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Thread: Planning, inclusivity, and Latino communities

  1. #1
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Planning, inclusivity, and Latino communities

    Last night our chief planner and I conducted a public hearing as part of the process of drafting a new Comp Plan and updating our community's zoning. This particular hearing was for public comment on the Draft EIS.

    To provide some background, the community I work for is very diverse, with a large Latino population - mostly Ecuadorean, with some Guatelmalans and Mexicans as well. The municipality provided a translator for some of the early Comp Plan meetings but stopped providing it after the first draft of the Comp Plan was created, because the Plan is only in English. Since then, all meetings, hearings, and documents have been exclusively in English. At some point, certain elements within the community had complained to the government that if we were to provide information in Spanish, we'd need to do it in every language spoken in the community and therefore should not provide any translation.

    Flash forward to last night. A half an hour before the meeting, I'm helping to arrange chairs in the room and get things set up. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a young woman with a little girl standing outside the entrance to the room. As I walk outside the room to grab some more chairs, the woman approaches me and asks in Spanish if this is the hearing for the Comp Plan. We talk for 5 minutes about what will be discussed at the meeting and I answer her questions as best I can (I'm still a little rough on transferring a lot of planning jargon into Spanish).

    Suddenly, she asks the question I was dreading: "Sera un traductor?" She wanted to know if we'd be providing a translator. Horribly embarrassed after conversing with her in Spanish about the EIS and Comp Plan, I told her that there would be no translation for this meeting. She looked really disappointed, said that she couldn't understand enough English to make it worthwhile, and she thanked me for my time and left. This morning, it's weighing heavily on my mind.

    Since I've been working here over the last year, the lack of a connection between our planning practices and our large Latino community has become more and more apparent. I spoke to the chief planner about it and she said that it's a huge problem for us and that every effort to make inroads with this community has failed. The worst part is that last night may have been a blown opportunity and a real setback for us. I can only imagine what she'll say to her friends, family, and acquaintances about our department.

    There's an article on Planetizen about this: http://planetizen.com/node/35091

    I had just read the article yesterday afternoon. We're dealing with the very issues the author raises but frankly, we're making very little progress and it bothers the hell out of me. Have any of you had success with this? This is a really important topic that I don't see addressed all that often. It's highly dysfunctional to have a large population within your municipality that is effectively 100% cut off from participating in the community's decision-making processes like this and I want to do something about it. I'm the one Spanish speaker in our office and field any calls that we get in Spanish, but IMO, that's not enough.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    I agree that local governments should try and be inclusive in terms of language barriers, especially in communities with large minority populations. Actually it's a fairly logical thing to do since they are the constituents.

    It seems that each community should decide what level of language translation is neccessary. For some I'm sure it makes sense to have entire Comp plans in different languages, for others, perhaps brochures, etc. It really depends on the community.

    That being said, there still needs to be a "default" language that everyone must strive for.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    At some point, certain elements within the community had complained to the government that if we were to provide information in Spanish, we'd need to do it in every language spoken in the community and therefore should not provide any translation.
    Off-stopic
    This is such a touchy issue, and ignites a lot of fire to the debate of an "english" only society, and why can't these people learn English etc. As a side note, I am Salvadorean, and my parents immigrated here to this county, legally, in the 1960's. Both of them learned English by listening to the radio, watching tv, and taking a few adult education courses. The believed that if they were to succeed in this country, they would need to learn the language, but at the same time teach their children Spanish along with their heritage of their native country, so when Hispanics tell me they don't learn english because they will loose their culture, i call foul and crock of shit and agree with my parents that they are just lazy.

    Back on topic
    On two comp plans my company did, workshop materials as well as translators were provided for Spanish speakers. Although they had some basic questions regarding re-zones, etc, most of their concerns were for current issues such as speeding, code violations, etc. The one workshop were our client did not want to produce any material, spanish speakers came out in force and unfortunately i bore the brunt of the questions as "green" as i was (my first public workshop just 1 month removed out of college). The spanish community was glad to have material, as well as folks that spoke the language. Depending on the neighborhood a planner works with, a reach out should be done for the majority of speakers for the neighborhood. While working with the City of San Francisco, i worked on a pedestrian light roll out in 2001 and doing workshops and reachout for the Chinese community was an experience all on its own. I think it is up to planners to pin point on how to work with a certain neighborhood and try out different methods to see what works. Some groups may be more apathetic than others, especially those that are here illegally. Although the results may not be what you hoped for, i think knowing that you tried will make you sleep just a little better.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  4. #4
    I am third generation Mexican American and my Spanish has deteriorated to the extent I can't understand much more than telenovelas. I would never try to discuss general plan issues in spansih. There are a lot of people who can function in English very well on day to day activities, but its hard to communicate the fine points of a general plan to native English speakers. So if you don't have a translator when planning for an immigrant community, just understand that its the same as not having any public hearing whatsoever, just that you have covered your butt legally.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    I know there are more of you out there with a lot to add to this discussion. If this doesn't get to the heart of what we do in this job, what does?

