise a youth-mentorship organization to be sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of its young participants and their parents?
January 14, 2007 4:09 PM   Subscribe

how can i advise a youth-mentorship organization to be sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of its young participants and their parents? this Q applies to a very diverse group of kids. the issues i've noticed so far have specifically affected the muslim kids.

i work with a wonderful program that involves kids of varying faiths- definitely muslim and hindi, and i don't know what else- it's hard to say by guessing, and i don't want to ask the kids. i know there are kids from various african countries, including somalia and ethiopia, the west indies, the middle east, asia, southeast asia.... etc. this is in toronto, if that gives any clue as to how mixed this bunch is. there are relatively few white kids, and lots of first-generation kids and immigrants. the kids range from 8-14 years old.

the program is non-denominational, and organized by pretty secular people. i've observed some practices i suspect are inconsiderate to the religious kids- scheduling events on, or the morning after Eid, for instance, or serving pepperoni pizza for lunch. many of the kids and their parents are clearly uncomfortable making demands, and instead try to be accomodating (for instance, i saw a kid ask if the cheese contained rennet, and, getting no good answer, she only ate broccoli and fruit instead).

i would like the organization to be more sensitive to any relevant concerns, and i have no qualms about tactfully pointing out some of these issues- but i'd like to provide constructive suggestions when i do so. i'm specifically thinking about food and scheduling, but am very curious about other concerns i may not have thought of.

here's a quick rundown of the program:

lasts the duration of the school year. involves some saturday full-day activities (which are scheduled months in advance) and some phone activities (once a week for about 25 mins., flixible scheduling).
the kids all attend co-ed toronto-area public schools.
they wear their own clothes, with large program t-shirts overtop.
they are served bottled water, juice and milk in cartons, pizza (veggie, pepperoni, chicken, hawaiian) from a sponsor (pizza pizza, i think), fruit salad, veggies and dip, packaged granola bars and fruit snacks, and grocery store cookies (caramel, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, M&M). the pizza is served by the latex-gloved hands of volunteer servers- so their gloves touch all varieties of pizza.
the authority figures are all adults, and all clearly jewish or christian-ish. although they are kind, i can see how a kid would be intimidated to make a religious request.

my question:
what can i suggest that will benefit these kids from now til may, and then to benefit all the kids forever after?
specifically, when are the religious holidays we'll need to schedule around?
how will we know when these fall in subsequent years?
any foods to try, or avoid?
things to find out about the foods we serve, so as to be able to answer questions?
is there anything i'm not thinking of?

my caveat:
please, no wrist-slapping here- i genuinely want to help, and am being reductive only so i can ask an answerable Q that doesn't drown in specifics (although, it's a pretty long Q, so i guess i failed there). also, please go easy on the program itself- they are *great*, and are doing incredible work with these kids. i'm 100% sure that the kids net way more benefit out of it than any non-denominational gaffe might cost them. besides, all mis-steps are due to ignorance, not insensitivity, and i know that if i suggest concrete changes, that they'll really try to implement them.

thanks in advance for your advice!
posted by twistofrhyme to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You may need to know if meats (or other foods) are halal or kosher, and if other foods involve animal products - this might require some careful reading on the labels. The vendor/sponsor might be able to tell you about the pizza, but don't be at all surprised it they can't. Once you find out, you can maybe make labels or tags to go in front of the dishes/boxes, etc. It might be a good idea to go easy on the pork, at least - it sounds like you'll have a large number of kids who can't eat that.

As to the holidays, there should be some good, comprehensive calendars available that show them. However, many cultures have holidays that move (based on lunar years), so you'll probably just have to look to see when they fall again.

