Reaching American Families: Making Diversity Real in Family Life Education*

Article excerpt

The American population is constantly evolving, as are its needs for family life education. We discuss how family life educators can address issues of diversity in developing and conducting programs for families. Domains for change are suggested in which educators can incorporate cultural competence in their daily work. Four general strategies are presented for extending programming to more audiences. Interwoven throughout are specific examples and recommendations for use by family life educators. We end with a diversity agenda for the future.

Key Words: diversity, family life education, practice, training.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 273-281)

The American family often is portrayed as an institution in precipitous decline after a high point in the 1950s (Popenoe, 1993). Many contemporary scholars of the family and its history question this notion of decline and the accompanying comparison of families to some "ideal" form (Barnett & Rivers, 1996). They present compelling evidence that families are flexible entities that continuously and dramatically change over time and across groups in response to external forces such as economic trends and sociopolitical shifts (e.g., Coontz, 1992). The larger body of scholarship supports that the family always has evolved a number of diverse forms to meet external demands. Coontz (2000) summed up the consensus by suggesting that family variations in any historic period represent normative responses to various social, cultural, and economic forces and conflicts.

Data from the United States census demonstrate the change in family demographics over time. For example, only 9% of households were composed of single persons in 1950, compared to 25% in 2000, and married-couple households fell from 78% in 1950 to 51% in 2000 (Hobbs & Stoops, 2002). In 1900, half of the population was under 23 years old, whereas more than half was older than 35 in 2000 (Hobbs & Stoops). The population also has grown increasingly metropolitan, from 28% in the early part of the century to 80% in 2000, although this growth occurred mostly in the suburbs and not in city centers (Hobbs & Stoops). In these and other ways, American families continue to change.

In this article, we address how family life educators can consider and address issues of diversity in developing and conducting programs for families. We begin with some définitions of family and diversity, because those terms often are used and highly contested (Alien, Fine, & Demo, 2000). We discuss the current state of diversity preparation for many family life educators, and the results of a national survey that underscores the importance of additional training and professional support. We suggest some domains for change in which educators can begin to incorporate cultural competence in their daily work and discuss four general strategies for extending programming to a broader or more diverse array of audiences. Interwoven throughout are specific examples and recommendations for use in the work of family life educators. We end with a proposed agenda to guide future work to meet the needs of underserved audiences.

What is Family?

There is a tendency in family life education to avoid defining family and taking recourse in some implied notion of the "average family" (Arcus & Thomas, 1993; Myers-Walls, 2000). There are two prominent dangers in not explicitly defining family (MyersWalls). First, educators cannot adequately address audiences of which they are unaware. In our experience, some families unfamiliar to educators might not be offered opportunities for family life programs. If they are, they might not have their needs met because of inappropriate or inadequate methods or content. second, without an explicit definition, educational programming and policy standards are created that leave out many families. In the interest of broadening our vision as family life educators, we use the definition adopted by Alien etal. …