Marin adds Spanish translation

03/10/2021

In a step toward racial equity, Marin County is working to improve outreach to its Spanish-speaking population. All Board of Supervisors meetings will now be translated, and the county is hiring a bilingual public information officer. In staff reports, which are provided alongside every item on the board’s weekly agenda, planners will evaluate equity impacts.

About 12 percent of Marin residents speak Spanish, and reaching these constituents is a challenge, Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. Beyond the language barrier, Latino residents may distrust government for various reasons. They are generally younger, and their financial demands and work hours are greater. Many have poor internet access.

The county will translate meetings for six months, after which it will evaluate the pilot program for its effect on improving engagement. People will be able to listen and comment in Spanish. Previously, the board translated selectively, such as for forums about immigration. 

“We were picking and choosing,” Supervisor Rodoni said. “The old way was not very equitable because someone here in the Civic Center was deciding, ‘We think this will be important for Spanish speakers.’”

The translation technology used in the past was also awkward and cumbersome; Spanish speakers had to request translation and wear a headset. Because meetings are now broadcast online, a simple click will provide translation.

Supervisors have long faced calls to make their meetings more accessible. The pandemic pushed them to broadcast online, which boosted participation and will remain in place. Requests to move from Tuesday mornings to an evening timeslot have gone unanswered; Supervisor Rodoni said that’s because meetings often last more than six hours.

Socorro Romo, executive director of West Marin Community Services, said she is happy with the move, but that it will take more outreach to truly engage the community. The gap between whites and Latinos is wide, whether on issues of health care, education or communication. “It’s really hard to say, ‘Oh, this is going to work, this is going to make a difference,’” she said. 

Effective communication takes a grassroots effort, she said. When her agency sought to involve people in the census or the Dolores Huerta visit, they used every medium possible: schools, churches, KWMR, the Light, flyers and direct phone calls. Employees start talking about the event months in advance, and everyone is involved in the planning.

Although translating county meetings to Spanish removes a language barrier, a divide persists through the political language used, which can be alienating, Ms. Romo said. But if it’s clear that an issue is relevant to the Latino community, they will show up. “They might not be able to understand even if it’s translated to Spanish, but with time they will learn, and their presence alone says a lot,” she said.

The bilingual public information officer will be hired for 18 months to engage Spanish-speaking residents, write and translate news releases, and answer inquiries from Spanish-language media. The county often depends on nonprofits like the Canal Alliance to communicate with the public and report back, but this position will make it easier to engage individuals. Supervisor Rodoni said many day-to-day concerns fall outside any nonprofit’s purview, such as simply wanting more public garbage cans or after-school activities.

Adding an equity impacts section to staff reports is another way the county is focusing on race. Staff reports, which are intended to give supervisors and the public concise information on any agenda item, provide a summary of the proposed action, a recommendation for board action and a discussion of additional context.  

Matthew Hymel, the county administrator, said employees should consider how proposals impact communities of color, underserved populations and immigrants. Staff should describe how they’ll reach out to these groups and what mitigating actions will ensure a proposal doesn’t harm racial equity efforts.

Marin’s focus on equity has made slow progress. A racial equity action plan in 2017 mostly focused on internal improvements and gathering data. Equity director Anyania Muse was hired, and a race equity planning committee was established. When the Black Lives Matter movement swept the nation, calls for equity were amplified. Ms. Muse has said the county should focus internally before engaging the community, so employees are well-versed in racial bias, social justice and inclusivity when they do outreach.