Two women, one on the right stares off camera as the other bends to speak to her.

#179 Fall 2014 — Immigration

Serving the Community, In Their Language

From hiring priorities to translation headsets to special requests of the phone company—the exciting and important work of serving multicultural, multilingual populations.

Two women, one on the right stares off camera as the other, wearing a headset mic bends to speak to her, translating.

Real-time translation in action in Somerville, Mass. Photo courtesy of Somerville Community Corporation.

Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) was founded in 1969 without a specific immigrant focus, even though, located two miles northwest of Boston, the city of Somerville has always been a home to new immigrant populations. “One hundred years ago, it was Italian, Portuguese, and Greek; now we have immigrants from all over the world,” says SCC deputy director Meridith Levy. At the local high school, Levy says, over 50 languages are spoken in students’ homes. SCC’s mission to serve the lower-income population of Somerville has historically, and naturally, included the city’s new immigrants; and as the numbers of non-English speakers increase in the neighborhood, SCC’s language capability has had to grow along with it.

SCC isn’t alone. Immigrants to the United States bring with them skills, cultural traditions, and a multitude of languages. The 2011 Census recorded a total of 311 languages spoken beside English in U.S. households; and while all these languages help to enrich our societal tapestry, not speaking or understanding English is still a barrier to fully participating in society. At the same time, the oftentimes difficult realities for many low-income immigrants—which can include lack of decent housing, unemployment, and limited access to healthcare—fall squarely in the realm of what many community development organizations work on, and so honing their strategies for both communicating with and serving this frequently vulnerable population is a priority.

Getting Their Attention

The Neighborhood Development Alliance (NeDA) in St. Paul, Minn., operates in a seven-county metro area that includes Minneapolis. The longtime Latino population in NeDA’s footprint includes immigrants from Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico, among others. Started in 1989 as a CDC with a housing development focus, NeDA began to expand in the 1990s when the city approached the organization—the only bilingual CDC in St. Paul with a housing focus at the time—for help in getting the word out to Latino households on the city’s West Side about a low-interest loan program for home improvements. From housing counseling and then foreclosure counseling, NeDA has now moved into financial counseling and coaching as well.

“The road to success is understanding the American financial system,” says Karen Reid, NeDA’s executive director. “As our foreclosure counseling declines, our financial coaching is increasing, especially for those who want to get into homeownership.”

But reaching the people who need coaching isn’t always easy. “You’ve got to jump up and down in front of people,” says Reid. To get the word out about their services, NeDA advertises with the local Spanish-language radio station and newspapers, but “it’s really tough, especially on a limited budget.”

“One big success was ID’ing places that already had large groups of people, and speaking to them there,” she says. The places NeDA reps have spoken at include labor union meetings, community events, and at churches after services. Reid adds that the elementary schools are active in the community, and they allow NeDA to place its fliers in students’ backpacks. The organization’s Minneapolis satellite is located within a school facility that houses other social service organizations, placing it in an ideal location to reach people seeking help.

“It’s [about] being really flexible and taking advantage of every opportunity,” says Reid. “One of the early things we did, while doing pre-purchase counseling, is we worked with the local cable-access channel on a video about home repairs, with a Spanish-speaking narrator,” she says.

Both InterIm CDA, which serves the Pan-Asian community in Seattle, and Chhaya CDC, which supports New York City’s South Asian community with homeownership and foreclosure counseling, financial empowerment, and tenant and community organizing, advertise in local ethnic media as well, but say that word of mouth is by far their most effective form of outreach. InterIm and Chhaya use their physical locations—both get lots of walk-ins—as advertising for their programs and services. Chhaya moved several times before finding a home it felt strongest in (it started in Lower Manhattan, then moved to two other Queens locations before settling in Jackson Heights). “We realized [at those places] that the community didn’t come to us, so we moved our office to be right in the ethnic center—[near] grocery shopping, it’s very central,” says Chhaya’s deputy director, Tenzing Chadotsang.

Language Before Training

To serve new immigrant populations best, community development professionals must be equipped with language skills and cultural competency. But which comes first, the community development knowledge or the cultural competence and language skills? For InterIm, there’s no question: hire people with language skills and/or cultural ties, then train them in the rest.

