Like many during this pandemic, Hayk Makhmuryan, an Armenian-American tenant organizer and interpreter in Glendale, California, has re-thought the way they work and organize. However, thanks to the possibilities of virtual connection, Makhmuryan has also gained newfound community in their language justice work — or the practice of facilitating bilingual or multilingual communication while decentering English in movement spaces.
Several months into the pandemic, Makhmuryan recalls struggling with a virtual tenant meeting where they provided two-way Armenian-English interpretation. Despite attempts to slow down a passionate tenant, the speech at the meeting was too fast for the interpreters to accurately interpret, and communication suffered. Managing the pace of speakers is a common issue during in-person meetings, but the strategies that interpreters typically use in-person require adaptation to meet the needs of virtual spaces.
Language justice pairs interpretation and translation with an analysis of how power operates through language to create multilingual spaces and decenter English.
Makhmuryan sought solutions to this challenge by joining an online interpreter practice session organized by the Language Justice Committee of the Los Angeles Tenants’ Union. Makhmuryan joined to ask fellow interpreters how to deal with speakers who refuse to slow down, what they considered “just a simple question,” but was overwhelmed by the support and solidarity they received from interpreters there. Several others present had experienced the same issue and shared tips on how to intervene and manage these “fast-talkers,” such as setting clear expectations at the beginning of the meeting, or politely and firmly interrupting the meeting to manage the flow.
Makhmuryan is now a regular at these practice sessions, which draw on the entire Los Angeles region. Through them, Makhmuryan has built connections with more Armenian interpreters than would be possible if the meetings were in-person and geographically specific — connections that have been critical to advancing their tenant organizing during the pandemic.
As the world transitioned to Zoom, interpreters like Mukhmuryan worked with organizers to keep their movements multilingual, without being able to physically support communication with interpretation equipment as they usually would. Language justice workers around the country have embraced the shifts in communication brought about by the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate and grow alongside the movements they support.
Early in the pandemic, Zoom added a feature enabling simultaneous interpretation within the application, which has become a key tool for multilingual organizing online. However, the new technology came with a steep learning curve. For Lila Arnaud and yudith azareth — members of BanchaLenguas, a New Orleans Language Justice Collective — the transition to Zoom forced them to “pivot in mid-flight,” quickly learn new skills amidst crisis and then help their community partners navigate the new landscape.
azareth remembers helping one of these organizations with their rapid response work: “We were there, taking breaks in the middle of food distribution and packaging and learning Zoom.” Like Makhmuryan, BanchaLenguas found critical support from other language justice workers online via peer-led support sessions with others navigating both new technology and the realities of the pandemic.
Language justice is an ever-evolving framework and set of practices that ensure that people can lead, speak, and participate fully in movement-building and in their communities, regardless of the languages or linguistic variants they speak. Language justice pairs interpretation and translation with an analysis of how power operates through language to create multilingual spaces and decenter English. The practices of language justice have evolved over nearly two decades, and the pandemic is only the latest invitation to re-think how we communicate with each other across difference and distance while upholding linguistic equity.
The rise of multilingual organizing
As long as language has existed, bilingual people, oftentimes immigrants or their children, as well as members of Native communities, have found creative ways to bridge communication. While work to advance equitable cross-language communication happens outside of this lineage and label, the framework of language justice that has influenced multilingual organizing in the United States developed from the specific context of cross-language organizing at the Highlander Research and Education Center.
Highlander has been a hub for grassroots organizing and movement-building in Appalachia and the U.S. South since 1932 and has continued to transform alongside the shifting realities of Southern and Appalachian communities. In the 1990s, counties across the South began to see increased rates of immigration from Mexico and Central America, due to global labor trends that intensified with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, and the fallout from U.S.-backed civil wars in Central America. Meanwhile, in Appalachian and Southern states, U.S.-born workers began to lose their jobs, as their factories closed and moved to Mexico.
