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Leading Change in a Multicultural Environment

November 17, 2021

Being in charge of a huge network with a large reach is a daunting task. You have to be extremely mindful of the different cultural ties of each individual and their communities, and you need to make sure that you’re serving while being respectful of different cultural rules and traditions.

Kiriko Takahashi is the Interim Director of the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa with 20+ years of experience in working with people with disabilities. Originally from Japan, Kiriko came to the US to study the intersection of neurodevelopment and societal influence. She is also incredibly passionate about supporting individuals with disabilities.

Jeiri sits down with Kiriko to have a conversation about navigating and supporting a multicultural and diverse space. Kiriko shares her experiences in creating a mutually beneficial space in Hawai’i, covering projects in many different regions with many different cultures. She also shares her expert advice on reaching and connecting with people in isolated communities with different cultural identities and traditions.

Kiriko offers insight into the delicate balance of rights and responsibilities in different cultures and what self-advocacy might look like in these situations. She discusses the importance of interdisciplinary training, interdisciplinary team development, and courses on multiculturalism and disability in order to create culturally relevant programs.

If you’re interested in what a multicultural awareness and approach could look like in terms of relationship building, advocacy, and support, this conversation with Kiriko is for you. Listen to Kiriko’s experiences and her incredible advice as it pertains to being sensitive and respectful towards multicultural spaces in the face of advocacy and service delivery.

View all episodes and transcripts at http://www.aucd.org/podcast

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This episode was funded by the Administration for Community Living through technical assistance contract # HHSP233201600066C. The contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Administration on Community Living, US Department of Health and Human Services, or the US Government.


Welcome to AUCD Network Narratives, where we share real stories from our members. I'm your host, Jeiri Flores Advocacy Specialist at the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities and the co-chair for the Council on Leadership and Advocacy. Join us as we hear from inspiring leaders within our network working to make a change.

Jeiri Flores:  Kiriko Takahashi Is the interim director of the center on disability studies at Manoa and the director of the Pacific base in UCEDD. working in the disability field for over 20 years across all age groups, originally from Japan, Kiriko came to the US to study about the intersection of neurodevelopment and societal influence. Kiriko lives in Honolulu with her husband and three children ages nine, seven, and one. So first thank you for being here today with us. I really appreciate, you know, your time and your energy, I guess my first question for you you're UCEDD director of a center that has great reach. There's a lot of actual physical space that you all kind of have to cover in terms of your jurisdiction. How has that been for you when you're looking at creating new projects or trying to reach out to people and do work that really is mutually beneficial, and you can create a better space for folks exist within.

Kiriko Takahashi: Thank you, Jeiri. This is Kiriko, you know, Hawaii has multiple islands and, you know, we cover many different regions and what's most important here is relationships before even starting any projects it's who you know, and how do you get the trust from those people who you are going to serve. So it's not like something that I've started after being the interim director or anything, you know, over the years I have been building this rapport and relationships and trying to identify like key personnel in different regions. And also talking with my staff who knows the area, who's grown up there. Who's familiar with the issues, focusing on the relationships is the key and nothing really gets done unless you have that kind of rapport here in the islands. And that's probably true across the Pacific.

Jeiri Flores:  I think that's true across the world, really. I mean, I think that some of the ways in which that I work, it only works because people like me, right. People know who I am. And so I think that when I reach out, I'm like, Hey, you know, I'm really relational. Actually, I like to claim people as family all the time. Once I like you and love you, it's over. Like, that's just, you're my family. And so I've really reached out in that way to try to make it work, especially here in the community. You know, the university that I work for is in the center of the city. So pretty much in my opinion is responsible for the city. So I think when we look at black and brown folks who are looking specifically for extra services, or how do you really look at what disability looks like within that community and, you know, to create those kinds of connections, you have to have kind of those relationships to make it work. for you, I mean, specifically when you're looking at the work that you do, and you're trying to address some of the isolated folks in your communities, maybe after a hurricane or just after life, really how it happens and how it works. What do you think are your best practices? What really works for you when you're trying to connect with those folks in times of crisis?

Kiriko Takahashi: I think people here are already always mindful of those people who are in isolated communities. So there isn't anything in particular that we will be doing different. when we do planning or all the getting together with the community members too. We always try to be mindful and including all the different groups, Hawaii is one of the most diverse state in the nation. And we have so many different immigrants and also people from the territory's here. There's also a high number of people who are houseless too. So we're always mindful of the, those who are in isolated communities or in areas and have project staff or someone who are familiar and who can reach out to that maybe the leaders in that area or the region and family here is always very important, right? So Ohana or the family is the unit. So you really have to know how to work or reach out to those people and the different groups, different ethnic groups, some of those groups have different rules about, you know, how to reach to them. You need to be very culturally sensitive, right? And aware of who to reach, how to reach and you know, so not to really approach from an authoritarian view perspective, you know, and making sure that you are following their rules as well, or cultural rules or traditions. nothing new that we would do during the crisis as what we would do typically. And people tend to not want to leave those remote areas. If they do have to leave for some reason, we just need to ensure that transition is smooth. And when they do need to transition into a facility or place that they're not familiar, that we will make sure that people who will be serving are aware of that their cultures and cultural needs.