  6. #6
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    I know there are more of you out there with a lot to add to this discussion. If this doesn't get to the heart of what we do in this job, what does?
    Our city has an employee whose major function is translation, among other things. It costs us overtime pay to bring her in for a meeting, but we will. When we send out comp plan notices, we send them with a Spanish translation on the back and instructions to call us at least 48 hours prior so we can have the translator on site. (My Spanish in only limited)

    From an advocacy point of view I believe we should make reasonable efforts to accomodate those that while they may have some command of English, it is likely not sufficient enough for them to understand the complexities of a comprehensive plan. I believe spending the pittance of extra money for a translator at such meetings is worth it to ensure an important segment of the population that is often cut out of public processes is included. Lacking command of the English language should not exclude a person from participating in the future of their community and neighborhood.

    I seem to recall the State of Florida put out a manual to assist local governments and state departments in reaching Latinos during community input processes.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  7. #7
    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    We seldom have any non-english speakers at any of our meetings, which is interesting considering we work all over north Texas. There are plenty of people in this area that speak absolutely no english but few ever attend our meetings. I would think that a big reason why is that the meetings aren't advertised in spanish in most cases. We have had a city recently advertise the meeting in spanish, but no non-english-speakers showed up and if they had, we were in no way prepared for it, as none of us are fluent enough to do much but order food at a mexican restaurant (which is embarassing for me).

    We have, however, had translation for a vietnamese population in recent history, but that was only verbal translation at meetings...the document was english-only.

    When I think about it, I think we should provide AT LEAST the executive summary in spanish, but our clients never ask us for this. I am one of those that does not believe people should HAVE to learn english to live in this country. I visited Sweden & Denmark recently and I would estimate that the majority of immigrants did not know swedish or danish (but everyone knew english) as the natives did not expect them to learn their languages.

    Here's another thing to throw in:

    If you know you will have a large non-english speaking population, should you hold a seperate meeting for them, so that you can devote all of your time to their needs? The negative with this is, of course, that their views are not heard by the english-speaking population. We structure our focus group meeting process such that people from significantly different viewpoints (senior citizens and youth organizations or businesses and environmental groups, for example) are in the same meeting. I believe that their mutual understanding is one of the most valuable outcomes of these meetings. Thoughts?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    I seem to recall the State of Florida put out a manual to assist local governments and state departments in reaching Latinos during community input processes.
    I'd be interested in seeing it. I've heard that there is sometimes a reluctance by Latinos to participate in the planning process even when a translator is provided.

    I've been working (as part of a team of consultants) with a community where about half the population is Hispanic, with many residents who are from south and central America. Quite a few own businesses. We had both a resident survey and a business survey translated into Spanish, but I don't think we had a very good response from them. I was especially disappointed about the lack of response from Hispanic business owners, because I felt it was important to hear from them and find out how they are doing, their financial and technical assistance needs, etc. Only one attended a roundtable discussion we facilitated for local business owners.

    Apparently providing a translator at meetings and having surveys available in Spanish isn't enough. So what else can we do?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Mud Princess View post
    I was especially disappointed about the lack of response from Hispanic business owners, because I felt it was important to hear from them and find out how they are doing, their financial and technical assistance needs, etc. Only one attended a roundtable discussion we facilitated for local business owners.

    Apparently providing a translator at meetings and having surveys available in Spanish isn't enough. So what else can we do?
    We have been working on some downtown economic development initiatives and have had the same results. We had a downtown economic summit over the summer and canvassed at every business downtown, including some of the Latino businesses who have English-speaking owners. No one from the Latino businesses came. Given the vital role they play as "third places" within the Latino community, we need to get them on board but it's just not happening despite our efforts.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Mud Princess View post
    I was especially disappointed about the lack of response from Hispanic business owners, because I felt it was important to hear from them and find out how they are doing, their financial and technical assistance needs, etc. Only one attended a roundtable discussion we facilitated for local business owners.
    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    No one from the Latino businesses came. Given the vital role they play as "third places" within the Latino community, we need to get them on board but it's just not happening despite our efforts.
    I wonder if its a systemic distrust of the system that is keeping the Latino/Tejano voice away. Similar, maybe to the general distrust of law enforcement because in many of their native lands, law enforcement is corrupt....I wonder if there is a perception that if city government is corrupt back home, then it is here, too....

