Language Access is a Feminist Issue

Special thanks to Jill Laster, this week’s guest blogger on Feminism from Grassroots to Full Bloom. Jill agreed to share her thoughts on this critical issue.

I don’t pay much attention to cars, but one of my all-time favorite stories is about Henry Ford and his bizarre struggle to make cheaper rubber tires.

In the late 1920s, Henry Ford decided his company should start growing rubber to avoid the high costs of buying from Asia. So he came up with an idea for a colony in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon –Fordlandia – that would use local labor to harvest rubber to be shipped north for use making tires. It would also be Ford’s ideal American town – a sort of social experiment  - deep in the heart of the Amazon.

As you might expect, it didn’t go very well.

He served brown rice, whole-wheat bread, peaches and oatmeal to Amazonian workers – foreign foods that locals didn’t care for, according to a 2009 NPR story. The cozy brick cottages Ford commissioned for his American officials fared poorly in the sweltering heat. Henry Ford even made his employees learn to line dance – which, as you might guess, is not necessarily a universally loved activity.

Fordlandia was finally abandoned as a failure in 1945, leaving a pile of ruins that remains semi-intact today deep in the Amazon jungle.

I think about Fordlandia a lot when I do work on language access because it strikes me as a perfect example of how – like it or not – language and culture are inextricably linked.  It wasn’t enough that Ford’s American workers could literally communicate with natives. It failed in part because there wasn’t a clear understanding of how native Amazonians worked– concepts such as what best motivated them, what sort of work schedule they preferred and what they liked to eat.

When feminists – including those in the sexual violence movement – try to build relationships with communities that speak different languages, it’s important to be aware that more than just language is “in play.” There is also a whole world of cultural considerations that must be taken into account. With sexual or domestic violence, culture can shape a person’s individual experience, what their response is, how much responsibility or blame they shoulder, and their access to or trust of local services.

Cultural relevance is a difficult task for organizations while critical shortages remain for the “bare necessities” of language access – organizations’ and systems’ capacity to provide basic services to people with limited English capabilities, people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, and people with varying levels of literacy, among others. So what can you do with limited money, limited time, and way too much need?

One basic step is to just gather some information on culture considerations and language access. A Powerpoint by the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence titled “What Does Cultural Competency Mean and Why Should I Care?” is a great place to start, as is NSVRC’s one-page statement on the importance of language access. If you want to take the next step forward, the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence also has some excellent documents on building organizational capacity (visit this page and scroll to the topic header “Language Access, Interpretation, Translation”).

You can also email me  – either to find resources related to language access or to share what you love. I’d also love to hear what questions, concerns or ideas you have on how NSVRC – or the anti-sexual violence movement as a whole – can improve language access.

Building linguistic and cultural capacity can be an intimidating task, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done or that we shouldn’t try. If we don’t, the anti-sexual violence movement will start to look like Fordlandia – and ours isn’t a cause we can afford to abandon.

Jill Laster is the language access specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.