Jeiri Flores:  I mean I just really, cause I'm trying to relate it to what looks like here. We're pretty diverse city, I would say. So we're a sanctuary city. So we have folks, we welcome folks from all over the nation. All over the globe, not just nation, I guess, you know, into our city. And we have huge, little enclaves of different folks with different cultural backgrounds. And, you know, just trying to think of what you're saying. So this is like a multi-level approach you have to have, right? Like you have to understand the cultural things that are taking place and the places that you're coming in to help, but also at the same time, be knowledgeable about who you represent and what you represent when you're coming into their space. And I just wonder how hard that might be, because particular for me Like, so I worked for AmeriCorps before I came over to work for the university. And I used to, I was a representative of the city of Rochester. I was like a community liaison. And we had did this survey and I speak Spanish. So I'm like I could translate the survey and have Spanish speakers take it because it was about transportation. It was about the bus. And I was really pushing for folks, you know, for refugee folks to be able to also participate because they do take the bus and you know, this is a thing. I couldn't explain it in Spanish because the survey was really hard. but I also couldn't explain it in English. So I had come into their space and then I couldn't really be helpful. Like I couldn't make this work and I just wanted their voice to be present in that survey because they are participants, but I had, I guess maybe I didn't do my homework enough. I thought that a survey could be easily explained, but it wasn't as easy as I thought. And so when I think of what you're saying, this is multiple places, multiple people who have strong cultural ties. So how do you navigate that when you don't know enough? What are the things that you do to prepare to kind of go into that space?

Kiriko Takahashi: I think that is a challenge. A lot of people who come to Hawaii from other locations, don't initially recognize that cultural diversity and not as aware of the differences and the different groups that are here. So one of the things that we do at our center too, is we also offer like an interdisciplinary training and we have a disability studies certificate program. So we have certain courses on multiculturalism and disability, or we also have like a course on like interdisciplinary team development through that the students actually create project or implement a product or something within their community. So that will also help others become more sensitive about the differences or be more aware of cultural diversity and not to have any assumption, right. To make like an assumption about others. And we always talk about culturally relevant programs. So our center and our staff, we always train to learn about our own culture first to learn about who we are and where do we come from and you know, what are our values, right? so to be able to understand other cultures and other cultural values, when we do any kind of, or program, most of the programs that we develop are culturally responsive or culturally relevant to Hawaii or the Pacific, so that people who utilize that curriculum or activities, or even just a flyer, right? Is sensitive to that community. And that's how we do the outreach. Even for like the vaccine, We want to make sure that maybe that images are culturally responsive to local contexts, as well as maybe the activities that we will do will be locally contextualized. So that it's not too foreign to anybody. So yeah, everything we do, we try to be as much possible, to the extent possible. Yeah, we'll try to be culturally responsive. You know, we don't want to be superficial. We always have like a cultural liaison kind of our, you know, making sure that people are involved in the plannings and the culture is within the foundation, but sometimes it's not always possible, right. Things are already there and we make the best effort to make sure that its appeal to those people who are here, the different cultural groups.

Jeiri Flores:  How is that infused in, also the strong cultural beliefs that already exist or practices, I guess they're not beliefs their practices

