Little by little, Asheville-area government services are becoming more accessible to non-English-speaking community members, but progress by officials to reach a more diverse demographic varies.
“There is a need for translated forms and documents and interpretation services,” says Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County register of deeds. “I’m hopeful that, as new leadership comes into place, we as a government entity are going to make it more of a priority to make services available across the board.”
During the May 23 meeting of City Council, two members of the Cenzontle Language Justice Collective interpreted the meeting in Spanish. The service was arranged directly by BeLoved Asheville through its $1 Million for the People campaign. The organization also provided transportation and child care for attendees.
“I believe that this was a historic night, as I have never seen the Council meeting translated,” says Amy Cantrell, community organizer, pastor and one of the core team at BeLoved Asheville who attends City Council meetings regularly.
“I think that we must make much stronger efforts to include all of the members of our community in our democracy,” Cantrell says. “Every meeting should support community engagement by providing things like interpretation, child care and transportation since they often extend to hours after most buses quit running.”
City Clerk Maggie Burleson says there may have been one previous Council meeting at which a translator was present, but it would have taken place years ago. Her office, Burleson continues, would have been happy to arrange the translation service at the May 23 meeting if it had been asked to do so.
City Council member Cecil Bothwell says he is unaware of any prior requests for foreign language interpretation of meetings. “Some city information is available in Spanish,” Bothwell says. “We’re discussing how we might make our meetings and information more inclusive.”
According to city spokesperson Polly McDaniel, the city has recently provided Spanish-language translation and child care for selected community meetings. At least two surveys posted on Asheville’s Open City Hall public comment website have been provided in Spanish as well, she says.
With the click of a button at the bottom of the homepage, the city of Asheville’s website (ashevillenc.gov) can be instantly translated into more than 100 different languages. On the Buncombe County website (buncombecounty.org), however, few individual departments offer information in a language other than English.
Making it register
One exception is Reisinger’s office, which provides an instant Spanish translation of the entire webpage, including information about each of the services offered by the register of deeds.
“Since I took office in 2011,” he says, “we’ve made a big push to make this place accessible to everyone in the community, whether it’s a same-sex couple, Spanish-speaking couple or anyone else who lives here.”
Of the nearly 90,000 people living in Asheville during the 2015 U.S. census, 10 percent spoke a language other than English at home, and 6.5 percent of the city’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino.
The Literacy Council of Buncombe County, an organization that provides a number of free services in the community, reaches about 250 students each year with its volunteer-dependent English tutoring program.
“I have a waiting list of about 60 adults right now, waiting to be tutored,” says Erin Sebelius, director of the Literacy Council’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program.
Only about 10-15 percent of the people who sign up for the ESOL tutoring program are on the path to citizenship, Sebelius says.
“Most of the people in the program just want to improve their English so they can do things like talk to their kids’ teachers,” she says. “They need help with being able to accomplish everyday life skills — completing paperwork or job applications, that sort of thing.”
Reisinger says that 100 percent of the office’s vital records (forms relating to birth, death and marriage certificates) are available in Spanish.
“One of the first things I did was hire bilingual staff members for each of the departments,” he explains. “In most cases, people can go to the website to gather all the information they need, but if they do need to come to the office, there will be someone here who can speak to them.”
The Asheville Police Department has actively recruited more Spanish-speaking applicants for a variety of positions during the past year, says Christina Hallingse, public information officer.“Our goal is to have a Spanish-speaking telecommunicator on each shift.” To accomplish that objective, Hallingse continues, “We’ve been working with several of the Catholic churches that host Spanish-language Masses. We’ve been attending their Masses, speaking with them, and letting them know about open positions within the department.”
The city’s police force is currently composed of 194 officers, six of whom speak Spanish fluently, along with one Spanish-speaking telecommunicator.
“We’re trying to extend our outreach and duplicate all our efforts into Spanish,” she says, noting that employment opportunities are posted in both English and Spanish.
“We want to eventually translate all of our department materials into all the languages that are most commonly spoken in Asheville,” Hallingse says.
Over at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, “Being bilingual is a favorable skill for employment,” spokesperson Natalie Bailey says of law enforcement positions ranging from telecommunicators and detention personnel to deputies and support staff. When communicating with non-English speakers who call for service, she says, staff can use a translation service.
Both Hallingse and Reisinger note that after full Spanish accessibility is established, the focus will shift to the Russian-speaking community.
“Our next step is reaching the second-largest group of non-English speakers,” Reisinger says, “so we are currently working with folks to translate all our documents and forms into Eastern European languages like Ukrainian, Russian and Moldovan.”
Buncombe County’s Department of Health and Human Services, says Lisa Eby, communications director for the agency, provides “interpreter services for anyone in any language who may be accessing the services as required under Title VI.” Eby is referring to the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits “discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance,” according to the website of the U.S. Department of Justice. The department fulfills this obligation, Eby explains, using bilingual and contract staff. Community members interested in being added to the county’s contract interpreter staff, she adds, should contact Karen Hart at 828-250-5500; a proficiency assessment is required.
The Family Justice Center, a multiagency resource for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse that is administered by Buncombe County, advertises free Spanish and Russian interpreters and provides translations in both those languages on directional signs inside the building.
Beyond what’s required by federal law, Eby says, the county is “working with Cenzontle Language Justice Collective to provide simultaneous interpreter services as well as translation of materials for events in the community such as Lunch and Learns and Coffee with Commissioners. We are exploring options with them to see how we can continue to expand access.” Interpretation services could also be provided at meetings of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, she says, if commissioners direct county staff to arrange for them.
As for City Council meetings, Burleson says city staff members are discussing whether facilitating interpretation in other languages might fall within the responsibilities of the newly created equity and inclusion manager position. On July 20, the city announced that Kimberlee Archie will fill the role beginning Monday, July 31.
“It’s a matter of language justice,” Cantrell says. “We have members of this community whose lives are affected by decisions made at Council meetings. They have a right to be engaged in these decision-making processes. There is a simple organizing adage: ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Dan Hesse and Virginia Daffron.