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    A possible resource

    In searching (unsuccessfully) for the Florida manual that Suburb Repairman mentioned, I found this webpage from the Federal Highway Administration on techniques for involving "ethnic, minority, and low-income groups" in transportation decision-making.

    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/reports/pittd/ethmin.htm

  12. #12
    NIMBY asshatterer Plus Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    ....I seem to recall the State of Florida put out a manual to assist local governments and state departments in reaching Latinos during community input processes.
    I searched DCAs website without any luck.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Coragus's avatar
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    When I was in college, I had no idea I was going to end up in Planning. If I had, I might have minored in Spanish instead of German. I guess I'm lucky that I haven't had to work with a language barrier yet in my career, but I feel like it's inevitable.
    Back home just in time for hockey season!

  14. #14
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by RichmondJake View post
    I searched DCAs website without any luck.
    Maybe it was from somewhere else then. I'll look and see if I have a hard copy of it.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Plus
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    I feel a little bad saying this because I'm bilingual and quite the Liberal, but here it goes:
    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    . . . the woman approaches me and asks in Spanish if this is the hearing for the Comp Plan. We talk for 5 minutes about what will be discussed at the meeting and I answer her questions as best I can (I'm still a little rough on transferring a lot of planning jargon into Spanish).
    Don't ever speak to somebody in Spanish about the plans again!

    If something is ever... errrr... "lost in translation," you may be legally liable. Your first responsibilities are to yourself and your organization. GS touched upon this in his last few words:
    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    . . . just that you have covered your butt legally.
    Yes--get good and familiar with the DCA; yes--hire a translator for every meeting. Are you in the position to plead the case for hiring more bilingual employees for community outreach?
    ____________________

    But, MJ, I don't see any reason why you can't talk in Spanish about non-planning subjects with early people. Everyday subjects like seating at the meeting, location of the lavatories, the weather, how-are-you-and-your-children... you get the idea. That you know Spanish and have taken the time to make them feel comfortable before the meeting--that goes a long way.

    (Just be sure that the translator has coached you on how to proactively diplomatically say in Spanish: "Only the translator, who will be here shortly, is allowed to speak to you in Spanish about the meeting agenda or any official business." You may have to repeat this many times to many people.)

  16. #16
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Seana, what you posted is very interesting. The liability angle is surely something important to consider. How have you dealt with these kinds of things with Community Board meetings?

    As far as not speaking Spanish at all to residents: would you say that I should avoid fielding phone calls in Spanish as well? I've done that on more than one occasion because no one else here speaks the language. It was actually one of the reasons why I was hired, and it would be a shame if I couldn't continue to use it.

    Unfortunately, the municipality isn't in a position to hire anyone else, period, given the fiscal situation right now. There may be a possibility of translators for future hearings but it's a slim one given that the Spanish speakers who were involved early on are no longer part of the process.

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    Cyburbian Plus
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    The liability angle is surely something important to consider. How have you dealt with these kinds of things with Community Board meetings?
    My recent experiences with two different NYC community boards are limited to my two recent one-year residences in the Queens Borough of NYC -- that is, this past year, and from 2001-2002. Therefore, I'm not especially qualified to comment on recent legalities handled by the community boards.

    My wealth of recent public experience is from a few specific civic associations in 'first suburbs' adjacent to NYC. (Most civic associations are not as powerful as NYC community boards, but these ones are.) As for my employment experiences in the private sector... don't even get me started...!

    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    As far as not speaking Spanish at all to residents: would you say that I should avoid fielding phone calls in Spanish as well? I've done that on more than one occasion because no one else here speaks the language.
    MJ, listen up: if you're not entirely fluent in Spanish, then you're probably not adequately legally protected right now.

    Go to HR, find out what legal protection you have in the worst case scenario:
    You answer phone question in Spanish--due to your non-fluency, your answer is incorrect--your organization is sued.