Following a worker-to-worker exchange at the U.S.-Mexico border in 1991 between laid-off workers from the Tennessee area and women employed at new maquiladoras, staff at Highlander realized how essential interpretation would be for any efforts to organize with newly arrived immigrants in their region. At the border, the delegation from Highlander was able to connect with the Spanish-speaking workers thanks to interpretation by a group called Tlatolli Olin, which is based in Mexico and made up of women who trained each other and provided interpretation for social movement-building. According to Highlander archivist Susan Williams, who was present for this inaugural trip, it was revelatory for the workers from the United States to be able to speak directly with maquiladora workers and understand what their lives and working conditions were like on a personal level.
After they returned to Tennessee, Williams said that organizers at Highlander sought interpreters to support labor organizing but had trouble finding people with both the technical skills for interpretation and an orientation towards social justice. When seamless interpretation and multilingual exchange is at its best, the effort that goes into it isn’t apparent, which can often lead to an assumption by organizations that it is relatively easy to achieve — and that being bilingual is enough to be able to interpret well. Highlander staff realized that if they needed skilled movement interpreters, they would have to cultivate them. In response, they launched a Multilingual Capacity Building program, led by interpreter and popular educator Alice Johnson, to train social justice interpreters throughout the South and Appalachia.
For the popular education-based work that Highlander did, cross-community dialogue was essential and allowed immigrant leaders to speak for themselves. Johnson was succeeded by Roberto Tijerina, who built on her work and spread the framework of language justice across the United States, beginning with the South and Appalachia.
While the presence of well-trained interpreters can go a long way in creating better cross-language communication, true language justice requires a more holistic approach.
Tijerina came to Highlander with a background in organizing, a lifetime of interpreting for his Spanish-speaking family members, and formal training in American Sign Language interpretation. The culmination of his work at Highlander was a curriculum drawing from the workshops he and Johnson ran. It was published online in 2009 and titled “What Did They Say? Interpreting for Social Justice”. After leaving Highlander, Tijerina traveled the country facilitating workshops using the curriculum, prioritizing training for queer, undocumented, and bilingual young people, as well as encouraging participants to replicate the training and make it their own. It has been subsequently used and adapted countless times and still serves as a foundational text in the training of social justice interpreters.
Over the years, language justice has expanded in several ways thanks to new generations of language workers, who — after being trained in Tijerina’s workshops — have in turn planted their own seeds. Many organizations on the left were exposed to language justice for the first time at the 2007 U.S .Social Forum in Atlanta and the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. During the latter, Tijerina ran a full-scale interpretation/translation team. Afterwards, he saw a boom in requests from organizations for language work. While person-to-person experiential immersion brought many into language justice work, so has cultural work on language justice, like the widely shared guide “How to Build Language Justice” by the language justice collaborative Antena Aire and the Center for Participatory Change podcast Se Ve Se Escucha. With nearly 20 years of iteration, much of the core principles of language justice remain the same, but they have found new dimension, new ways of enacting and expanding their reach.
Operationalizing and resourcing a multilingual approach
Over the course of his practice, Tijerina shifted from an early focus that centered primarily on training interpreters to an emphasis on building multilingual spaces, before eventually moving toward de-centering English within movement spaces. While the presence of well-trained interpreters can go a long way in creating better cross-language communication, true language justice requires a more holistic approach.
Most of society is organized to advantage speakers of dominant languages, a system of oppression called linguicism. Because so few of us have experienced spaces with linguistic equity, it can be challenging for an organization to shift away from language dominance towards language justice or to even what imagine might be possible beyond offering language services.
When organizations and movements operate at a high level of urgency, language justice can get overlooked and added as an afterthought — a phenomenon the pandemic has only exacerbated in some cases.
