When we set out to help in some other culture or community, we have learned that we should shape our project through what practitioners call “human-centered design.” This doesn’t mean altruistically imagining our own design to fit the humans we think we see. It means investing in the community – with its members leading the design process.

How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.


Dominic Kiraly

This is Culturally Attuned. Brought to you by the United States Institute of Peace, in partnership with Burning Man Project.

Christopher Breedlove

If I personally decide I’m the hero, then everyone else is either the enemy or someone to be saved.

Dominic Kiraly

How can we collaborate across cultures in a manner that honors the agency and capacity of local communities?

I’m Dominic Kiraly and today we hear from Christopher Breedlove of Burners Without Borders, and co-producer of CaT. Christopher has traveled the world, visiting Burners Without Borders’ community-based projects that aim to create social change.

Christopher explains how Burners without Borders uses “human-centered design” for projects to mitigate disasters, support refugees, and help resolve conflicts. He shares why being culturally aware is so critical to their global volunteers, and how situational awareness and local knowledge help create conditions where better choices can be made.

Christopher Breedlove

Burners tend to be a very interesting type of person. And some of the things that are our strengths can also be our weaknesses. And so part of our culture is very about do it yourself, do-ocracy, immediacy, radical self-reliance as well as communal effort. And so a lot of times it means that our community is ready to stand up and try it.

We also have a lot of influence from the tech sector. And so there's a lot of the move fast and break things. Try it first, ask for permission later, as well as just innovation thinking just wondering why systems that don't work haven't been fixed. And so let's fail fast, fail often, and kind of stumble our way into progress. And when you're developing software or hardware, those are amazing tenets with not a lot of danger. But when you're working with other communities that's where it can become very, very dangerous. But a lot of times we haven't been trained in how to introduce ourselves into these other communities. We haven't necessarily been trained in how to listen in that sort of context.

Sometimes we enter into these situations and of course there's a lot of cultural blindness. And so then when we arrive there's some things that we didn't think about or maybe something we do or say isn't seen in the light that it was meant or is just kind of culturally offensive for some sort of a reason. And so how do we just make it less likely that that's going to happen?

I think one thing and I will say this a million times over, is that it's human centered design. It's learning that you need to listen for a while before you save very much and that you have to go and talk to people and really understand what they're going through and the complexities of their situation, because it's easy to assume from the outside and that's where a lot of problems inherently come from is from your assumptions or from moving too quickly and not taking the time. From my experience in the civic engagement and not-for-profit social impact world is that we want results and we want them fast. We want to change things. We want to prove to people that this is the way. But it again human centered design is a slower process. And I think that's why a lot of people don't do it is because it's hard. It takes time and it takes conversation and it takes true listening and empathy to be able to do it. But again if you're truly getting into that learning and empathetic space with others, you're going to realize that there were incorrect assumptions on whatever you thought a solution or a project might be. It just inherent as an outsider, you're not going to design a perfect process from the get go.

And so how can we, instead of trying to implement something and learning that there's assumptions or falsities within it, how can we do that at the beginning so that we don't risk damaging or hurting the situation or people with those assumptions.

And again to me so much of that really comes into the concept of human centered design. For me that's one of the paramount values of what we do at Burners Without Borders is really making sure that we take the time to listen and that we take the time to design a project or a solution with the local stakeholders. Because when the local stakeholders are designing the project with you, there's a sense of empowerment and ownership, and it's amazing how it can get integrated into a community very, very quickly.

Dominic Kiraly

Doing our homework, learning about the local culture before arriving in-country, can be of benefit. Successful civic engagement also means checking our biases, as Christopher learned first-hand while running a grant program in France.

Christopher Breedlove

I went out to a refugee camp in France, in Calais called “the Jungle”. And the Jungle was an informal encampment and it was a very, very fascinating place. It had people from over a dozen different countries and different religions and different viewpoints. And the reason people had ended up there is that Calais is the closest place on mainland Europe you can get to the UK. And so everyone was trying to get to the UK. And when I went, which I want to say was in 2016 there had been a large amount of money invested in keeping people out of the UK. And so there were large fences and there were security forces and they had shut down a lot of the ways that people had been smuggling themselves across the border.

And I had so many aha moments that week we spent in that camp. It really blew me away and it really affected who I am and what I'm working on in the world, honestly. And I care very much about what's going on with the global refugee population that I believe is like 75 million people at this point. But one of the things that was happening was one of the projects I was working on was building out a youth center. And so we building out a youth center and it was going to have a pool table. Someone had donated and like a punching bag so that people could like get out their aggression and just a safe place for kids to hang out really. And while I was working on this project, people kept on coming up to me and asking to borrow my tools. They wanted to borrow my hammer, they wanted to borrow my drill, they wanted to borrow my saw they didn't need me, they wanted my tools. And that was a big aha moment and I would really say an aha moment of ignorance.

