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English-to-Spanish interpretation ‘timely’ during pandemic: Official

Evanston officials are reporting appreciable progress since instituting new guidelines last year to make City documents and other materials more accessible to non-English speaking speakers.

At the City Council’s Human Services Committee meeting March 1, Acting Deputy City Manager Paula Martinez outlined the milestones the City has been able to achieve since new guidelines to language accessibility to City operations started going into effect January of last year.

One of the guidelines – which called for contracting with an interpretation service to be used over phone calls – was put in place in March of last year, right before the pandemic, Ms. Martinez told the Committee.

“So it came in very timely, especially for a lot of our contact tracers who have heavily used the service,” she said.

She reported that from April to December 2020, 217 over-the-phone interpretation requests were handled (4,478 minutes in duration) with 88% of the calls prompting requests for Spanish interpretation services.

Some of the other languages requested included Greek, French, Creole, and Polish, she told Committee members.

Other milestones the City achieved, she said, included the following:

  • Implementing a translation and onsite interpreter request form for staff. “A lot more of our staff members are using it and becoming more mindful about providing at least a translation in Spanish for a lot of literature that they’re putting out,” Ms. Martinez told the Committee.
  • Collecting names of volunteer bilingual staff.
  • Translating or communicating 37 documents, among them newsletters and flyers. “For this year, we do have a goal of translating about 65 documents that we have identified as vital documents,” she said.
  • In that regard, $50,000 has been allotted to cover professional translations and interpretations through the Good Neighbor Fund that Northwestern University has earmarked for equity projects, she said. The City will soon launch a pilot program with Literacy Works “to review our digital communication strategy, which aims to engage populations with low literacy skills and low English proficiency.”

Some other steps forward:

  • The Parks, Recreation, & Community Services Department will start translating its quarterly Recreation Program Guide, the first edition which will be found on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org, she said.
  • The City has begun rolling out training for staff on the Language Access Guidelines, and the resources available to staff, “making sure that we’re using simple language that is accessible to all readers, regardless of their literary level.”
  • Staff continues to actively build relationships with the Spanish and French Creole-speaking population, “to make sure that we adjust as we go, based on the needs of the population,” she said.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, asked Ms. Martinez to walk the Committee through what happens if, say, a Spanish-speaking resident calls the City’s 311 non-emergency line seeking assistance.

“Usually, when you call 311, you have the option to say whether you need the service in English or another language like Spanish,” Ms. Martinez explained. “We have distributed documents to staff to handle those calls, making sure they’re speaking slowly to the caller and saying, ‘Give me just one second, I will get an interpreter on the line.’ And then they just have to dial the phone number to the service.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, wondered why City efforts in language access are described as “guidelines” versus “policy.”

“I know you’re very committed and you’ve been championing this with staff,” she said to Ms. Martinez. “My concern with ‘guidelines-versus-policy’ is that if you leave, or whoever leaves, that this is not really something implemented.”

She also asked about how the City would be funding language access efforts once Northwestern’s support is gone this year.

Ms. Martinez said that staff had also discussed the guidelines-versus-policy question at the time “given the limited resources that we had” and opted to go with guidelines, “so that way we could adjust (them)” while trying to figure out “how and when and what was appropriate at the time.”

Also addressing that point, Kimberly Richardson, the City’s Interim Assistant City Manager, said “guidelines” is being used at this point as officials are still “trying to test out what works best in our organization,” looking “not to penalize our staff, but to train our staff.”

Ms. Richardson said the hope is to link into the language system “every staff person who is engaging publicly with the community.”

Those employees – regardless if they’re driving a refuse truck or they’re at a counter – should understand how to communicate with the public, both in English or another language if needed, she said.

As for the work continuing on the issue, “I’m trying to be very mindful about creating systems,” Ms. Martinez said, “that bring in other staff members besides myself … bringing in the communications team to make sure they take ownership.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.