Paulina Martinez, an assistant to the City Manager, briefs members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee June 3 on steps officials are taking to provide translation services to non-English speaking residents. RoundTable photo

In Evanston’s southwest Ninth Ward, Alderman Cicely Fleming has arranged for a Spanish version of her newsletter to go out to about 50 ward residents who speak that language, bringing them the same information about City policies and services and ward developments that English-speaking residents get.

In addition, she found someone in the ward who could translate documents or explain policies for non-English speaking residents when the need arose.

Still, that really should not fall to her, she pointed out at the June 3 City Council Human Services Committee meeting, “and if someone is coming to talk about a matter in the Health Department or what have you, the idea that we have to have some citizen around, available, I think it’s a shame on us.”

“I think, as we talk about citizens and trust and engagement, the fact that we all know we have a Spanish-speaking population and many others [speaking different languages] in our City, and they cannot communicate, they can’t read our communications,” is a major shortcoming, she said.

Officials are working on the issue, which first surfaced more than a year ago.

Starting in February of this year, staff in the City Manager’s office began research on the City’s current practices to create greater language access to the City’s policies, said Paulina Martinez, an assistant to the City Manager, in report to the committee.

As currently mandated, any program and/or entity that benefits from federal funds “must provide limited-English-proficient individuals with meaningful access to programs and activities under various statutory and regulatory requirements,” Ms. Martinez reported.

Assembling a working group of City employees, officials have held several meetings thus far, discussing the current language access policies in their divisions and departments, she said. The group has also started a database of vital documents to determine which languages the documents are currently available in, Ms. Martinez said, and plan to do a further examination of the need for translation.

She said staff is also making other efforts, holding ongoing conversations with School Districts 65 and 202, to learn more about their language-access policies and also obtaining demographic data “to gain a better understanding of the true access needs of the community.”

Internally, Ms. Martinez said an employee survey has gone out, assessing current City practices. She said at present only the Evanston Police Department has a policy on how to handle matters where a person who does not speak English is involved.

Otherwise, in cases of citizens seeking help, officials currently rely on staff members who are known to speak a second language to provide translation or interpretive services. “So we don’t have anything in writing or concrete at this point,” Ms. Martinez said, summing up.

“We have some work to do,” interjected Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward.

Based on census date, Ms. Martinez said the greatest demand for translation services appears to come from those whose first or only language is Spanish, followed by residents who speak Chinese –   either Cantonese or Mandarin, she said.

In the Fifth Ward, Alderman Robin Rue Simmons noted, an Arabic-speaking refugee community is developing, “and I have a resident that is doing all the translating,” she said.

Until the City has a policy in place, it is important that residents be encouraged to engage with officials “because, one, it will show the demand,” Ald. Simmons said, and, second, it will show “we do have ways to accommodate it [the need for translation] while we’re working on a more official solution.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.