“Cultural competency is important. No matter whether it’s health, homelessness, domestic violence, it’s all culturally understood,” says Pradeepta Upadhay of InterIm. “If you don’t have people who are understanding cultural differences, there’s already misunderstanding. With domestic violence, [for example], its not just a matter of, ‘Why don’t you leave your husband?’ Not just with InterIm, but with all organizations serving immigrant and refugee populations, there is always a tendency to hire people from within the community and those with language capacity. [For new immigrants] the most difficult barrier to accessing systems is language, and the ability to navigate the system [and] to communicate with staff,” she says.

All of InterIm’s staff is bilingual and ethnically representative of the pan-Asian community the organization serves. Upadhay notes that in their housing services department, all staff members are immigrants, and 11 languages are spoken. Among the staff as a whole, all are bilingual, a few are trilingual, and some speak several languages.

Reid at NeDA says the same. Of its 11 staff members, 8 are bilingual, including all of their certified coaches. Reid says they first seek staff that can communicate in both English and Spanish as well as culturally and linguistically connect to the community, and then train them. “For our counselors, training can include the required certificate requirements for home ownership and/or financial counseling. We do go the extra mile in having new staff actually work with a seasoned counselor for three months before we let them loose—so to speak.”

At Somerville CDC, Levy says her organization is very intentional about having a multilingual, multicultural staff that is comfortable working with people in a cultural context. On their six-person community organizing and asset building team, there is a first generation Chilean immigrant, a multilingual Caucasian, a Pakistani, a Puerto Rican, and a Haitian Creole speaker. “When we hire people, we want to hire staff that reflects our community,” she says.


For organizations working with a language diverse community, the mechanics and administering of translation services are as important as its multilingual staff. For Chhaya CDC, translation services are handled on a case-by-case basis. Before an individual counseling session begins, staff gauges the visitor’s English proficiency to see if translation service is needed. If it is, a staff member who speaks the language is either assigned as a counselor for the individual, or will work as translator in tandem with the actual counselor.

Large community meetings take an all-hands-on-deck approach. “In our last community meeting we had almost 300 people, speaking Tibetan, Nepali, Bangla…” says Chadotsang. As people arrive, staff at an intake table collect their general information and ask if they need translation services. If they do, they are directed to a table with headsets. “Before presentations begin, the translators introduce themselves and remind attendees of the [translation] service,” he says.

For eight years now, Somerville CDC has run the Leadership Development Institute, a program that trains new leaders from the community to move forward SCC’s mission of sustaining affordability and livability for its lower income residents. Levy says that at least 75 of the institute’s participants have been immigrants with languages other than English as their primary language. The trainings are simultaneously translated, meaning interpreters work in soundproofed areas and listen through headsets to the main speaker in the meeting room, rendering the translated message into a microphone almost simultaneously. Audience members tune in to a specific channel to hear the interpretation in the language of their choice.

“So much of what we do is community organizing. Our whole philosophy is about people having their own voice,” says Levy. “The mechanics of that is very important.”

The trainings have been presented in up to five languages at once, which Levy says has sometimes caused interference, with so much equipment being used at once. English-speaking participants must wear headsets as well, so everyone feels comfortable—and equal. Levy says that English speakers sometimes have to be persuaded to wear them, but they come around to the idea. “Almost always, the people who were the most resistant are the most enlightened,” she says. “They see what it’s like; it’s transformative.”

SCC’s interpreters, though not on staff, are still considered part its team. SCC maintains longstanding relationships with its interpreters, which Levy says makes it easier for them over time to understand not just the linguistic nuances of the particular community they are working with, but the “language” of the community development work that SCC does. “They are engaged with our mission. It’s not just about this stand-alone service, it’s very relational, [and so] the interpretation is much deeper.”

For an organization like SCC that was not originally equipped with the language capacity it has come to have, resourcefulness is a virtue. Funding for its expanded language-based services comes from its general program budget, and committing to translation work has uncovered a network of support via a staff member whose membership in a translation group enables translation equipment to be kept—and used—in Somerville’s offices. In addition, SCC’s collaboration with a local university’s grant-writing class led to a technology grant that was used to purchase additional translation equipment.

Levy acknowledges that SCC’s decision to take on greater language capacity was not a single moment-in-time decision. “It happened very, very organically,” she says, and advises organizations struggling with the question of whether or not to reach out to non-English-speaking community members to look at their constituency.

