by Aurora Fulp
The Forsyth Promise (TFP) is working to engage with our community in the most authentic way possible and help provide critical context and understanding needed to make a positive difference in Forsyth County. Through this blog post, we hope to provide some historical perspective on the diversity of our community, provide insight into the experiences of Hispanic/Latinx community members and organizational leaders, and provide information about what organizations and community members can do to support a culturally-responsive environment in Forsyth County.
We’ve spoken to community leaders and members of the Hispanic/Latinx community to understand how to best engage and demonstrate accessibility and a desire to be open to people for whom English is not a first language, and present here our findings. We hope you find value in the historical perspectives and find the suggestions useful in understanding our community and acting to advance equity.
How it Started: “Historical Context in Forsyth County”
The US population has increased by nearly 83 million over the last 30 years, with North Carolina’s population rising by 3.8 million between 1990 and 2020. Forsyth County grew by about 100,000 people in that time. The Hispanic population of the nation at-large has increased rapidly over that same period, and Forsyth County is no exception. It’s not uncommon for there to be friction when there’s an influx of new cultures and people into an area, particularly over a short period of time.
In the late 80s and early 90s in Forsyth County, there was some of that expected friction, and a certain amount of the confusion and misunderstandings coming from such an intense change to the status quo. “There were three major misperceptions,” said Mari Jo Turner, executive director of the Hispanic League. “The first one was that everyone was moving here from Mexico. The second one was if they speak Spanish they must not be educated. And the third was, if we waited long enough, they would just go away. And none of that was true.” In truth, members of the Hispanic/Latinx population come from over 20 different countries. While some people may not come to the US with higher education credentials, there are still many who do, or have received some form of technical training. And we can see that they did not go away. Data provided by the Pew Research Center shows that between 1990 and 2014 the Hispanic population in Forsyth County has increased from 2,102 people up to an estimated 46,066 people, nearly 22 times as many people. Turner, who was at that time working with an organization now known as Imprints Cares, one of only a few organizations with bilingual staff working with the Hispanic community said, “There was a huge curve of learning for the police department, the health department, the hospitals, and all these other organizations who really did not clearly understand or have Spanish speaking staff, but also understand the culture of where these individuals came from.”
Miriam Hernandez, now the Hispanic Outreach Coordinator at Crosby Scholars, has also been working with the Hispanic community since 1996. In her various roles, she’s been able to see the people she helped connect to services and succeed and have children, and even grandchildren. who are still here and working in the community. Starting out, she worked with the Hispanic Coalition to spread awareness of issues facing the Hispanic community and get community members to fill out the census. Through that organization, she worked to develop a strategic plan to resolve some of these issues. This includes work to create a Hispanic center and a kid’s café, bringing in community participation and later Winston-Salem State University students to bring food and academic support to Black and Hispanic youths in the southside area. As time went on, she worked advocating for and developing programming through various other organizations, including years of interpreting in hospitals, directing Hispanic Action, and radio and TV work with Cable 2, the City of Winston-Salem, and Qué Pasa radio. Looking back, she recalls, “Many parents back then were field workers, they were in manufacturing plants. Many of them did not come from their countries with a degree, like they’re doing now. Back then it wasn’t like that. So we had a lot of people that did not know how to write a check. What’s the check? What’s a bank?”
There are various barriers to Hispanic/Latinx residents receiving services and participating in programs. One of the biggest is perhaps the most obvious: language. There has been progress on this front. Organizations are adapting and new technologies make translation of signage and materials easier (though not always accurate). However, lack of access to Spanish-language programming, resources, and instructional tools impacts participation and engagement for anyone whose first language isn’t English.
