Sharing Power through ‘Language Equity’

Language Equity article When community members who do not speak English can use their native language to express their concerns and ideas, their voices can be powerful levers of change. But first, their messages must be interpreted accurately in settings that are inclusive by design.

“Translation of materials and meeting interpretation is important, but that alone does not change the power structure,” says Alena Marie who leads the Language Justice Initiative at Just Communities. “We want everyone to not just receive information in their language, but to be active participants in the dialogue.”

Yet, many venues where key decisions are made lack interpretation services. Alena recalls meetings where people from the audience have been called upon to interpret for those testifying in Spanish. At other times, bilingual elected officials try to interpret for their colleagues. These impromptu efforts shortchange the dialogue.

“We can’t have true impact if it’s just a one-way flow of information,” Alena says.

So, what’s required to ensure ‘language equity?’ To create inclusive settings where all languages are valued equally, agencies should hire professional interpreters and provide headsets to all who are not fluent in the primary languages being used.

To address this problem, Just Communities trains interpreters on creating inclusive multilingual spaces. In 2013, they trained 240 student interpreters to interpret between teachers and parents at Back to School Nights. They also advocate for more professional interpreters at schools and agencies. Just Communities practices what it preaches with simultaneous interpretation at its events and a bilingual web site. They are leading the way so all voices are included in the process of community change.