“It’s just about who you’re working with. Because our [SCC’s] community is so multicultural, the best way for us to do the work we do is to break down those barriers. Even if we only needed a few people to do translation, it would still be worth it.” As a contrast, she cites a local bike path advocacy group whose constituency is bike riders. Says Levy, “They believe in inclusivity, but that’s not their main population. They may have some fliers translated, but that is not their goal.”

“If a group feels like they do want to have a diverse body of members, they have to take that step [and] do the hard work,” she says.

Deeper Than Language

For Upadhay and Carol James of InterIm, sharing a cultural background with the people they serve has a significant purpose. Located in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown district, InterIm focuses on the Pan-Asian community, with the majority of clients coming from China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

“Having been a fairly new immigrant myself, I have experienced, to some extent, the challenges of emigrating and being new,” says Upadhay, who moved to the United States in 1999 and serves as InterIm’s director of operations and strategic initiatives. Having that experience, she says, makes it a lot easier to understand clients and the challenges they face, and to “look at programs as they’re designed, making sure they’re culturally appropriate.”

James, InterIm’s housing services manager, echoes her colleague’s sentiments, noting that she came to the United States as a student and didn’t understand so many systems, despite being a native English speaker. “Can you imagine those with language barriers?”

Sometimes language capacity means an organization is stepping in to fill communication gaps for its clients. Though its services have expanded, InterIm started out as an affordable housing developer and continues to own several housing units—the residents of which they maintain direct contact with. Many of InterIm’s tenants speak no English and have no computer in the home, so they rely on the organization for important neighborhood information. Monthly meetings for community residents draw 45 to 50 attendees, mostly seniors. “We look around for important issues that need to be discussed or things we need to make people aware of,” says James. Recent topics have included the importance of flu shots or the city’s new composting rule, which imposes a heavy fine if food waste isn’t disposed of properly. “The meeting focused on helping them understand how to do it correctly, the consequences of not [doing it], and what to do if they were approached by their landlord,” said James.

When dealing with a new immigrant population on everyday matters like these, cultural sensitivity matters, not just translation. As an example, James and Upadhay describe how when helping clients obtain phone service, they have to be mindful that a certain number sounds like the word “death” when spoken in Cantonese and try to secure phone numbers without it.

Another example is in one of InterIm’s key areas of service—homelessness. Through its Housing Stability and Homelessness Prevention program, InterIm helps approximately 1,300 to 1,500 people to get out of or avoid homelessness each year, and cultural specificities influence their efforts. “A lot of people may not even consider themselves homeless; they may live with family,” says James. With acknowledgement of their situation, “There is a loss of identity and shame.” She cites the importance of maintaining respectful, non-judgmental conversation with clients in need, as well as understanding that many of their clients are under greater stress as they adjust to a new environment.

James retells the story of a homeless transitional housing client for whom InterIm had found permanent subsidized housing. The woman, a Chinese immigrant, collapsed in tears when she saw the apartment had a beam—a symbol of bad luck in her culture—dividing the space, and didn’t want the apartment. “We did get a volunteer to help cover it, and had a friend convince her to stay because [the apartment] was great,” says James.

“[There are] things you won’t be able to identify unless you have lived it,” says Chadotsang at Chhaya. “A lot of our clients are low-income families that have limited English proficiency—when they come into a place like ours, it has to be safe, they have to be comfortable,” he says. They’re divulging so much personal information. If we have the trust part, then we get the results.”

“Across the programs, cultural relevance is the foundation in how we design and develop programs to respond to the needs of the community,” says Upadhay. An example of that relevance is in InterIm’s Danny Woo Community Garden, a small urban garden maintained by senior community members, most of whom do not speak English. Each member is given a space to tend, enabling them to practice agriculture that is familiar to them from their homelands. Composed of 88 plots tended by about 65 elderly Asian gardeners, the garden has become a place where the gardeners can socialize, get exercise, and raise vegetables that reflect their culture, such as bok choy, bitter melon, daikon, and watercress. Prior to the garden program they were likely to stay isolated and indoors.

Providing for and involving a multilingual, multicultural community can take a lot of work. “There are barriers for people to get involved, [so] we have to work extra hard to get them to feel a part,” says SCC’s Levy. But it’s also very satisfying, she says. “It’s been really gratifying to watch people become emboldened.”

(For more on community development groups reaching out to immigrant populations, see “Learning to Stretch.”)

Somerville Community Corporation
The Neighborhood Development Alliance
InterIm CDA
Chhaya CDC


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