I know you've said you don't want to ask the kids, but is there a possibility that you have an informational form for the kid to fill out? The kind of thing with emergency contact info? Could you add a section for dietary restrictions and/or food allergies? Because that last might be good to know, anyway.
posted by dilettante at 4:30 PM on January 14, 2007

Best answer: Pizza Pizza has a very helpful FAQ:

Does your cheese contain added animal by-products (rennet, pepsin or animal-derived lipase)?
• The mozzarella, parmesan, four cheese blend and feta cheeses do not contain rennet or pepsin. Instead a biosynthesized or microbial enzyme is used.
posted by zamboni at 4:33 PM on January 14, 2007

I heard on the radio that some Muslim groups are trying to schedule holidays like Ramadan more regularly (ie, not rely on a person looking at the moon, I think). You might inquire at the local mosque what authority is in charge of when they celebrate the major holidays, and then ask about obtaining a calendar. That would at least help with the scheduling conflicts.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:44 PM on January 14, 2007

Perhaps you could bring the issue up to one of the organizers in the form of a story,

"Hey, Steve. The other day I was sitting with Rashid and I noticed that he was nervous about eating the pizza. I have a co-worker whom is from Somalia and I know that she is really cautious about eating meat that isn't prepared a certain way. Maybe Rashid and some of the other kids feel the same way? Maybe there'd be a way that we could do some research into ways that we can serve food with ingredients and in the techniques that won't offend the many religious backgrounds of our kids?"
posted by k8t at 4:52 PM on January 14, 2007

Best answer: Here's a pretty good interfaith calendar with major holidays in bold.
posted by k8t at 4:53 PM on January 14, 2007

My best wishes on your project--given my experience it is almost impossible to accommodate every one's needs but you certainly seem to be giving it an intelligent and heartfelt effort. My only suggestions are to find age appropriate ways to discuss this directly with the participants--let them know that you are making a sincere effort to be respectful of their cultural / religious / ethnic sensibilities and they should feel free to mention or discuss, with their individual mentor, anything that might be difficult or uncomfortable for them . I would also write ( if there is not a group orientation) parents to let them know that you will make every effort to accommodate their individual beliefs / practices but they need to let you know, and encourage their children to let you know, if you are doing something that is problematic I am confident that with a bit of thought this can be accomplished. Best wishes and good luck on your project.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:57 PM on January 14, 2007

Best answer: Regarding food at any event (not just for kids), you should always take the following into account:
  • Vegarians
  • Vegans
  • Gluten-free requirements
  • Kosher
  • Halal
  • Dairy intolerance
  • Nut (especially peanut) allergies
  • Artificial preservatives and other additives
  • And most importantly, cross-contamination
Note though, that there are people that have a serious problem with Halal food due to the slaughtering technique used, so it's possible that you simply can not produce a spread that everyone will like.

Regarding the timing of events, any regular event will always exclude someone. If you always want the same people to come, that's fine. If you want a larger group to be involved, even if they don't come to every meeting, I strongly recommend some sort of timetable that changes. Basically, I've come to the conclusion that any regular group that needs all members to attend at the same time every week is fine if you're building a clique, but less useful if you're actually building a broad network of interested people. Perhaps your meetings could be every 6 or 8 days. This needs a stronger communications network than if people just mindlessly rock up at the same time every week, but it is doable.
posted by krisjohn at 5:03 PM on January 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also--if your program has any Sikhs in it, you should provide non halal and/or kosher food as well as the halal and kosher eatables. Sikhs are forbidden from eating halal or kosher meat.
posted by Anonymous at 5:19 PM on January 14, 2007

Why are Sikhs forbidden to eat kosher or halal food? Does it have to do with the way the animals are killed, or is it that Sikhs can't have food that's holy to another religion, or what?
posted by davy at 5:34 PM on January 14, 2007

I googled "Why are Sikhs forbidden to eat kosher or halal food?" - this is the first result:
Introduction to Sikhism by G.S. Sidhu, Shromini Sikh Sangat, Toronto
There are no restrictions for the Sikhs regarding food, except that the Sikhs are forbidden to eat meat prepared as a ritual slaughter. The Sikhs are asked to abstain from intoxicants.

Now it doesn't tell us why per se, but then, do we know why kosher? or why halal?
posted by dash_slot- at 5:54 PM on January 14, 2007

I don't know if this applies to Sikhs, but some people feel that halal/kosher slaughter methods are cruel. Or crueler than necessary. (I don't know the details, I've just heard objections to the methods.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 6:30 PM on January 14, 2007

twistofrhyme, you're awesome. You're inclusion in action, and the Muslim and Hindi families will thank you for your concern. Anything that excludes kids will seriously inhibit the efficacy of the program, so you are doing good here.

