Last week the DC Language Access Coalition released the much-anticipated results of a two-year comprehensive report on the state of language access in the District. Whether by chance or choice, the timing was such that this one came out right after DC government released its own yearly report. Comparing the two, it is clear government and language access advocates have different ideas about what compliance and accountability look like.
The event began with what I recognized to be a popular education technique – the Director speaking in a foreign language, gesturing with her hands, and having a conversation that few could understand. Once she switches to English, it is explained that the experience was meant to get the audience thinking from the perspective of.
Next they played a short documentary featuring the some of the faces behind the Chinese Service Center and Wah Luck House, one of the last footholds of affordable housing in Chinatown and a testament to community organizing. The last part of the event was a panel discussion of people involved either involved in the production of the report, representing the Coalition (AU Wash. College of Law, Legal Aid Society, Vietnamese Community Service Center), or DC government (DCOHR, HSEMA).
Overall this event was extremely helpful in that it was an opportunity to reengage with my professional network and past colleagues, which is great for the soul! But perhaps biggest takeaway I had was the realization of a huge gap in the language access program that a linguist with anthropological training could fill. As the panelists (government and not) discussed the “challenges” in language access compliance, they all addressed the issue of not understanding the client’s perspective. What do they need? How do we reach them? What problems are they having? Where are they and who are they? Government holds big expensive community forums to fill quotas and can’t fill the seats. They collect demographic data from Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, you name it. LEP/NEP individuals do have a minor legal recourse if they’ve been maligned (the “language access complaint”), but since there is no private right to action, clients cannot appeal a negative finding. Considering the social service / minority affairs budget isn’t blossoming at this point, I don’t think this is an immediate career opportunity, but I left feeling pretty strongly that what language access really needs is a sociolinguist / linguistic anthropologist. They need someone to do extensive ethnography, perhaps even on a team for a several year project.