‘It is a priority for us’: Chatham works toward expanding services for Spanish speakers

Posted 8/4/21

Last year, Ramseur resident Noe Briones Licona embarked on a multistep application process to secure county permission to move his double-wide mobile home from Randolph County to Chatham.

After a …

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‘It is a priority for us’: Chatham works toward expanding services for Spanish speakers

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Last year, Ramseur resident Noe Briones Licona embarked on a multistep application process to secure county permission to move his double-wide mobile home from Randolph County to Chatham.

After a three-month process riddled with pandemic delays, he finally wrapped up the application process last December.

The hardest part throughout it all? Filling out the forms.

“It took me a while because of the language more than anything,” Briones Licona, 36, told the News + Record in Spanish. “I speak a little English, but my English isn’t perfect. … I even had to go to the Hispanic Liaison so that they would help me fill in the application because, well, I’ve never filled in an application form for permits before.”

He isn’t alone. In Chatham, more than 12% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and according to the U.S. Census’ five-year American Community Survey, 11.6% of Chatham residents — nearly 8,000 people — speak Spanish at home. Five percent, or nearly 3,500 people, speak English less than “very well.”

Even so, Chatham County offers few readily available Spanish-language materials and resources, like permitting forms and instructions. Though Hispanic community leaders say the county has expanded its Spanish resources in recent years — in many cases ahead of neighboring counties — several gaps still persist, including translations for important county alerts and services as well as bilingual staffing.

“In Chatham, it’s gotten so much better,” said Ilana Dubester, executive director of the Hispanic Liaison and an immigrant herself. “ … There are still, you know, gaps out there, particularly when it comes to translations, but it certainly has gotten better.”

‘It’s a burden’

When Dubester founded the Liaison in 1995, Chatham’s Spanish-speaking community had just started to grow and few, if any, county forms, documents and services included Spanish translation or interpretation. In that landscape, the Liaison had to dabble in a little bit of everything — from legal matters and utility bills all the way to severe weather alerts.

Initially, that meant a lot of extra work. Despite county strides toward more Spanish-language services, it still does, though no longer as much.

“An organization like ours ... basically plays so many different roles in the community. Because of the particular community we work with, we’re kind of a central location for information, regardless of what information it is,” Dubester said. “It’s a burden that most organizations that have their own mission don’t have to face. They can focus just on their work with youth or whatever it is, and don’t have to worry about all of a sudden informing the community about the weather.”

One such role is helping clients fill out and submit permitting application forms, she said. The Liaison helps clients apply for building permits, among other types, as hardly any permitting forms or applications are available in Spanish.

“If people don’t have folks in their lives that can either send in the forms or help them fill it out,” she said, “then they end up coming to us.”

That’s what Briones Licona did last year. Janet Ramirez, the Liaison’s program and volunteer coordinator, helped him fill out his application.

“Most of it was, like, his name and all that good stuff like contact information, and he was able to do that on his own with little mistakes — none that would have cost him enough to get the permits,” Ramirez said. “But the hardest part for him was understanding what he was reading.”

That’s why Dubester said she’d like to see the county provide bilingual forms. Much of the required information — such as names and addresses — would be the same in either language anyway, she said. Plus, bilingual or Spanish forms would mean the Liaison wouldn’t have to translate forms “on-site,” or read an English document aloud in Spanish.

“Having already that language there would take the burden off of our staff to make sure that they are saying exactly what needs to be said,” Dubester said. “And sometimes, you know, they’ll (staff) come to me and say, ‘What did they mean by that?’”

Using accessible Spanish in documents is important, too, Ramirez added.

“So having Spanish, but having it as clear as possible and not as legally as they typically do,” she said. “Because that just does not make any difference — if I was to speak to somebody in a very professional way, or with legal terms, people in our own community who speak (Spanish) would not understand what we’re saying.”

According to Chatham’s Courtney Cooper-Lewter, the county is working toward providing more Spanish resources for things like building permits and inspections.