The first thing you want to do is google about and find the contact details of the person responsible for multiculturalism in the school district or local authority. Write your concerns down (with specifics and citations in re. Eid, rennet, halal, etc, include them with the contact details of this person, and take this document to the next scheduled meeting with the volunteers and employees of this program. The goal of this document and meeting is to encourage the program to change its scheduling and to consult with the school district to provide appropriate food. Your fellow staff will be glad to hear these concerns in a friendly manner from one of the staff instead of after having offended/excluded a kid or family.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:21 AM on January 15, 2007

I used to carve roast beef and ham to order in a buffet restaurant. Once a customer asked, quite meekly, if I could wipe off the knife before cutting him some beef. I presume he was Muslim; we were five blocks from the mosque, and his accent and appearance were not especially Jewish. Sure, no problem; I had a clean bleach cloth there in case someone dripped on the buffet counter, and we had him fixed up in a jiffy. If anything, the only problem was that he worried too much about asking me. (This was before 9/11, when being Muslim in public was still acceptable.) But he needn't have worried; I have religious dietary restrictions myself, plus one or two that are more secular, and I know exactly where he's coming from.

Since then, I have had plently of friends, roommates, and loved ones with various allergies, digestive disorders, and ethical or health-oriented restrictions. Nowadays I don't even ask someone over for dinner without throwing in the simple, basic question, "Is there anything you can't or won't eat?" (Usually I suggest iconic examples from several major categories—"You're lactose-intolerant, you're allergic to peanuts, you're vegetarian, you keep kosher, you can't stand onions ..."—at which point they feel they can bring up anything they need to. Krisjohn's list is excellent if you want detailed, point-by-point coverage.) I've never had someone take offense, or even think it was weird.

My point is twofold: First, that it doesn't have to be a big bugaboo when you serve, as long as you have spare gloves to hand (and other sanitation supplies that you ought to have already anyway); and second, that it's certainly something you can ask about, talk about, and be prepared for. People with dietary restrictions are used to having to explain them and/or miss out; if you extend the courtesy of asking in advance, you'll get some major points for thoughtfulness. I second the proposal of putting it on your parental consent form.

Good luck. You're doing good stuff for those kids. And bonus points to schroedinger for teaching us about that Sikh business.
posted by eritain at 2:21 AM on January 15, 2007

Since you're not sure what backgrounds the kids are all from, why not create a fun event around getting to know each others' dietary differences? If everyone is talking about it, the individual kids won't feel isolated, and you won't be caught out making assumptions about that they can/can't eat. And the program itself will demonstrate that it is not "all-knowing", which I think is an important lesson for the kids to learn.
posted by miss tea at 4:43 AM on January 15, 2007

Wow, an askme that directly relates to what I get paid to do, I wasn't expecting this! I'm the diversity adviser for the UK branch of a large international youth organisation, you'll have heard of us.

Bearing in mind, I'm in the UK, so I know what's good practise over here, you'll propably have to Canadianise some of the things I talk about (particularly the language and terminology).

Lots of the advice already given is really great, especially on how the practical things you can do.

Don't feel bad that things aren't quite right at the moment. You must be doing something right, because the kids keep turning up each week. If there were serious problems, they wouldn't come back. The first step to becoming more inclusive is to be aware that you not as inclusive as you could be and to want to do something about it, and you've already done that.

The second step is to accept that you've never going to be fully inclusive, you can't please all the people all the time and there will always be groups and needs that you aren't aware of or haven't considered. It's an ongoing process, it's not something where you just implement a few changes, and suddenly voila! you're inclusive.

Ideally, what you want to create is a culture of respect and flexibility, where kids and parents can ask for their needs to be met, as far as possible, and you can help provide for that, as best you can. You need to make other staff aware that there might be a problem. As you said, sometimes people just don't realise or notice. But it sounds like everyone there will be open to making some changes, so I don't think you'll have a problem there.

This isn't something you can do on your own, everyone needs to be signed up to it, otherwise it won't work. But if everyone has the best interests of the kids in mind, then they should see that this needs to be done.

