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Community Engagement Goes Global: How to Host a Meetup in Four Different Languages

Community engagement is the media buzz word du jour, but how do you host a discussion when residents don’t speak the same language?
With so much attention given to social media and online community engagement, it’s easy to forget about the media’s capacity to foster something a little more old-fashioned: live, in-person conversations.
As it turns out, the newly popular “community engagement manager ” position is one of the rare growth spots in the industry. And various mainstream to digital-only media outlets—from St. Louis Beacon’s “Beacon & Eggs” to Berkelyside’s Three Michael’s to Public Insight Network members—are focusing on in-person meetups and forums.
At Alhambra Source, a local news site in a predominantly immigrant community with a goal of increasing civic engagement, we’ve found that connecting with residents in person is as important as producing original stories for the site. As an extension of that process—and to give feedback to participants in our young adult training program—we wanted to lead a forum in the languages of our community.
Easier said than done.
Speaking about sensitive issues such as interracial relationships or immigration is hard enough when the community speaks one language. When a quarter of the residents live in households where no adult speaks English, well, it's almost impossible.
In Alhambra—a city of 85,000 where there are more than four languages that a significant portion of the community speaks—the local schools cope by having automatic translation at meetings and translators on call most of the time.
For our event, we wanted immigrant residents not only to be able to receive information, but to actually have the opportunity for discussion. To do this, we collaborated with Asian Pacific American Legal Center, an advocacy organization that works with immigrant families and youth.
Their organizers had experience doing both direct translation and small group discussions. They provided us with U.N.-style audio devices, gave us some guidance on leading the discussion, and mobilized many of the families they work with to come to the event.
The night of the forum we set up five tables in a local church with designated Spanish and Mandarin translators, a youth reporter and a moderator at each one.
Seventy people filled the room—arriving early and catching us not quite ready. They were as diverse as the city itself: a police sergeant, teachers affiliated with Alhambra Latino Association, a local author, a Chinese blogger, students and stay-at-home moms. Each chose one of the five tables with a designated issue to discuss.
As an introduction, the young people shared a personal issue they had experienced coming of age in an immigrant community—navigating American-style relationships when your parents had an arranged marriage in India, suffering teasing as a recent immigrant from Cuba, and eating tamales at home while getting addicted to fries at school. The non-English speakers put on their headsets for the presentation, and two volunteers translated into Spanish and Mandarin.
Next, the youth reporters led the discussions about the issue they outlined at the five tables with the help of moderators and translators. And, almost miraculously, five simultaneous discussions emerged in multiple languages.
At one table Irma Uc, a 24-year-old part-time community college student, lead a sprawling discussion in four languages on school nutrition. A mother shared in Mandarin how her son had to take two physical education classes back to back because he could not speak English well. At the other end of the table, another mother shared in Spanish about how her kids did not like that Chinese foods were served in the schools. “Once it started, it was a blur for me,” Irma recalled.
It was complicated, and sometimes the conversations sidetracked, but it was not Babel. People did exchange thoughts and experiences, the conversation flowing via translators into English, and in turn into Vietnamese, Spanish, and Mandarin.
“For some bizarre reason the conversation flowed easily,” Irma said. “The parents that were there really enjoyed the conversation and they also enjoyed listening in other people’s stories. And this is where the language barrier faded.“
When the event was over, we received one overwhelming criticism: The discussions were too short. Participants said the highlight was the opportunity to address common issues from different perspectives with neighbors with whom you could not usually communicate.
Here are a few more of the lessons we learned:
Assess your translators’ skills. If you are going to do instantaneous translation, then make sure the translator is up to the task. Without pauses from the presenters, this can be extremely challenging, and nothing kills a discussion faster than not understanding. For group discussions, there is more leeway.
Document the event. As a media outlet, the objective was not only to engage residents in conversation, but also to identify new issues and stories. Two L.A.-based media outlets that often hold forums, Zocalo and Southern California Public Radio, record events and post them on their sites. This works for a presentation with one microphone but is hard with the simultaneous smaller group discussions. We’re still looking for a way to document those exchanges, since they provided some of the most valuable elements of the evening.
Provide food if you want busy parents to come. Our partners at Asian Pacific American Legal Center, who have a lot of experience with community organizing, made clear that if we want people to come, then there needed to be food—and it could not just be pizza.
Provide child care if you want busy parents to come. We did not anticipate parents would bring children—or how distracting those rambunctious kids would be. If we did it again, we would have a designated babysitter.
Partner with an organization with established relationships in the community. If you want people who do not speak English well to be part of your discussion, you have to have established relationships with them. Our site, while it contains multilingual content, is English dominant. We turned to local organizations to help make that connection—Asian Pacific American Legal Center was a great partner in our case. Another option is to work with local ethnic press and hold the forum in partnership.
Control in-language conversations. If you have multiple languages, people will tend to go into side discussions by language, which is faster and easier than waiting for translation. You need a strong moderator to bring the conversation back to a central point, if you are truly going to have a multilingual discussion.
A version of this story is posted on Online Journalism Review. Daniela Gerson edits the Alhambra Source and directs the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks are principal investigators of the Alhambra Project.\n
Image of multilingual signs via Shutterstock\n

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