    If, after talking with HR, you feel that you have inadequate legal protection: tell HR that you can no longer field the phone calls in Spanish until legal protection is in place. If *perchance* your legal protection is just fine, get it in writing and get a copy. (MJ, I'm not the first person to recommend this to you, am I?)
    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    . . .it would be a shame if I couldn't continue to use it...
    ...but it would be more of a shame if you used your Spanish and were sued, no?


    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    Unfortunately, the municipality isn't in a position to hire anyone else, period, given the fiscal situation right now. There may be a possibility of translators for future hearings but it's a slim one given that the Spanish speakers who were involved early on are no longer part of the process. . .
    My latter recommendations in my previous post were predicated on the assumption that your municipality would hire a translator for the meetings, (which costs very little). Since, however, your municipality is 'penny wise, pound foolish,' please just go with GS:
    So if you don't have a translator when planning for an immigrant community, just understand that its the same as not having any public hearing whatsoever, just that you have covered your butt legally.


    *Lightbulb moment*

    MJ, is it possible that your Spanish is already so good that your municipality would pay for an 'approved' advanced course in the Spanish language? Or better yet, send you to a quickie institute? This may give them the legal coverage they may need for you to field questions in Spanish. So the municipality is broke--ask them anyway!

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Seana View post
    If something is ever... errrr... "lost in translation," you may be legally liable. Your first responsibilities are to yourself and your organization.
    Interesting discussion. I would almost be as worried about the Spanish translator's "translation" of planning concepts into Spanish, presuming they are not a trained planner as well. If this is a continuing problem for you, the idea of sending a staffer to Spanish class would be well worth it. Staff knows the concepts but can stumble putting them into Spanish. Translator knows Spanish but can stumble over the planning meanings. Just imagine anyone in the audience of a presentation being asked to repeat back what they just heard in new words, 50% chance there will be at least a shade of meaning, if not a whole concept, that is not what you want. This is especially worrisome in informal discussions with questions to the translator that they answer immediately (instead of going back to English to the staff) using their opinion of the subject.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Seana View post

    MJ, is it possible that your Spanish is already so good that your municipality would pay for an 'approved' advanced course in the Spanish language? Or better yet, send you to a quickie institute? This may give them the legal coverage they may need for you to field questions in Spanish. So the municipality is broke--ask them anyway!
    For the record, there may be a possibility that the municipality would hire a translator for subsequent hearings and presentations. However, it would be up to me to make the case for it given the low level of participation by Spanish speakers so far.

    I've been talking about this with some colleagues and one of them made a point that makes a lot of sense: there needs to be a certain degree of civic fabric in place to allow the community stakeholder process to interface with an emerging constituency such as this. There in no CDC or other community-based nonprofit here to take that role and help build power among Latinos. In fact, it's probably a mistake to refer to the "Latino community" as such in this context. It's very balkanized between the Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and Guatemalans and individuals from the different countries even divide themselves up based upon the village that they originated from in the old country. There's no organizational umbrella to convince these folks of their common interest and that's not something that government can provide.

  20. #20

    Planning, immigrants and inclusivity

    These issues are increasingly important given the changing demographics of our communities. The challenges are becoming even more evident as local city officials are finding it harder to reach out to latinos and other immigrants. I work for a policy and advocacy umbrella organization that works towards civic participation and inclusion for immigrant groups in my city and in the state. We are doing our best to address the issues you have discussed. We partnered with a quasi-public agency and created a collaborative of 10 diverse community-based groups serving immigrants in different neighborhoods throughout our city to build civic engagement and encourage participation in park planning and community development.

    Our focus has been on parks, but we are really interested in creating an outreach methodology for immigrant communities that could serve as a model nationwide and in different issue areas. Our mayor recently signed an executive order mandating language access for all city agencies that directly interact with the public- something my organization fought for since 1999. The collaborative will be working with our Department of Parks on implementing their action plan for language access. We are expecting that this will help reduce some of the challenges of engaging latino and immigrant groups in the planning process.

    We are currently developing a website to help share our work with others. The url is www.immigrantsparks.org. It is in it's beginning stages, but feel free to revisit the website later to learn more about this initiative.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Silvett View post
    These issues are increasingly important given the changing demographics of our communities. The challenges are becoming even more evident as local city officials are finding it harder to reach out to latinos and other immigrants.
    I couldn't agree more... and yet it seems to be an issue affecting communities in many areas of the U.S., small and large, urban and rural. It surprises me how little I've been able to find online, at least with respect to the planning process, through my research.

    Good luck with your initiative, Silvett, and keep us posted.

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