You need to know what the kids needs and wants are, you can't meet them otherwise. There is no use in second guessing things. What one Muslim will and won't eat will be different to what another Muslim will and won't eat. The only way to find this out is to ask!

A formal way to do this would be best, as then you have a record you can refer back to. Do the kids have to fill in some form when they join? Could this be extended to ask about particular faith/cultural needs they might have (e.g. diet, dress, holidays)?

You can ask the kids directly, but bear in mind that they'll give the answers they want to give, which is not necessarily the one that their parent's would give. Depending on your relationship with the kids and their parent's that might or might not be a problem. I was on camp this weekend, and one of the girls who came was Muslim, her form said no pork, she said, well, Mum doesn't like me eating pork, but dad doesn't mind so much and I'm not at home. As she's only 10, we said, your form says no pork, so no pork.

This doesn't mean that you are going to be providing 40 different meals for 40 different kids. Most of them will probably be happy with what you're doing now, perhaps with some small changes. But occassionally, you may have to do something completely different to meet the needs of a particular individual.

The bottom line is, don't make assumptions, ask people what they need, and if you're not doing so already, be open and willing to meet those needs. In my mind, that's what being inclusive is.

There are many other things you can do, like looking at cultural awareness training for the youth workers or implementing an equal opportunites policy, but that really depends on the nature of your organisation and how far you want to take it.

Have you thought about other areas of diversity as well, like disability?

I hope that helps a bit. My email's in my profile, there's lots more I can help with, so drop me a line.
posted by Helga-woo at 4:59 AM on January 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

Helga-woo: wow! You have one of my dream jobs. I'll contact you soon, if that's OK.

Many other comments here have been helpful, but the main thing is to be organized and up-to-date on what your students need. It would be handy to have some sort of a database and distribute that information to everyone involved - the schools, the houses, the families, catering, and so on.

There are plenty of interfaith calendars available online. I haven't heard about the standardizing that Medieval Maven brings up - it doesn't sound like it'd go well in many Muslim countries.

Are there representatives of those faiths or cultures in your community? Places of worship, community centres, clubs, etc? It may be worth getting in touch with them and asking about your concerns - they can definitely help sort out details (dates, food, etc), give suggestions and recommendations (halal meat, kosher meat, etc), and be a source for support.

The crew that travelled on the global education program I was on was especially diverse - we had nearly every religion, food restriction, and allergy on the planet. (I think all we were missing was a gluten allergy!) Our program involved travelling to different cities and being hosted for a week in each city, and it emphasized diversity and cultural understanding, so being sensitive to people's needs was super important.

Among the things the organizers (the program's main office, its regional offices, the road staff, and the organizing committees in each host city) did to account for this was:

* Asking crew members to fill out a form before the trip detailing all allergies and restrictions

* Contacting each crew member beforehand to ask about concerns, ideas, and anything else (being in Asia, I was contacted twice; once from a Road Staff member in the US, and once from the Japan office).

* Sending out information packets to the regional offices LOCs (Local Organizing Committee) with our information; they were then in charge of organizing our host families and making good matches

* The LOCs made info packets for each host family with the name of their hostee and all the info about us - the Japanese offices were especially efficient for this, the European ones were OK depending on city, the American ones need more work

* The Advance Work people (crew members who were sent to a host city one week in advance to prepare for arrival) were given thorough training that includes being sensitive to dietary needs - I remember one sentence in the manual was along the lines of "make sure the vegetarians have more than lettuce to eat!"

* The LOCs organized good catering that accounted for all restrictions and preferences - we would get a diversity of cuisines no matter where we were

* Plenty of opportunities were given for the crew members to share their experiences and thoughts, including many chances to talk about religion. We also got to organize our own little celebrations (or raise awareness at least) if we wanted - the Americans took this chance to organize a Thanksgiving dinner in Erfurt! It was rather serendipitous that one of the community projects was visiting a Turkish mosque in Utrecht on Eid day - probably more a coincidence than anything planned, but lovely.

* There was plenty of diversity training amongst ourselves; before departing for a new continent or as soon as we arrived in a new city, we received information about the city, its culture, and things we should know about. I think the host families got similar briefings.

* Anytime we had group meals (nearly every day), all the options are clearly stated, and there were alternatives available for those who couldn't eat the main choices. You never really got hungry.

