Historical Context for Language Justice
The impetus for the language access movement in DC can be traced back at least as far as the Mount Pleasant Riots in 1991. At the Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mount Pleasant that year, a Latino man who was publicly intoxicated was apprehended and cuffed by African American police officers. This man, who was being a nuisance, was already brought down to his knees and handcuffed. However, despite the fact that he was already subdued, one of the police officers thought he was making a movement toward her and shot him in the abdomen. The Spanish-speaking community reacted with two days of rioting. Police cars were damaged and overturned, things were set on fire, and businesses
were looted. The riot went on for over 36 hours. There were significant damages that highlighted the marginalization felt by the Latino community, which was little integrated into the government. As a
result, a Latino Coalition formed and demanded that the government be more responsive, representative and accessible, both culturally and linguistically, to the Spanish-speaking population they are supposed to serve. This was the beginning of the Latino Liaison units and the Asian Liaison units forming at the MPD.
Ten years later in 2001, organizations like LAYC, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Neighbors’ Consejo, CentroNia and others came together under the Latino Federation and worked with a set of pro-bono law firms to evaluate the progress of DC government in improving conditions for the Latino community since the Mount Pleasant Riots. They focused on whether there had been any progress made after 10 years by city services like the police department to improve community relations, cultural
competency, and linguistic access for the LEP/NEP Spanish speakers as outlined per the agreements established after the Riots. The findings highlighted the continuity of barriers to public services like healthcare, education, public safety and policing, public benefits like food stamps and
unemployment/workforce development opportunities. Language barriers, in particular, served as a major impediment to accessing services. They began holding periodic meetings between Latino community leaders, the Mayor, and the City Administrator to discuss how to make progress on this front, but these meetings began to fizzle out by early 2002.
A Coalition Forms
In 2001, Sonya Schwartz of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Su Sie Ju of Bread for the City began working together to address access issues for immigrant populations. They focused primarily on immigrant access to human services like food stamps, but realized that their clients suffered barriers to access on a number of fronts because they were not able to access services in their language. Denise herself volunteered at many organizations giving "Know Your Rights" presentations on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and other laws that protected immigrant rights to access basic services. She approached Denise Gilman of the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights (who happens to be her cousin) to loop her into their efforts. Denise had been working closely on the report that followed up on the Mount Pleasant Riots and saw the importance of the language access work.
They federal government had recently come out with guidance for federal agencies in ensuring meaningful language access to federally funded programs – why not DC? The only thing they were missing was representation from the non-Latino language communities. They decided to approach Jayne Park, Executive Director of the recently formed Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) to loop them in.
Although Jayne recognized the importance of this work, she did not have the capacity on staff at time to work on this issue. Then a few months later in the Spring of 2002, she was able to hire on a staff attorney, Deepa Iyer, who could dedicate a portion of her staff time to this issue. The timing was perfect. Jim Graham, a recently elected council member from Ward 1, was set to hold a hearing that summer on the Spanish language laws – a couple different laws from the late 70s that mandated DC government agencies to provide interpretation services and translated documents to the Spanish-speaking community. Deepa, Sonya and Denise took the lead in recruiting, coaching, and organizing community members to present testimony on the importance of language access and present Jim Graham with the idea of forming a broader piece of legislation that would cover not only Spanish-speakers, but all the major language communities in the District.
The D.C. Language Access Coalition which MLOV now administers really began to come together around that hearing and built momentum throughout 2002 and 2003 in the effort to get the D.C. Language Access Act passed. Deepa and Denise, in particular, played a key role in drafting the language of the Act in partnership with Jim Graham's office. The Coalition also spent most of late 2002 to 2004 building a broader alliance and building support for the legislation among DC council members, the Mayor's Office, and Office of the Chief Financial Officer. They engaged in tactics like a multi-lingual postcard campaign with the participation of nearly two-thousand community members that was delivered to Mayor Anthony William’s office and followed by a press conference on the steps of the Wilson Building. In April 2004, the D.C. Language Access Act was passed unanimously in D.C. City Council and the Mayor signed it into law.
In the Act, the City Council appropriated $300,000 to OHR to start a Language Access Program and provide oversight of government agencies on the implementation of the Act. It is the third comprehensive language access law of its kind on the municipal level in the entire United States and unique because it writes in the D.C. Language Access Coalition, a non-profit organization that is not affiliated with the government and instead represents the voice of the community, as a 3rd party consultative entity to the government in the law's implementation. It is also comprehensive because it goes beyond the measures required by the federal government with regards to compliance and provides language access to all who live and work in D.C., not just those who are residents.
Furthermore, it covers all entities, which include subcontractors (both for profit and non-profit) to comply with the law. This was a huge victory for D.C. and for the Language Access Coalition, but soon after the law was passed there was a significant drop-off in the activity of the Coalition. .
Building a Movement
In 2007, the APALRC applied for funding to hire a staff member to concentrate on Coalition work. Jennifer Deng-Pickett was hired to figure out how, exactly, the Coalition would fulfill its role under the D.C. Language Access Act. This meant monitoring compliance of D.C. government agencies. After having been with the Coalition for a few months, Jennifer had a conversation with Councilmember Carol Schwartz where Schwartz told her that, in order for the Language Access Act to be effective and for D.C. government agencies to be convinced of its importance, the LEP/NEP community must be aware of the law and involved in the advocacy for it. If no LEP/NEP community members are demanding language access services, agency staff will not recognize its importance and will not comply with the Act. This led to the Coalition to move toward community organizing, education, and empowerment projects in addition to compliance monitoring.
The Coalition started off in a small office in downtown DC with Jennifer, Tereguebode Goungou, and Patrick Coonan (DCLAC’s first VISTA member).
In 2010, DCLAC leadership, after months of consultation with Coalition member organizations, made the decision to form Many Languages, an independent 501©3
organization that would administer the work of the DC Language Access Coalition, but also support advocacy and organizing work through its Education, Health, Housing, and other programs.
Many Languages One Voice's history is rooted in the history and work of the DC Language Access Coalition (DCLAC), a Coalition of over 40 immigrant-serving organizations which MLOV now administers and leads, since being incorporated in 2010. DCLAC successfully advocated for the passage of the pioneering DC Language Access Act of 2004 and has since been monitoring the implementation of this legislation. MLOV believes that the passage of progressive legislation must be coupled by mindful monitoring and enforcement led by impacted communities. Therefore, MLOV was incorporated to provide administration and strategic vision to the Coalition, as well as to grow a base of actively engaged residents that challenge dominant power and are key to systemic, long-lasting improvements in public policy and a fully-functioning democracy. MLOV's mission is to foster leadership and provide tools for greater civic participation of immigrants in DC who do not speak English as a primary language in solutions that impact their lives.