Overcoming culture clash among diverse residents

Posted2/9/2013 5:52 AM

Immigrant groups account for about sixty percent of U.S. population growth. This is immediately evident in community associations throughout the Chicago area. Recent immigrants frequently settle in areas with persons of like background, and are often drawn to the benefits of community association living. However, the task of building new lives, working and raising families often leave them little time to learn a language and culture that bear little resemblance to their own. This can result in a clash of language and culture, and unnecessary conflict between English and non-English proficient residents in community associations.

Regardless of one's political views on immigration policy, there are practical issues that community association leaders must confront in order to attempt to bring harmony to a community and avoid unnecessary conflict. Communication, education and inclusion are the common threads running through community associations that have successfully overcome language and cultural differences of residents. There are many proactive steps that a board can take. Some of the concepts I discuss here are more practical than others, and some may be easy to write about but difficult to implement. But let me bring them to light anyway, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Communication is the cornerstone of developing a unified community. First and foremost then, the board should try to overcome the language barrier between English-speaking board members and non-English proficient owners. To increase access to information to individuals with limited English proficiency, the community association should consider making multilingual resources available. To this end, some associations provide multilingual communications. This includes, for example, notices of meetings, agendas, minutes of meetings, proxies, ballots, budgets, annual accountings, general notices and newsletters.

The community association's declaration and rules won't be followed if residents don't understand the language in which they are printed. So that non-English speaking residents can understand the governing documents with which they are being asked to comply, the community association could consider having the declaration and rules translated into the language of non-English speaking residents.

To the extent possible, community association support staff should be bilingual. This is a growing requirement in many fields.

The nuances of community association living may not be understood by recent immigrants. The board should educate, not lecture, recent arrivals to this country as to the respective roles and responsibilities of the board and owners. This can be accomplished through new owner orientation sessions, workshops and/or written materials.

All owners have a right to feel that they are a part of the community. However, cultural barriers and the demands of everyday life that burden us all may keep many immigrants from community involvement. To overcome this, the board could actively recruit minority owners to assist with the governance of the community. This can be accomplished by slating minority candidates to the board or by making appointments to committees (a committee dealing with bilingual/cultural diversity may be useful). All residents should be encouraged to attend board meetings.

If you really want to be ahead of the curve, create a talent bank of residents to tutor English to children and adults in the community association. Bilingual members of the community association can also be recruited to assist with translation services at meetings, or to prepare multilingual communications and participate in new owner orientations.

Many immigrants have purposely left a culture that stresses conformity in favor of an American culture that stresses individualism. Yet conformity is a part of community association life. So, it's not uncommon to hear "You can't tell me what to do, I own my property" from individuals who are facing aggressive rules enforcement procedures/fines. Boards need to keep in mind that it is sometimes better to let someone know what they are doing wrong, and give them time to adjust, before taking strict enforcement action.

Cultural gaps between residents can be bridged through cross-cultural activities. Nothing does this more effectively than events centered on food. The board should organize social events (e.g., picnics, progressive dinners) that feature home-cooked ethnic food where residents can "show off" their specialties.

Many contend that it is incumbent on new residents of this country to learn the English language and the American culture. However, unless communities help immigrants to assimilate, ethnic divisions and conflict can escalate as diversity increases. And while I am not suggesting that any of the concepts I discuss will create a Utopian community, they could reduce the time that board members have to spend dealing with avoidable conflict when they should be dealing with the business of the association.

• David M. Bendoff is an attorney with Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit in Buffalo Grove. Send questions for the column to him at CondoTalk@ksnlaw.com. The firm provides legal service to condominium, townhouse, homeowner associations and housing cooperatives. This column is not a substitute for consultation with legal counsel.

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