City Council Holds Hearing on Language Access During COVID-19 Pandemic

The City Council Committee on Civil Rights held a hearing on May 15 regarding language ac-cess and information parity during the COVID-19 outbreak. This was the first time a Boston City Council hearing was available in languages other than English. The hearing was translated into Cantonese, Mandarin, Haitian Creole, and Spanish while the hearing was happening, and is now available for viewing on the Boston City Council YouTube channel in all five languages.

Sponsored by City Councilors Julia Mejia and Ed Flynn, the hearing focused on the issue of many non-English speakers who do not have access to a lot of important information sur-rounding the COVID-19 crisis, as many resources and applications were only available in Eng-lish at first, leaving many out of opportunities to receive aid and important information.

“As an immigrant myself, I know the struggles of securing housing while navigating government resources and living paycheck to paycheck,” Councilor Mejia said in a statement. “Holding this hearing is the first step in working towards a more equitable and accessible Boston for all. Now more than ever we need to ensure that those living the realities are able to have access to the resources they need. Throughout my campaign, we always said we wanted to change business as usual in City Hall. A hearing around language accessibility, with interpreters, is something this city has never seen before. I am proud to be working with Councilor Flynn on this initiative to make sure Boston is really a city where all means all .”

Councilor Ed Flynn said at the hearing that his district is comprised of a large Cantonese and Mandarin speaking community, as well as Spanish speakers, and said that he is “proud to have four women of color who work for me.” Each of these women speak a language other than English, and “I couldn’t effectively do my job and represent my constituents if I don’t have a dedicated staff that’s committed to the residents of my district and the city,” he said.

He said he is working to communicate in the languages spoken in his district and has held community forums in various languages since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Language access is not something that’s nice to have; it’s essential,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok.

The City Council heard from various members of the community and organizations across the city about the struggles they have faced around this issue.

Melanie Roche-Laputka said that she has been able to translate some English documents for families, but no materials from some neighborhood association meetings were available in any other languages. “Many do not feel comfortable attending meetings,” she said, because they will not understand what is happening nor will they be able to participate and be a part of the discus-sion.

Carlos Espinoza-Toro of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation said that some businesses are afraid of applying for loans. “We work with them, supporting them and help-ing them understand these topics,” he said.

Suzanne Lee said that in an effort to have more full participation from residents, four town halls were held in Cantonese and Mandarin, each time with about 150 people attending. The meetings were held in Cantonese and Mandarin and translated into English instead of the other way around. “I want to thank my councilor Ed Flynn who participated in those town halls,” she said. “Having that kind of town hall in the native languages is critical to getting our immigrant population to participate and…their voice matters.”

Others spoke up as well, saying that some resources for businesses are only available in Eng-lish, as well as some grant applications, which leaves out some \who may be most in need of funds.

A recent press release from Councilor Julia Mejia’s office states that “according to Boston Plans,  there are over 111,000 Bostonians who speak English ‘less than very well,’ presumably many who are unable to access critical resources during the COVID-19 outbreak. In a recent ProPublica piece, it was even found that hospitals have left many Coronavirus patient who don’t speak English alone, confused, and without proper care citing that, ‘even in normal times, those who don’t speak English have worse health outcomes for a range of routine procedures and can struggle to gain access to interpreters,’” the release says.

““I want to thank Councilor Mejia for partnering with me on this important issue,” Councilor Flynn said in a statement. “ During this critical time, it is imperative that we prioritize language access to ensure that residents who speak a language other than English have equitable access to infor-mation, services and programs relating to this pandemic. We know that our immigrant neighbors are some of the most impacted residents in this COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s very important that our city provide the interpretation and translation services necessary to help our residents get through these difficult times.”

Mejia said at the hearing that the work will not begin after this hearing, but rather that “the work has already started, and it’s our responsibility to move beyond the dialogue and put some muscle behind this and walk out of this conversation with a real clear mandate that we can’t continue to do business as usual.” She continued, “and that if we bring all stakeholders to the table, then that’s what real policy making looks like.”

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