Why does it matter so much that organizations work to learn about and be inclusive of people whose first language isn’t English? People arriving in the US were (and still are) coming from diverse backgrounds. While some people may have moved to be with family, others may arrive knowing no one, and having no context or help in navigating American systems, systems which can be opaque and complex even without a language or culture barrier. Miriam Hernandez said, “When you say Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx, you’re talking about 21 different countries. So we want to let our community know that even though we all speak Spanish, we don’t all do the same. Inside of the Hispanic/Latinx community, there are different cultures. So that was the start of it, letting the community know, you can say, ‘Okay, great, we’re having an activity for Latinx parents or Hispanic parents.’ And all of a sudden, you just bring Mexican food, the others would look at you and go, ‘Okay, I don’t eat spicy.’ So we started going, ‘Let’s go a little further and learn and see what their needs are.’”
Who translates and interprets for people when those services aren’t being provided by organizations? Families will often rely on their children, who are receiving ESL in schools, or who may have picked up on English through immersion. “There are two kinds of children interpreting, right? The child who was born in the U.S. and has learned English in school, child care settings, or through siblings, and the child who came from another country, and is learning English at school,” said Vivian Pérez Chandler, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County community for over 15 years. “I always carried a dictionary with me everywhere I went, one because I was still learning the language. And there was always so much stress because I kind of became the voice for my parents. I know I kind of had to grow up quicker than a child does, because I had to be at medical appointments, I had to go to make big decisions. ” This is not an uncommon occurrence for students put in positions where they have to help their parents navigate serious and complex conversations, which can cause stress and long-term negative impacts on children’s social emotional learning. “No child should be placed in a position to interpret or translate for their parents things they do not yet understand. Medical and legal terminology is complex as it is, and expecting a child to know how to use and comprehend that terminology is unacceptable,” she adds.
Another factor in the Latinx community is concern about immigration status. Worries about families being split, deportation, and how information is being used can prevent people from wanting to go anywhere that isn’t strictly necessary to get by, or from talking to people they don’t know and trust to stay safe. Megan Gregory, a bilingual community organizer with the Latino Congress, shared about an experience she had a few years ago with a student in a program she worked with: “In the fall of 2016, the kids just started showing up visibly traumatized and some were crying. They said that their peers taunted them and said Donald Trump was going to deport their parents. […] I distinctly remember sitting in the cafeteria waiting for kids to come, and then I have a third grader with a Spiderman backpack — it’s just so clear that he’s a child — crying and asking me if it was true that Donald Trump was going to deport his parents.” Pérez Chandler recalls, “We never really went anywhere because of the fear of getting pulled over, and always one thing was getting deported because you got pulled over. So I think immigration status is a huge thing that happens in our community. And not only that but also the amount of paperwork that some organizations ask for, if you want to receive some of their services, obviously now as an adult I understand why some of them require so much paperwork. Some of them are because they’re using federal funding, they cannot support someone that is undocumented. I think even those services aren’t for everyone. The processes are just so daunting, and we have to keep in mind everyone’s level of education.”
Where We Go From Here
What Can Organizations Do?
I heard a lot of suggestions from the people I spoke to from both personal and professional perspectives. From the organizational perspective, making it a priority with your staff and board is a must, to build that into what you do. Having someone on staff and present at your programming who is bilingual (even if not a native speaker of the target language) is useful, and shows that you’re welcoming and serious about helping everyone, regardless of origin. “I always say ‘bilingual personnel’,” said Hernandez when asked what steps organizations can take. “Even if it’s one in the entire organization, that helps, because that client is going to come to you knowing there’s somebody in there to understand them.” That person (or those people) can be there not only to translate and interpret, but relate to the community in a way that makes them more comfortable approaching your organization for the services they need. Something to consider in finding someone to be on your staff (or a member of your board) is making sure that that person is not being tokenized. “What’s important for an individual to feel like they’re part of your Board is number one, they believe in your mission and want to be a part of that. And there might be some type of expertise that you need from that individual, so are you looking for somebody that has marketing skills, or are you needing somebody that’s under educational programming, you know, that they can feel like they can contribute?” explained Turner.