Last month, she said, the county contracted an agency to provide Spanish translations for its departments, “allowing the county to maintain consistency across Spanish-language translations.”

“This service may be used for items such as forms, applications, presentations and news releases,” said Cooper-Lewter, who is a strategic initiatives analyst with the county manager’s office, in an email to the News + Record. “... And we are currently in the process of using a translation company to translate information that specific departments want on the website like the Tax Revaluation presentation and Library services brochure.”

The county also has access to written and verbal resources in Spanish, Cooper-Lewter said, should Hispanic business owners reach out to county departments.

“The county is working toward translating many of its forms and applications to further streamline this process and improve accessibility,” she said.

Still, most of the county’s website — where much of its forms and news releases live — is primarily in English. Some news releases have Spanish translations underneath the English message, but not all.

As hurricane season continues, emergency service notifications from the county present another language barrier for people who don’t speak English well.

Chatham County Emergency Communications uses a translation service provided by state 911 funds, but local warning messaging primarily goes out in English, the director of Chatham’s Emergency Management, Steve Newton, previously told the News + Record. The online alert system does not have an option on its sign-up page to opt into Spanish updates, and the information about the systems are in English.

The county’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) provides Spanish-language materials at its recruiting booths, Newton said, along with Spanish basic course training manuals. Additionally, anyone can change Wireless Emergency Alerts from the National Weather Service in Raleigh to Spanish.

“Warnings in Spanish require a bilingual person to translate and record a single message in both English and Spanish,” Newton said in July. “If they are not immediately available, the warning message is broadcast in English and we will evaluate the need to resend the message in other languages.”

In the past, local organizations such as the Hispanic Liaison spread information about approaching hurricanes and resources in Spanish through messaging and its Facebook page. Newton spoke to the importance of work done by groups such as the Hispanic Liaison.

“We lean on our county departments and non-government organizations that routinely serve Spanish-speaking residents to support us with translations and distributing notices and warnings through their established communities,” he said. “The Hispanic Liaison routinely shares disaster and recovery information on their social media pages.”

The county’s website is currently “undergoing a complete redesign,” Cooper-Lewter said, with a translation plug-in to be installed. That new website is expected to launch this fall.

‘It is a priority for us’

Beyond website and document translation efforts, the county is working to engage the Hispanic community more consistently overall.

During this year’s 250th anniversary celebration for the country, Cooper-Lewter said an emphasis was placed on “authentically engaging” all of Chatham’s communities, including the Hispanic community. These efforts included bilingual Chatham 250 social media posts, along with featuring notable Hispanic Chatham residents in its Changemakers profile series.

The county also partnered with the Hispanic Liaison during the 2020 Census to increase Hispanic participation in the census, including Spanish flyers, social media posts and Facebook Live events.

“Chatham County will remain committed to providing Spanish-language materials and communications to our Hispanic/Latinx community,” Cooper-Lewter said.

That need was especially evident last year, she said, as COVID-19 highlighted the need for Spanish-language materials at the county level — particularly as Chatham’s Hispanic community was hit especially hard in the early months of the pandemic. Though Chatham’s population is 12% Hispanic, 34% of its total confirmed coronavirus cases are among Hispanic residents, according to the state’s COVID-19 data.

As a result, the Chatham County Public Health Department launched a comprehensive COVID-19 portal on its website in Spanish (Coronavirus en Español).

“With the CCPHD’s equity focus, it will continue to translate public health information, particularly in the digital sphere,” Cooper-Lewter said.

The health department also published bilingual social media posts, flyers and news releases. While efforts to increase Spanish resources are particularly evident with CCPHD, Cooper-Lewter said such efforts span all the county’s departments.

“As the Spanish-speaking population grows in Chatham County, it is a priority for us to reach these individuals through a variety of methods,” she said. “We are actively working to increase access to information and resources in Spanish.”