It was like, oh of course, these people used to be doctors and engineers and contractors themselves and they can fix their own problems. But what don't you bring when you smuggle yourself across the European continent for whatever reason you decide to go is heavy stuff like tools. And so when their trailers are broken, how could they fix them? They didn't have those things. And so that was just this huge aha moment was that, maybe the best thing to do in situations like this is to provide people with what I've kind of coined the tools of empowerment, the ability to fix their own issues. I don't necessarily have to be there. It's not about me. It's about giving people access to be able to solve their own problems.

Dominic Kiraly

In Calais, Christopher’s preconceptions about refugees were stripped away. So were his culturally-based beliefs about change and human agency. The experience led him to re-examine his own biases.

Christopher Breedlove

In spending time with these people who just overall were the most welcoming and warm, vibrant and against all the odds many times optimistic people. Walking through the camp, people just kept on coming out and being like, oh, hi who are you? What's going on? Like, would you come to my tent and have some tea?

It's like wait, you're inviting me to have tea with you right now. I mean, you're offering me a gift in this space. I mean, there were just so many moments with people like that where they just wanted to connect. And I think in so many ways they wanted to share their story because they feel unseen and unheard, many of the people who are living in these encampments. And so by connecting, by sharing their stories, they think that story gets out there and that maybe something will change. And for me the work that I am trying to do in interacting with the migrant and refugee crisis is happening, is helping change that narrative, is helping get some of these voices out, is showing some of the amazing things that are happening in these places despite the conditions. And I think that's one other thing I guess I could say I learned was that how humanity persists in the face of great trials.

In Calais, I was blown away at what people were building. People had built restaurants and people had built cafes and people had built a bar and there was a mosque and there was a church, there was even a barber shop with like “bath house” in the back and they would heat up water in these big buckets and they could pour it over your head and kind of like a washing sauna sort of an experience with steam.

And like when you're in the salon, you're looking at the chairs people are sitting on and these chairs are literally like one by one posts, like ram shackled together with cardboard as the fabric stapled into it so that people don't fall through it but it works. Like it works and I was just so amazed at the industriousness and the creative thinking and the solution-minded state of the people who were living there. They were trying to make the most human and positive experience they could in a very difficult and in a lot of ways, dangerous situation.

Dominic Kiraly

We asked Christopher what skills are needed for community-based initiatives to succeed across cultures.

Christopher Breedlove

I think number one is listen. Take the adequate amount of time to listen. It's you may have ideas, you may have things to add but oftentimes listening for a while will not only allow the other person to feel heard which is incredibly important. But will often allow you to have the learnings to speak better. So for me number one is always listen.

Number two is and this I think is a lot harder to do but it's to check your own biases. Like just remember that when you're working with people from other cultures, you have deep cultural differences. And I think that those go into the stories we were told when we were young, which goes into how we view the world, and that's who we are in the world. And who you are in the world is what changes the character of everybody else around you. If I personally decide I'm the hero well then everyone else is either the enemy or someone to be saved, you know. If I decide that I'm the person with the solution than everybody else must not be. It's all about my perspective of who I am that changes others.

And so check your bias of what you're coming in with because we're all doing it to each other all the time and we're not seeing people fully as who they are most of the time. We're seeing them as a reflection of through who we see we are.

With number three, I think that it's as much as you can, is remember that a lot of it is not personal. When you run into issues try and remove yourself from that situation and don't take it personally. Communication isn't easy and social work isn’t easy, working cross culturally with people who you don't know isn’t easy and so when you run into problems just don't take it personally. I think that's when you go back to those first two, which is you listen and then check your biases and then what? It's because we can all take things personally because sometimes they feel that way and then when you emotionally react to something then that creates a cycle of emotion. And then we're not speaking about what we were just a few minutes ago.

I think self-awareness is the other side of the coin. It's like not only do you have to be aware of the other culture that you're entering into, but then you have to be aware of your own culture because you're bringing in a bunch of baggage too. And I think maybe that's the piece that's a little bit harder to do because it, you can go online and you can research, okay I'm going to go into this culture. What's going on? What's the history? What's the food like? What are the customs? You can learn all these little nuances but it's a lot harder to Google search, “What's my own bias?” It's a lot harder to say, “What are my own blind spots?” And so that's where self-awareness comes in. You have to spend the time to kind of figure out what are the corners that it is hard for you to see around. And we call them blind spots. And so obviously it's not easy to find them. How do you become aware of what you don't yet know? And so that is the work of self-awareness. And I think that anybody who wants to go into the field, and I think anybody who wants to work with people, whether it's in your own culture or another one, developing a strong sense of self-awareness will make that work go that much better for you.

Dominic Kiraly

When we take the time to reflect, we become more self-aware. As we become more conscious of the hidden aspects of culture – its unspoken values and beliefs – we can more easily see how culture and preconceptions drive our behavior. And that in turn helps us anticipate where we may stumble when crossing cultures.

What assumptions have you made when working with people from a different cultural background? How can you avoid those blind spots in the future?

Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned, produced by Dominic Kiraly at the United States Institute of Peace, and in collaboration with our partner, Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Culturally Attuned Credits

Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook

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