Building a More Language-Inclusive Organization

When we started EdNavigator, we knew we didn't want language to be a barrier for families accessing our services. Meeting that goal is an ongoing process.

We started EdNavigator with a simple idea: that if we could bring educational support for families right to the workplace, we could make it easier for parents to engage with school, and in turn, get better experiences and outcomes for their kids.

At our very first information session at International House Hotel in New Orleans, where we launched the EdNavigator pilot in 2015, three of us—Whitney Henderson, Tim Daly and I—stood in front of a room of employees and made our pitch to them. Got questions about your kid’s school? Do you need support figuring out what their report card means or how to get them more help in a particular area?

It’s a lot to ask of parents, if you think about it. Come tell us perfect strangers about the thing that is most precious and anxiety-producing to you: your children. This is deeply personal for families. And our education system is brutally complex.

At that presentation, Tim explained what we did and how we could help families. And knowing many of the folks in the room were Spanish speakers, I translated in real time. We sensed that if EdNavigator was going to work, we needed to ensure that the service was fully accessible to all kinds of families—and that meant making sure language wasn’t a barrier. We had to prioritize enabling families to engage with us in the language they were most comfortable using.

Since then, we’ve come to recognize that while this is a worthy goal, meeting it isn’t always straightforward. We’re constantly learning more about the many ways we (and our education system) inadvertently default to English, and what we can do to proactively combat that in our work. Here are some things we’ve learned along the way:

Language needs to be a staffing priority. We can’t say we care about removing language as a barrier if we don’t have the right people on staff to do that. We proactively recruit team members who are fluent in multiple languages, and who have roots in the communities we serve: Among our Navigators, we currently have Spanish, Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, and French speakers. Of course, we’re unlikely to build a team that will speak every possible language we might come across in our work, so when we serve families that speak a language we don’t—at the moment, that includes Vietnamese and Ki’che’, among others—we have to seek out resources that can help us communicate. That might mean hiring hourly translators, using translation apps in a pinch, having written communications translated, or partnering with community organizations that serve families from that particular language background. Often, we’re figuring it out as we go, but we know we need to be ahead of the process, and meet our families where they are—not the other way around.

Bilingualism should be built into the work, not an after-thought. We expect that families will feel more comfortable accessing support from our Navigators if they get the message that our services are meant for them. To make sure we’re clear that English isn’t a prerequisite for engaging with us, when we introduce our work to a group that includes Spanish speaking employees, we run our introductory presentation in both English and Spanish. We’ll also have a Spanish speaker at the back of the room to translate and answer questions. We bring translated versions of outreach materials to all our presentations, and the EdNavigator app—the primary vehicle for communicating with members outside of in-person meetings—can currently operate in English, Spanish, or French.

The small stuff matters. Though we use external translators as needed, we’ve also developed an internal process for translating content into Spanish, since we have the capacity to do so within our own team. In doing so, we’ve been surprised to realize how easy it is for small stuff to fall through the translation cracks. We often observe this in schools’ translation processes, too: While major parent-facing communications might get translated, smaller—but equally critical—pieces of information often don’t. For example, an annual parent survey might be translated into multiple languages, but the email asking families to participate is only in English. For this reason, it’s been important for us to set up a system for not only translation itself, but also for assessing what needs to be translated and when. We continuously revisit that process as our work and the content we produce evolve.

Parents have translation rights and they need to be protected. One of our core roles in supporting families who speak a language other than English is advocating for their translation rights. Time and time again, we’ll hear from parents who attended a meeting at school, only to get there and realize there was no interpreter in the room—and another teacher or student was haphazardly asked to step in. Or families will get crucial information about their children—from report cards to IEP reports to field trip permission forms—sent home in a language they do not speak or read. Our Navigator team has developed expertise on parents’ legal rights to translation and become accustomed to finding their ways through school and district bureaucracy to get those rights met.

When we launched EdNavigator, we had a lot of questions: What do families need when it comes to engaging with school? How can we help them get those things? What does it take to give families a better experience of our education system—and eventually get better outcomes for kids?

One thing that was never a question, though, was who we wanted to reach: any family that needed support. And we knew we didn’t want language to be a barrier to that. We’re absolutely not there yet. Just recently, we’ve been thinking about how to provide better support for families with limited literacy, for whom translated written documents are not accessible. It’s a work in progress. But it’s one we’re glad to push ourselves on, because eliminating barriers to engaging with school—including those baked into our own work—is essential to giving families and students the educational experiences they deserve.

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