Kiriko Takahashi: Right. That's a difficult one because then I don't think I can really answer and decide or, you know, at the moment, because like the different groups have different definition of disability, right. Also those who are here for generation may have a different ideas of disability. Hawaii is much more collectivistic than mainland, you know, if you take it broadly. so there's always a little bit of a conflict of being a self-advocate, you know, and the advocacy standing up for your own rights, right. May not go against like some older cultural practices. And so it's hard to teach about the rights and responsibilities here in the United States, based on the law and the cultural ways of understanding disability, not to speak up to adults or others in authority. So yeah, there's always that kind of a fine line that we do try to educate the importance of, you know, living here in the United States, right. And also that kind of culture that we have that disability rights and a disability culture here that may be in conflict with where they were originally from, or maybe their parents. So we do try to educate both sides, both ways, but not to push or dismiss, you know, their cultural beliefs. One aha moment, This is like long time ago when I was a LEND trainee. And we had gone to a house to visit a home of adult child with developmental disabilities who used augmentative device and their families were Filipino. The speech language pathologist has been working with the family and to use the augmentative device. And so we visited to see how that was going. But when we visited, what we realize is that devices weren't really utilized. And the reason why it wasn't utilized was because it's an expensive device. They didn't want to break it. They only take it out when people visit. So that they can show that they are utilizing. it in reality, that's now how they want it to interact with their son. And with the expensive device around, you know, it was older adult child, right. He slept with their parents in the room. And from the American perspective, we were asking, you know, maybe he needs to become more independent, you know, to learn about like doing his own things, being able to have his own life when the parents may not be there any longer, you know, he will be still able to continue the life. And that is a concern for the parents too. But the response that we received was that we are Filipinos, meaning that they will take care until the end. That's kind of a, like a aha moment for me that, you know, there are different groups and their parents have their own values systems. So we can't necessarily always just like impose the American way for independence, but they are concerned too, right. The parents are concerned when they are no longer there, how to take care of their sons. So I think it's just like, again, going back to that relationship, by building that relationship and then having them trust that there is also a US system that is going to be in place that you know, that their son can maybe learn to be a little bit more independent and, you know, have this like a system or that the system can also take care of the son. So I think that kind of relationship building becomes really important and finding a good medium between the differences in culture.

Jeiri Flores:  It really makes me think about, and this is very American, but I had gotten mature and I was like, so against the, and I'm not sure why, or like, I was just not feeling this new chair. it drove different. It just didn't feel right. I did use it for months. It sat in the living room. And I used the old chair for as long as I possibly could. My parents had took care of this new chair like they were doing all these extra things because the chair is expensive. And so like, you want to make sure you can keep this for as long as possible, but I fought it so hard. And so I think that culturally, like there's so many things that we just kind of stick to and believe we'll be okay, we'll be okay because this is what we've always done. And it's not their place to question what we do and how we do it. My parents also had this weird belief that I'd walk in the house instead of using the chair and I'm a hundred percent wheelchair user. And so for them to even have this belief that when they bought a house, I was going to walk in the house, It was hilarious. It's like, well, where did you get that from? Like, how do we transition into this belief in it? Some of it was pushed by therapists saying that I needed to walk more at home, not just this, but they really sincerely had this belief. So I had in the house chair and then not as the house chair for a while, because I was like, I'm never going to walk like that. Like, it's never going to be a thing, but it's always kind of fighting those beliefs. I feel like I live in a constant stage of showing proof and maybe I've had the opportunity to showing proof because I live here in the states. And so you kind of, I guess you could consider us, me and my cousin had this conversation. You can consider me kind of, first-generation like here, American, even though we don't talk like that about Puerto Rican's cause we're American citizens, but we're the first generation that grew up here. Like, although we were born on the island, we grew up here. So we're technically first generation. So like I was the one who had an opportunity to kind of push against their cultural norms and live in this showing proof state. How has your work grown and what have you felt has been like a personal challenge in what is a lesson learned that you would like to share with folks?

Kiriko Takahashi: Well, the challenge is always like finding the right balance Of the culture. And how do you also make sure that people with disabilities have understand their rights and that, you know, they can also exercise their rights and be more independent and more inclusive. And like you said, you had your own voice and thoughts that's different from the parents and which I'm sure a lot of them, you know, do. So I want to make sure, you know, that their voices are heard and not just, I guess, always keeping to the traditions and to the parents' voices. So I think that's always been a challenge and breaking into those different cultural groups. Sometimes people are skeptical of what we, you know, when we call researchers are coming into the field. So that's always a challenge. I think, as a director, my challenge is always that there's so much that I want to do. I really believe in personal connections. So like before COVID, I would go to a different area and making sure that I understand and I meet in person. And I think that kind of personal interaction is very important, especially on the islands and try to listen and just see and understand and feel. And during this COVID times, it's challenging because I'm not able to go to the different locations as much and visit. But I know that the other side, we are able to connect more often using, you know, technology, which is helpful. We can have more conversation, but just not like food is always so important here in our culture. we can't share food. That's a barrier.

Jeiri Flores:  And it's like an island culture, when I go home in Puerto Rico, every house I stop at, somebody is trying to feed me and it's like, okay, hold on. Like I just ate at the last house. I don't know if I have it to eat at this house, but food is definitely my love language. So I definitely understand.

Kiriko Takahashi: We really cannot share the food, bring food, you know, that kind of thing. So I know that's a hindrance and like a huge barrier right now.

Jeiri Flores:  Thank you so much for being here with us today. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We really truly appreciate it.

Thank you for tuning in to AUCD Network Narratives. If this story has inspired you to make a change at your center or program, use the link in our show notes for resources and tools to help you lead on. We'd love to connect with you. So visit the AUCD website and click on the submit your story button at the top. We hope to hear from you soon.

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