Event organizers often think of interpretation as a service for people who don’t speak English. This approach places English-speakers in a dominant position — of having something to say — while speakers of other languages are considered passive listeners at a deficit. A language justice approach to multilingual spaces would have interpretation for everyone who doesn’t share a language and all communication and activities would be designed for a multilingual audience. Telesh Lopez, language worker and co-founder of the recently closed Caracol Language Cooperative, explained that when promoting bilingual services or programs, “It’s not just about translating the flyer.” For example, if an organization puts a phone number on its flyer, they should be sure to have someone answering the phone in the language used on the flyer. “The services that you say you provide — will they be accessible?”
Furthermore, when promoting an event or a meeting, organizers need to think about having languages other than English represented in the facilitation and leadership. As Antena Aire has noted, “Every time we speak or sign in our particular accents and dialects, syntax and rhythms, cadences and inflections, we identify ourselves and bring social history and personal experience with us.” When we make space for people’s languages, it creates space for people to show up more fully to participate in social change. The tools and logistics related to language justice are secondary to a “whole-institution approach,” which, as Telesh emphasized, begins with understanding the role of language in people’s lives.
A first step towards a commitment to language justice is investing resources in it — both time and money. Often, bilingual people are expected to do the work of creating linguistic accessibility, unpaid and unsupported. yudith azareth said that before co-founding BanchaLenguas, “A lot of us were doing this interpretation work in community spaces most of our lives…the expertise that we carried with us went under the radar.”
When organizations and movements operate at a high level of urgency, language justice can get overlooked and added as an afterthought — a phenomenon the pandemic has only exacerbated in some cases. However, there are organizations that have embedded language justice in their work, learned from the cohorts of language justice workers who preceded them, and continued to explore ways to embody language justice on a cellular level.
Growing the edges
There is no one-size-fits-all formula to language justice. The approach born at Highlander emerged from a particular context — dependent on geography, history and the people who practiced it — that shaped the way it developed. As such, it cannot address all forms of language injustice nor encompass all its transformative possibilities. As historical conditions change and different practitioners infuse the framework with their own perspectives and practices, language justice can expand to more inclusive ways of being and communicating together.
Move to End Violence, or MEV, a national organization dedicated to supporting transformative leadership in the fight to end violence against women, girls, and gender-expansive people, exemplifies the possibilities of an organizational approach to language justice. They’re also adapting and expanding the framework to be more inclusive. The organization had long been multilingual in the sense that its members have always spoken many languages and brought a multitude of experiences and perspectives to their work. However, the organization didn’t support access in an intentional or necessarily equitable way.
For many, language justice work can be healing — a re-connection to languages that have been devalued, that because of assimilation they were discouraged from speaking.
Now, language justice is a core area of work for MEV, which was a priority for current Co-Executive Director Monica Dennis when she took the position. With leadership from program coordinator, ramelcy uribe, who co-leads much of the language justice work at MEV, the organization has embedded the values of the framework into its operations. They have also been critical in the way they take on the practices they’ve learned from prior generations of language justice workers. Dennis and uribe name a need for a “breakthrough around Blackness and Indigeneity” within the mainstream language justice landscape, largely dominated by Mestizx or white Spanish/English speakers. While locating themselves in the lineage of other language justice workers in the United States — in regards to their approach to language justice — uribe and Dennis also draw on their experiences of multilingualism, growing up in the Bronx, and their Blackness, uribe part of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean diaspora and Dennis a descendant of many generations of stolen Africans in the U.S.
Dennis was steeped in multiple Englishes, including Black English, as well as Caribbean Spanish. However, the older she got, the more language loss she experienced, as institutions of higher education excluded the use of Black English and classmates in Spanish courses routinely underestimated and questioned her legitimacy as a Black Spanish-speaker. Historically, the language justice movement has not systematically included speakers of Black English or African American Vernacular English or acknowledged the multilingualism of Black people from the United States.
In the case of Spanish, uribe says that it shouldn’t be understood as simply a colonial language. In colonial and post-colonial contexts, Black and Indigenous people take up and make a colonial language their own. As uribe explained, “The Spanish I speak is Black and campo Spanish,” a diasporic Spanish fashioned by Black people working and organizing the history of Ayiti (now known as Haiti/Dominican Republic). These variants of Spanish are often devalued and seen as “less-than” in ways similar to how Black English is marginalized within the United States.
