Redistribution – the decade-long process of redrawing political boundaries – is a complex endeavor, laden with jargon and acronyms that can confuse even most political observers. But some African residents of San Diego fear they will be left out of the process even further this year due to language barriers.
Nearly a dozen Somali and Oromo-speaking San Diego residents called a recent meeting of the state’s Redistribution Commission to ask commissioners for additional translation measures to ensure they can participate to the process.
“There are large Oromo communities in the state,” said an interlocutor in Oromo, a language spoken in Ethiopia. “We don’t have translators. The big problem when you go to the DMV, in all public places – school, social assistance – is the translation. We have suffered a lot, so we need people to work with us, with our language translated for us. “
Other callers explained how scary it is to even go to the hospital in the days of COVID-19, when someone they trust to help translate cannot come. Others described how they should take their children with them wherever they go to perform for them.
The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, a San Diego nonprofit that works with immigrants and refugees in the region, has worked to engage these communities and others for both the census and redistribution.
“We are working hard with these communities to activate them in civic life to participate in the census, in local campaigns and now to educate them about redistribution,” said Rahmo Abdi, an organizer for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. “We can’t wait to be part of the redistribution process, but it’s difficult if it’s not in their language.”
It is particularly important that these communities can participate in the redistribution process to ensure that they are not divided between constituencies, said Jeanine Erikat, community organizer for PANA. African immigrants and refugees are often grouped with African Americans in the data, although these communities may have different needs and characteristics.
Redistribution involves the redistribution of city council, legislative districts and state Congress. Although much of the process involves reviewing census data to ensure that districts are balanced, communities who believe they should stay together in a district can participate in the redistribution process by advocating that their community remains united through public comment, drawing their own maps of potential districts and offering other avenues for public input to their local redistribution body.
“People can’t show up at the census office and demand that they be seen, but we can show up to the carving commission meetings and make sure these communities stay together,” Erikat said. “They have to be able to draw their own maps, so that they are not divided. Almost the entire Somali community in San Diego at this point is made up of citizens who can vote, but unfortunately many African communities have been disenfranchised and their votes watered down. They want to be part of this process.
The state commission decided to welcome the 12 main non-English languages of the state, including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Cambodian / Khmer, Japanese, Korean, Persian / Farsi, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. This means that the committee’s frequently asked questions, leaflets and fact sheets will be translated into these languages. Public comments written in a language other than English and online public contribution tools will be translated. Interpretation services will be provided for any of these 12 languages for those who wish to appeal to the public, provided that the committee is informed at least five working days before the meeting.
For languages that are not in the top 12, the commission will always try to provide interpretation for public comments, although it may end up relying on community organizations like PANA to help with translation.
“It’s difficult because California is so diverse,” said Julia Marks, voting lawyer with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “Our position and framework is that the commission should develop plans to meet the needs of large groups and smaller language groups where there is organization to participate, but language will be a barrier.”
Marks and PANA organizers say the state commission has already improved its access to languages, as several state-wide organizations sent it a letter in late January asking to expand language assistance.
While Somali and Oromo may not be among the most widely spoken languages in the state – or even the county – many residents speak these languages in San Diego, which is home to the largest population of these groups in the state. There are nearly 20,000 Somalis in the county, Erikat said.
While everyone is still waiting for census data to tell us which districts and communities might change this year, there are already a few examples where the voice of these communities could be particularly important, Erikat said. El Cajon, which has a growing African immigrant population, is divided between two congressional districts, for example.
These communities may, for example, want to argue with the state commission that they want the whole city to be part of a single congressional district.
The recent meeting of the state commission showed how some translation issues could cause problems.
It all started off rough, with several calls dropped before everyone realized that even the phone instructions for public comment had to be translated before people started providing public comment. Commissioners also needed help determining whether a caller spoke Somali or Oromo before they could bring in the right translator.
But Saliyo Usman, the Oromo translator from San Diego who translated the Oromo calls at the meeting, said people ended up raising important questions about why they were having such a hard time accessing the translation and how it had had an impact on their communities.
“We need those people who are in the community to describe the situation in their communities,” Usman said.
The Somali and Oromo callers were also unable to listen to the meeting as it was not translated for them.
“The community should at least know what is going on at these meetings,” Abdi said.
The brands agreed.
“Our position is that being able to participate in an audience as a public commentator also means hearing the content of the audience,” she said. “I was surprised that they didn’t translate the content as well. “
Marks, Abdi and Erikat also pointed out that community organizations need funding and remuneration to take on the work of translating written materials or providing translation during meetings.
“It is really the responsibility of the redistribution bodies to provide the translation themselves and not to overburden [community-based organizations] like PANA, ”Erikat said. “Rahmo [Abdi] was able to get so many people out because she spent days and hours there. She couldn’t have done it if she had to interpret people’s comments or written documents at the same time.
Fredy Ceja, the communications director for the state redistribution commission, said the grants program for community organizations was still under development. The commission will work with community organizations, tribal organizations, ethnic media and other institutions on awareness raising and engagement, development and distribution of culturally appropriate and accessible material in languages, independent review of translated materials and interpretation of public meetings, Ceja said.
“Compensation for translation for organizations is also under consideration,” Ceja said in an email.
Abdi also stressed the need for professional translators, and not just members of the community trying to translate the meetings.
“Redistribution has a lot of technical language,” Abdi said. “Imagine that a friend or family member tries to translate and the information falls through the cracks. “
While advocates have focused on the state level, PANA is also awaiting further information on language access in San Diego County and City Redistribution Commissions.
David Bame, chairman of the independent county constituency commission, said in an email that agendas and simultaneous translation for meetings will be provided in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Tagalog, Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Laotian. If a translation is required in another language, the commission will provide it with 24 hours notice. Written public comments can also be submitted in any language.
The City of San Diego Redistribution Commission did not respond to Voice of San Diego’s requests for its language assistance plans. The agendas have was only published in English so far on the commission’s website.
Adriana Heldiz contributed to this story.