‘Many Hispanics do not have access’

When Briones Licona called the county to discuss his permit applications, staff answered him in English. He did his best to communicate, but he struggled.

“Yes, I can speak for myself a little, but not as well as I would like,” he said. “...There are words in English that I’ve never heard in my life. Perhaps they’re objects or things I’ve never seen.”

Going to the county offices in Pittsboro didn’t change things.

“When you go to the offices, in reality,” he said, “well, if you’re Hispanic, they kind of push you aside and it’s just for not speaking English, or that is, not understanding it 100%.”

Spanish speakers don’t just need translated or bilingual forms, Dubester said; they also need bilingual assistance, especially from county staff who know “how to do things that we didn’t know how to answer.”

In Briones Licona’s case, the process was relatively straightforward, save for pandemic delays, according to Ramirez. Other permitting processes, however, aren’t always so straightforward — and often stretch Ramirez and others to the limits of their knowledge.

One client, for instance, purchased a flipper home.

“So that was a bit more hard, because it required that they had, like, sketches of what we’re going to change and things (that) are obviously above my knowledge,” Ramirez said. “I have very little knowledge while drafting and so things like that were hard for me, and then required me to reach out to other friends and community members to get this investigated. It was very time consuming, in addition to the normal work that we do.”

As the go-between, many times Ramirez and other Liaison staff have to find out what requirements clients have to meet and then explain the process to them. But they also have to make clients understand just how long the process may take. Building permits, Dubester said, usually takes more than one visit or phone call because the county might have further questions that clients can’t answer.

“They have to go back and come back to us, and then some of those also require a drawing, and so we need to explain to them what’s needed and we then go back to the property and try to figure out what the drawing looks like and then come back, and then we help them draw,” Dubester said. “And so it takes a couple hours or more to help somebody through that process — for, like, the building permit, for example.”

It’s a familiar burden, Dubester said, though one that’s lightened considerably since the Liaison first formed more than 25 years ago. In the early years, she remembers how the county’s Department of Social Services didn’t provide any interpretation services.

It took “some big pushing,” she said, to inspire DSS to begin hiring interpreters and eventually bilingual staff — a push that involved attorneys and demand letters. At one point, the Liaison’s staff even refused to accompany clients to DSS, which they’d done in the beginning.

“But we would spend like four hours at DSS just waiting in line,” Dubester said. “It was impossible. We couldn’t spend that much time with one client for a government agency that is required by law to abide by Title VI.”

But since then, the county has made significant strides toward improving its bilingual staffing ratio, she said. Agencies have more bilingual staffers “than ever” in crucial positions, like in the court system, and in that sense, she said Chatham’s probably 15 years ahead of Lee County, where the Liaison just recently opened a satellite office.

“It took a while to turn that corner,” she said, “and then once that corner turned, it was like a tidal wave in terms of awareness and commitment to serving the community.”

Today, Chatham County’s government has four trained Spanish interpreters, with other bilingual staff across various departments, said Cooper-Lewter, including 11 in the health department.

But hiring even more bilingual personnel, Dubester said, would go a long way toward making the process easier for Spanish speakers, as well as the Liaison. Ramirez also hopes to see the county establish an online landing page with all its Spanish-speaking resources, along with a phone line or Spanish-speaking residents to call with questions.

“You know, if there’s somebody who is low-literacy level (and) needed that help, they might go into the department and ask for that help and get it because they can’t write,” Dubester said. “But for a Hispanic, that’s not quite an option.”

Despite language hiccups, Briones Licona said he had a good experience with the county overall, if a little delayed because of the pandemic. And now that he knows what he needs to do, he’s thinking about applying for more permits to move more double-wide mobile homes.

“All (the county) really need(s) is to have both languages because there are a lot of people here who don’t speak any English,” he said. “Many Hispanics do not have access to help, so speaking Spanish is very important to them. Hiring someone in the office who is bilingual would be much better.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan. Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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