There was only once where my food restriction got a bit mangled - I was given pork curry the first day in Japan (they apparently didn't know I don't eat pork), and went hungry for dinner that night. After they learnt that, though, they didn't offer it again. I was once hosted with a vegetarian, a Hindu (no meat), and a girl who ate everything (thus being our "leftover woman"), and our host family was gracious with preparing food we could all eat.

This sounds like a great thing you're doing. Keep it up. Is there a website or something that's tracking your progress? I'm interested in exactly this sort of thing - managing and maintaining diversity.

Good luck!
posted by divabat at 6:11 AM on January 15, 2007

Oh yeah, if you'd like to get some good sources for interfaith calendars, try looking up National Holiday calendars for Malaysia or Singapore. A lot of religious and cultural holidays are public holidays here (nearly everything except Judaism and Paganism, it seems like) and they could form a good base of information.
posted by divabat at 6:12 AM on January 15, 2007

There are plenty of interfaith calendars available online. I haven't heard about the standardizing that Medieval Maven brings up - it doesn't sound like it'd go well in many Muslim countries.

The story I read was particularly about Muslims practising in America - it referenced specifically the difficulties kids have with suddenly being out of school and whatnot, so I figured there's a chance there is a similar movement in Canada.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:44 AM on January 15, 2007

All of the suggestions above are great, so just one minor thing: Would it be worthwhile seeking out other food sponsors? (And do you have the authority to do so?) When I was working at a Jewish Center, we used a caterer that specifically offered kosher choices for breakfast & lunch orders -- it was a standard upscale-ish sandwich place downtown that happened to serve a large Jewish community, not a place we had to work particularly hard to find. (And as a non-Jew, I wouldn't have noticed anything unusual about the meals, other than maybe wondering why there was no cheese on the sandwiches; it's not like these kosher meals would set your kids apart for or make them feel odd for "having" to eat them.).

I would imagine Toronto must have similar types of caterers/restaurants for kosher and halal meals? Maybe it's worth contacting some of them and seeing if they can help?
posted by occhiblu at 12:22 PM on January 15, 2007

Response by poster: thanks a lot for the helpful answers, lovely hive mind- you've given me a lot of good things to consider, and i really appreciate it.

i would like to mention that the reason i don't want to ask the kids about their religious practices is because minority kids already feel singled out and different all the time when stupid majority adults ask too many questions. games about religion and ancestry aren't fun for the kids, just the teachers. please, i beg of you, if you work with minority youth, spare them this ordeal!

sure, i'd be just one friendly person asking one friendly question. out of interest! because different cultures are cool! but unfortunately, my one question will be the latest in a long string of questions that just show the kid again and again how she doesn't fit in. how she's not "a kid", she's "a muslim kid". i'm not doing that to any of these children. i want them to feel like they're kids, not cultural ambassadors.

i'm the adult with the full access to google and metafilter- it's my responsibility to research this stuff and accomodate the kids, not force some 8 year old to be the muslim diplomat for the day.

anyway, thanks to you nice people, i now have more resources to turn to, and i really appreciate it!
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:33 AM on January 17, 2007

Response by poster: wow, i just re-read all the answers again, and i only marked best the ones that provided links to info i'd never encountered before- but honestly, i'm floored to receive so many well-thought out and well-intentioned answers. thank you all for your help, i really appreciate it!
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:40 AM on January 17, 2007

This comes down to the topic of one of the best AskMe answers ever: Ask Culture vs Guess Culture. You seem to be a Guess, twistofrhyme, and your goal of not making the minority kids feel singled out is admirable. I also appreciate the "i want them to feel like they're kids, not cultural ambassadors" approach, but I also think that it is A Good Thing to discuss and celebrate our differences, not just pretend that they don't exist.

If you ask ALL the kids (in a take-home-and-return type form) if they have any dietary restrictions or other religious/cultural issues with the program, then the program administrators can look at the responses, and figure out if there need to be programmatic changes made, or if any issues are better dealt with on an individual basis.

FWIW, kudos to you for being proactive and sensitive to these tricky matters.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:59 PM on February 6, 2007

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