Ohio Community Partner Story: The vital role of cultural brokers for strong family-school partnerships

The following text is from an interview with Jhuma Acharya, a parent representative on our State Advisory Council.

Describe yourself and your work with the Bhutanese-Nepali community in Ohio.

I am a former refugee from Bhutan who came to the United States through US Department’s Refugee program in 2010. I work for Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) as a case manager for the Refugee resettlement program and as a youth mentor at the Refugee youth Mentorship program at CRIS. As a part of my job, I work with children and families primarily from Bhutan and also from any country coming here through the Refugee admission program. I work with other service providers to coordinate various services for the newly arrived refugees and their families. It includes finding housing, assisting their kits school enrollment process, facilitate health screening, and connecting them to other social service agencies. I also serve as a chair of the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO), an ethnic-based community organization primarily serving Bhutanese-Nepali families after their resettlement period. The organization provides an additional layer of wrap-around services to those individuals who need extended support after their resettlement service period. 

How have you seen individuals within your community act as bridges between the school and your community?

Bhutanese Community in and around the state of Ohio is a very pro-active community. Bhutanese families place a high value on their children’s education; however, cultural and language barriers have been significant obstacles. But we have numerous community folks working with the school districts here in Central Ohio and around the states who are very instrumental help to the families who are having challenges navigating the complexities of the school system. We at Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio work very closely with the schools around central Ohio. We had started our school engagement program before COVID  through small financial support from Columbus Foundation, but due to COVID, we could not effectively do it, but we have plans to continue it. The community organization itself has become a bridge between the schools and the community. A stated earlier, our instructional assistance in various school are the heroes in bridging the school and families.

How can cultural brokers encourage two-way communication between families and the school?

Family engagement is the best way to create and strengthen the communication between the school and families. Some schools are doing their weekly family engagement zoom call with parents/families, which has been very useful. I have volunteered to interpret in some of them, and currently, I am on the team at one of the elementary schools at North Columbus through my college placement. The best thing from my perspective and the experience working as a liaison between my agency and school is building connections with the school. Many parents hesitate to get connected because of their past negative experiences. Many think that engaging with school activities will interfere with the teacher’s routine, and they feel it will offend the school rules and policies. Therefore, a cultural broker can create educational programs to educate them that family engagement is an integral component of their child’s holistic development. It is slowly taking place, for the pace is very slow. It is just a matter of committing to do something that is going to be beneficial for families and their children.

What benefits does this practice have for students, families, and teachers?

This has enormous benefits to families, teachers, and students. It can create a healthy environment between the school and home. Families/parents would feel more comfortable communicating with the school, which improves their engagement with the school. Teachers will have the opportunity to know more about the students and their home environment. Because for a student to do better, there must be a collaborative effort from teachers and families. Some families are not even aware of supporting their children’s education because they are uneducated and very confused about the education system. So, in general, this practice will hugely benefit families, students, and teachers.

As a cultural broker yourself, how do you prioritize your work?

I am a community member, and I do care about my community. Every day I try my best to give my few cents of knowledge and experiences to the families and children. Being at Community Refugee and Immigration Services, I have an opportunity to work continuously with them and provide support. Before COVID hit, we were doing a youth group at our center where we bring middle and high school boys and girls and talk to them about various topics, including higher education. Some weekends we did a parent session to educate them on how to best engage with their school.  We invited different career professionals, including some from OSU, to talk to them about higher ed opportunities and how they can accomplish that dream. We had law professionals, medical students, law enforcement, army recruiters, tech companies and talk to out-group. The intention was to provide information and resources to them and stand by as mentors if they need support as they move ahead. At my work, I work with lots of youths, and I do the same thing. Provide information and resources and teach them how to fish rather than giving them a fish.

Do you think that cultural brokers have the potential to create more equitable relationships between the school and the families it services? Why or why not?

100%! They do have the potential to create a more equitable and long-lasting relationship between the school and families. In my last ten years of experience in this profession and with my 20 years of teaching experience back home, it is all the collaborative effort. Just one teacher or parent cannot make this happen. A collaborative effort between various stakeholders is an excellent force for any changes.

Are there any potential challenges or pitfalls for schools to avoid when embracing the idea of cultural brokers?

I do not think there is a pitfall but being mindful of the families’ cultural beliefs is very important. There is no one-size-fits-all model in this to my experience. Every community is unique, and they have a set of cultural norms, and if we want to collaborate with them, our first step must be understanding that community. Going with an interpreter will not be the best way because sometimes, the interpreter might not have that experience. Cultural brokers are used in various agencies, but as I said, we MUST have to do a little research to know deeper about the community and their belief system. Even with in the same neighborhood, some multiple sub-communities or groups look similar, but their practice is different. The sense of looking at refugees and immigrants through the same lens sometimes is unhealthy. Because all refugees do not have the same experience, some came from urban settings. Some came from very isolated refugee camps, so if we think, oh, they all are refugees, this model must fit them as well. We will fail, and many have been unable and regretted. My suggestion is to work in a group and know the community deeper before going on the field and representing a cultural broker.