Systems change is a process that involves responding to an instance of lack of language access (for example) and builds on that one experience to create significant change in a system or service. The following steps were outlined through an interview with Enlace Comunitario, a social justice organization led by Latina women located in Albuquerque, that has had success in creating greater language access through systems change.
Step 1. Make it Someone’s Job
The biggest obstacle to undertaking systems change advocacy is the sense that there is not enough time to help all the survivors who need the support of advocates.
However, if individuals with LEP in your area are being denied meaningful language access to any program, organization, or system that receives federal funds, for example, courts, it is important for someone in your organization to take on this responsibility to engage in systems advocacy. If you cannot find specific funding to support a policy or systems-change staff person, assign one or two advocates to work on it together so the task is more manageable. Build in organizational support for their efforts and distribute some of their other obligations rather than just adding on systems change work to their existing responsibilities.
In some organizations, the Executive Director and other management staff have taken on the responsibility for systems change. They may be well-positioned to do so since they already work with other systems decision-makers through their participation in inter-agency collaborations such as joint fundraising efforts, Coordinated Community Response and Fatality Review Teams.
Step 2. Educate Yourself
Your efforts to make broad changes will have more credibility and influence with other systems if you are very familiar with what the problem is, how the agency in question works, how other organizations are affected by the issue, and how it might be resolved.
What’s the problem?
Keep track of what’s happening when survivors with LEP interact with the agencies and systems in your area. Consider gathering information from survivors and advocates in your program. Listening sessions or focus groups with survivors with LEP are effective ways of learning about their experiences. Focus groups with advocates or staff meetings are good ways to gather a lot of information about specific topics like language access. Additionally, you may want to organize a group of advocates to observe and document what is happening when individuals with LEP seek services in your area.
Make sure you know as much as you can about how your local programs, agencies and systems function. You can then begin to discuss with those organizations how language access can help them accomplish their mission.
Who else should be involved?
Find out which other organizations in your area have an interest in improving language access for survivors with LEP. Partner with them in this effort to bring about systems change and engage them in the development of a joint strategy. Note that while it would be good to reach out to other organizations that serve victims of domestic and sexual violence, you should also reach out to a broader group of organizations that would be interested in improving access to services, including civil rights organizations, immigrant rights organizations, culturally-specific community-based organizations, and faith-based organizations.
What’s the solution?
Be prepared to tell programs, agencies or systems what you want them to do to respond to this problem.
The information gathered in listening sessions with survivors and advocates and meetings with other area organizations should help you. This toolkit, developed for increasing access in court systems, may also be able to help you.
Begin by asking the program, agency, or system whether it has developed a language access plan. If so, review the plan to determine if it is being properly implemented and if it needs to be improved. If the organization does not have a language access plan, and they receive federal funds, it is imperative that they develop one. Here are some resources that you can offer:
- The Resource Guide for Advocates & Attorneys on Interpretation Services for Domestic Violence Victims offers guidance on where organizations can find qualified interpreters, how to determine if they are good, how to work with them, and how to pay for the service.
- The Language Access Resource List for Courts, found on page 42 of the Increasing Language Access in the Courts Toolkit is a reference tool to assist courts and other federally funded agencies to develop Language Access Plans and sample Language Access Plans.
- LEP.gov provides guidance for any agency that receives federal funds. Remember that if any part of the agency receives federal funds, then language access must be provided for all services.
- The DOJ Agreements and Settlements page of the website of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Limited English Proficiency (www.lep.gov)links to settlement agreements between the DOJ and court systems regarding language access. This resource applies best to court systems.
Remember, it’s not just about oral interpretation but also about written translations. Documents that survivors complete, review, and sign should be translated into their language.
Step 3. Get in the Door
Systems change is much more easily accomplished when advocates and systems staff establish a meaningful partnership with a common purpose. This working relationship requires trust and, in some communities, a willingness to set aside short-term political gains or age-old animosities in exchange for long-term community benefit.
What motivates the program, agency or system?
Assume that the people working at the program, agency or system want to provide quality services to the survivors that you are working with. Often, service to all survivors is part of their agency mission, and social justice was probably a motivation for many of them to begin their careers. However, perhaps language access has not traditionally been part of their planning, or maybe they feel constrained by budget pressures. Knowing what’s important to the staff at that organization will help you plan the way to approach them to talk about language access. It will also be important to help them understand how failing to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is costly in terms of undermining victim safety and denying access to services.
The most effective way to approach any system to make change is to present information in a constructive manner. Approaching the problem from a stance of mutual interest, collaboration, and survivor safety can provide a solid foundation for making systems change.
Step 4. When to Use Pressure?
It may be beneficial for you to go above the head of the person with whom you’re working, either because they do not have the authority to make the changes you seek, or simply because you are being stonewalled. When systems administrators resist change for increased language accessibility, however, advocates can use pressure on programs, agencies and systems that receive federal funds to fulfill their legal obligations. Do so carefully and with some transparency—in most communities you will have to work with this person and organization again.
If you believe a survivor has been discriminated against because of their LEP status, each federal agency has its own office of civil rights to which you could file a complaint. Identify which federal agency funds the program, and reach out to the corresponding office to file a complaint:
- Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Civil Rights (public benefits offices, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and other health related services)
- Housing and Urban Development – Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (public housing programs)
- Department of Justice – Civil Rights Division (courts, and some sexual and domestic violence services)
- USA.gov offers a search for other federal agencies that correspond to other services and systems.
As a last resort, individuals or organizations can file a lawsuit against the federally funded program, agency or system for failure to meet their language access obligations. This is best accomplished as a partnership with other stakeholder organizations, both for financial and political reasons. Enlace Comunitario, for example, joined in a successful lawsuit with their local Legal Aid office and other nonprofits to compel a local hospital to fulfill its language access obligations. The considerations that go into the decision to sue another organization are beyond the scope of this toolkit but if you are considering this option, contact Casa de Esperanza for help exploring your strategies.