A key element in MEV’s strategy for language justice is their “Language Justice Dream Team,” a group of BIPOC womxn and gender expansive practitioners that includes Arnaud and language worker wendelin regalado. The Language Justice Dream Team provides MEV with interpretation and translation, consultations for event facilitators, and serves as a thought partner for staff. This institutionalized commitment is bolstered by a bi-weekly language justice practice space for MEV’s staff. The sustained relationship between leaders at MEV and the Language Justice Dream Team is unique — something that evolved in part out of the vision of experienced language justice workers, Telesh Lopez along with Jen/Eleana Hofer and Catalina Nieto, who helped the organization develop their approach to language justice. Both Arnaud and regalado praised the organization as a “gold star collaborator” and expressed gratitude for the container that MEV has built for them to expand and practice language justice.
language justice, which emerged as an adaptive technology to support multilingual organizing, is meant to be stretched, re-shaped and broken open.
For many, language justice work can be healing — a re-connection to languages that have been devalued, that because of assimilation they were discouraged from speaking. It can also be an opportunity to repair the injustice and lack of access they or their families experienced. Yet, language and language work can also activate the trauma of language loss and replicate marginalization. MEV is mindful of the emotional support that their Language Justice Dream Team needs to thrive and encourages the team to identify and ask for what they need to cope with vicarious trauma, as well as the emotional cost of taking in and transmitting so much content on trauma, violence and healing.
With its holistic approach, MEV has also evolved away from relying on interpretation and towards more embodied ways of connecting — like learning songs in each other’s languages, ritual, and games. uribe pointed to their own experience growing up in the multilingual Bronx, “where people are always finding a way to meet in the middle.” MEV has found that during the difficult times of the past year and a half — spanning the pandemic, white supremacist violence, and uprisings for Black Lives — “Spirit” really emerged as the language needed to connect. “There’s only so much we can talk about when literally every day is violent.”
Combatting anti-Blackness is core to how MEV runs the organization, including the way it facilitates multi-lingual spaces. MEV centers Black Englishes and Spanishes, which allows members to bring themselves more fully to their work. Assuming and implicitly requiring that English speakers speak what Dr. April Baker-Bell calls “White Mainstream English,” forces speakers of Black English to change their communication to participate in a bilingual space. The damage of this is manyfold: participants lose out on the brilliance available when people communicate in ways that are most comfortable to them; it devalues and erases Black ways of being, speaking and organizing; and people who are heavily impacted by systems of oppression must perform extra labor to participate. Over the last year, Dennis has been hearing from many Black women that they are tired of code-switching. Given the level of violence they are facing, she said they “don’t have time to make it sound pretty” to be understood.
One of the things that Arnaud loves about being part of the Language Justice Dream Team is discussing — as a team of all BIPOC womxn and gender expansive folks — how racial identity shows up in their language work. regalado describes this work as “identifying and leaning into the heart-work of how non-representative the language justice ecosystem is and pushing to address internalized anti-Blackness.” regalado has Afro-Caribbean, Taino, Arawak, Spanish, African and Afro-Dominican roots.
“How do we reconcile these truths that exist within us?” regalado asked. Sometimes, as regalado went on to explain, anti-Blackness manifests in the type of Spanish that language workers aspire to speak and center in a space. These realities, regalado said, “cannot be bypassed if we are going to love each other.”
MEV represents the possibilities of language justice as an organizational orientation and an exploration of its limits. However, language justice, which emerged as an adaptive technology to support multilingual organizing, is meant to be stretched, re-shaped and broken open.
In practicing it, we interrogate conventions and assumed ways of communicating, listening and organizing. Language justice is always evolving and, based on two-decades worth of foundations, language justice workers will continue to adapt and re-imagine it in ways that serve collective liberation.
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