Locations and times for programming are also important to consider. Public transit can be tricky to navigate, and making programming physically accessible is key to attendance. Organizations should think about people who don’t have cars, are sharing a vehicle, or are simply unfamiliar with the area. Providing information and resources, and being intentional about the time and location of an event can increase the likelihood of people being able to be there and engage in the work you are trying to accomplish or the information you are trying to share. Likewise, many people in the community may not be able to make it to events held in the middle of the work day. “Thinking of working families, my parents left our house at six in the morning (if not earlier) and didn’t come home until six, six thirty in the evening. We dropped off my sister, then they dropped me off at somebody’s house who would take me to school because it was so early in the day, and then somebody would pick me up, I’d go to their house, and then my parents would pick my sister and I up and eventually we would get home. So it’s the whole 12 hour day. Where services end you’ve got to figure out — if they’re open from eight to five, well, those services aren’t for us,” said Pérez Chandler of her own experiences growing up.
Build Relationships and Listen Authentically
Speaking of her own role with Latino Congress and navigating advocacy in the community, Gregory added, “I try not to dominate [the conversation]. As a white person who is not experiencing the challenges that Latino/a community members experience, I may know and care about the issues because I’m connected to people experiencing them, but I am not the one getting pulled over. I am not the one afraid that I’m not going to be able to rent an apartment anywhere because I don’t have a social security number. So it’s not really my place to set the priorities. It’s my place to listen to what people are experiencing, to help people understand the way the system is operating, and to understand the root causes of problems. But not necessarily to set the direction of the priorities.
Something that I heard, both explicitly and implicitly expressed by everyone I spoke to for this piece, was the importance of relationships and meeting people where they are. “I would encourage people to spend a lot more time being present, building relationships, listening and supporting the priorities that the community itself identifies,” said Gregory. Much of her work has been centered in relationship building, volunteering with youth programs, taking the time to speak to people in their congregations and neighborhoods, doing small-group listening sessions, and meeting people in places they would already be as opposed to asking them to take a chance on something that may not demonstrate obvious benefit. Likewise, Hernandez and Turner both spoke of building cultural competence and relating to people on a more personal basis.
Speaking to differences in communication styles, Hernandez said “Here in the US you tend to go ‘hi, how are you doing?’ then get down to business. In the Hispanic population, you need to go a little bit further. ‘Hi, how are you? How are your kids? How’s the family?’ I hear some of my co-workers say ‘That takes too long.’ Take your time. You will get their confidence, because you are interested in them.”
Opportunities for Community Supports
The Hispanic League has a program to help people get a photo ID, regardless of documentation status. Turner noted, “A way of helping these individuals feel validated is with their correct spelling of their name, if you go to a doctor’s appointment, for example, and you have two last names, which is very common in the Hispanic culture, making sure you understand the correct order they should be in. So, you know, trying to help people feel validated as individuals and having some type of identification, even though it’s not like the North Carolina driver’s license or some type of government ID, because for example, you can’t get a library card unless you have a photo ID. This is something that we can offer to the community there.”
A Vision for the Future
Hernandez and Pérez Chandler each had thoughts on what they hope to see in the future, both for the community and the organizations serving it.
“I’d love to see more young leadership that can stand up to speak for those without a voice in our community. Leadership in decision making roles such as education, politics, health, housing, etc. I’d like to see Hispanic youth taking a stand on important issues that affect us as a community. Hispanic youth looking at education as their number one goal to stop the poverty circle and continue to enrich this community with diversity and understanding of each other,” said Hernandez. She noted that these changes have already begun, but that she would love to see more.
“My hope is that organizations serving the Hispanic/Latinx community would be willing to meet the individuals they serve in an equitable manner. There are so many services our community provides yet the Hispanic population is not knowledgeable of them. My hope for the Hispanic/Latinx community is that we have access and know of all the resources Forsyth County offers, so that we too, can benefit from the services in the community we call home,” concluded Pérez Chandler.
To learn more about the organizations mentioned in this article, visit hispanicleague.org, crosbyscholars.org, and nclatinocongress.org.