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.
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 the barriers in providing meaningful language access, pointing out opportunities where language access can be easily implemented, and ways others can help and/or benefit from language access.
What’s the system problem?
Keep track of what’s happening when survivors with LEP interact with the agencies and systems in your area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.