Nonprofits catching up to multi-language Austin population with Spanish and Vietnamese most in demand

Casa Marianella celebration

As Austin becomes an increasingly multilingual community, nonprofits often struggle to keep up. Federal law requires agencies that receive federal funding to provide services to anyone in the language they speak, or else be in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Those nonprofits that build multi-language services into their programs are ahead of the game, but the changing demographics of Austin can pose new challenges to already under-resourced agencies.

“I would say we could look with confidence towards existing agencies that have been doing this all along, like the Asian American Resource Center or places like Casa Marianella, which hosts so many persons of many different countries,” says Laura Donnelly, CEO and founder of Latinitas. “But I think as the city has become more cosmopolitan, the nonprofits have, too, and they are coming built with these needs as part of their mission, such as GirlForward or Refugee Services of Texas.” Latinitas, which promotes careers in tech and media for Latina girls, is one of those with multi-language services built in. It has an 85 percent bilingual staff and offers their programs in both Spanish and English. 

Right now, the Community Advancement Network is conducting a follow-up survey to its 2017 report, which sought to assess social service agencies’ ability to serve multiple languages in the Austin area. CAN’s 2017 report found that 35 percent of those agencies struggle to serve clients who speak limited English. It also found that 41 percent of agencies said they sometimes miss out on clients because they can’t meet their language needs and 48 percent sometimes turn clients away. 

“Any entity, government or nonprofit, that receives federal financial assistance must make a reasonable attempt to provide meaningful language services,” said Raul Alvarez, a former City Council member and current executive director of CAN. “Language services are particularly important in law enforcement, the court system, the healthcare system, and education due to the potential long-term impact of the kinds of decisions individuals and service providers are making.”

At the time of that 2017 report, the most common language spoken in Travis County after English was Spanish, followed by Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian languages. But of the people who spoke Vietnamese, 58 percent spoke English “less than very well”, the highest proportion of any group. Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese speakers also had high proportions of limited-English speakers. 

As a result of that report, CAN created the “Language Access Toolkit”, a resource for agencies that offers  background on the legal requirements of providing multilingual services and strategies for improving those services. It also offers resources for interpreters who seek to be certified in these services. But other nonprofits, like Latinitas, find that more grassroots tactics can be effective. “It is another case where many groups have already leveraged connection to certain communities that have been here forever – Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, of course, Latino – and some agencies will have some catching up to do in order to work with people that have been here all along,” said Donnelly. “There’s an inner circle in the immigrant community that does this without any structure, but through word of mouth and relationships.”

CAN plans to publish the new report later this year. 

PHOTO: Casa Marianella clients, volunteers, and staff celebrate Fourth of July last month. Contributed by Casa Marianella. 

NOTE: A version of this article also appeared in the August 17 Austin American-Statesman.

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