Community advocates discuss improving language access for Asian Americans

Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network held its first convening on language access on May 31 at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, and Sovanna Pouv, executive director at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, spoke. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network (APIs CAN!) held its first convening on language accessibility on May 31 at Tufts University School of Medicine. City councilors, government officials and local advocates joined the discussion to address their concerns and suggestion of improving language services provided in different fields.

Paul Watanabe, director of UMass Boston Institution for Asian American Studies, moderated the convening. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Asian Americans are the fastest growing group in Massachusetts and comprise 6.5% of the state population. Within the community, limited English-speaking households form a majority: Boston has more than 8,252 households who have limited English proficiency. Language barriers emerge not only in the API community, but in other immigrant communities nationwide, which make it difficult for immigrants to get involved in government affairs and participate in public meetings.

Panelist May Lam, a long-time Quincy resident, talked about being treated unfairly when she was at a polling station. “The police officer insisted that they couldn’t find my address but I know I am eligible to vote because I voted in September. I asked them to check for me again but they refused, and asked me to go to City Hall to get some kind of proof to show I can vote,” said Lam, whose remarks were translated by Karen Chen, co-director of Chinese Progressive Association. “At last they found my name. Everyone thought it was funny but I didn’t, and I was really angry about being treated unfairly like this.”

City Council President Michelle Wu is the oldest of four children born to immigrant parents from Taiwan. She saw how limited language fluency affected households in need, who may face voter discrimination like Lam. Wu said, “I remember seeing all of the struggles they had as they need to rely on their very young child at the parent-teacher conferences, at the doctors and at the grocery stores. [I] realized that kind of distance and isolation my parents experienced, because language services were not provided in the area.”

Siu Ching Tsang, a Boston Chinatown resident, had a poll worker help him vote in 2003. However, the poll worker also “helped” to ask him to vote for a candidate he did not support. Tsang filed a complaint with the elections department for bilingual ballots and voting rights for those with limited English-speaking ability. “After 11 years of struggle, we were finally able to have a full bilingual ballot in Chinese and Vietnamese,” said Tsang during the panel discussion. “Language access is such an important issue for people to actually get their voice heard and increase their participation for all residents and citizens in public meetings and city affairs.”

APIs CAN aims to advocate the interests of Massachusetts’s Asian and Pacific Islanders American communities by promoting a shared agenda to further equity and oppose discrimination through year-around civic action. APIs CAN’s co-chairs Lydia Lowe and Sovanna Pouv introduced the statewide campaign to increase language access. The campaign targets the five most populous cities and towns: Boston, Lowell, Malden, Quincy and Worcester.

In Boston, one of the goals of APIs Can’s campaign is monitoring the implementation of the Communication Access Ordinance introduced by City Council President Michelle Wu and District City Councilor Tim McCarthy and signed by Mayor Walsh last year. Wu said, “City Hall now formally guarantees translation and interpretations for city services; multilingual hotlines need to be implemented; each city department has its own language access plan overseen by a coordinator from APIs CAN.”

APIs CAN has different goals for the other four cities and towns based on local conditions, which include: securing funding for professional interpreters, fully bilingual ballots, increasing bilingual poll workers, City Staff dedicated to interpretation and translation such as new multilingual telephone lines.

“Now it’s really about implementation and involving the community to make sure what has been written on paper works for people in the community,” Wu said. “I couldn’t be more excited to have everyone in pushing this, in monitoring us and holding us very accountable. This is the one of the most important step that any municipality in terms of truly opening up language access and opportunities for everyone.”

Panelists talked about their language access experiences. (From left) Anh Vu Sawyer, May Lam, Karen Chen and Siu Ching Tsang. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

City Council President Michelle Wu spoke about City Hall’s work on increasing language access. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

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