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Kansas City will create an Office of Language Access to improve translation services

More than 50 people attended a community forum hosted by KC Tenants at the Northeast Library. The forum was facilitated in Spanish, while an English interpreter spoke into earpieces.
Dominick Williams
KC Tenants
More than 50 people attended a community forum hosted by KC Tenants at the Northeast Library. The forum was facilitated in Spanish, while an English interpreter spoke into earpieces.

One in 20 Kansas City residents have limited proficiency in English. An ordinance passed by Kansas City Council on Thursday will create a city office dedicated to expanding translation abilities, and bridge the gap between the government and the local immigrant population.

Imagine trying to get a pothole filled or trash pickup scheduled, or stopping a nuisance from setting up in your neighborhood.

Fighting City Hall is hard enough. For the one in 20 Kansas Citians who don’t speak English very well, it can prove practically impossible.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates that more than 50,000 Kansas Citians speak a language other than English at home, making up more than a tenth of the city’s population. Around 20,000 have limited proficiency in English.

For some of these households, English-speaking children might have to translate emails and talk on the phone for their parents. Many of those families simply avoid seeking city services.

A Kansas City ordinance passed by City Council aims to change that. It would create an office of language access to expand the city’s translation abilities and bridge the gap between local government and Kansas City’s diverse immigrant and refugee communities.

But bridging the language gap is expensive. Kansas City residents speak more than 100 languages. And translating every document to every language? Not gonna happen.

Instead, the city will triage the challenge to decide which documents should be automatically translated into Spanish, for instance, and which languages represent too little of the population to warrant the time and expense of translation.

What the Kansas City language access ordinance will do

The ordinance sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Ryana Parks-Shaw requires the city to hire a KC language access officer to oversee the new program. Then that officer would have three months to propose a plan to the City Council.

Eventually, the office would employ at least four people focusing on translation, interpretation and community engagement. The office would be designed based on research performed by KC Tenants and Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation.

The program could include:

  • Translation of the city’s website and high-stakes information, such as emergency public health or water boil advisories, into 10 languages.
  • Interpretation for 200 languages at City Council meetings or translation of any city document upon request.
  • Training for city workers on cultural competency and how to use translation services.

Spanish- and Swahili-speaking residents can participate in a trial run during this year’s budget hearings. If it goes well, it may become standard.
The budget’s transmittal letter — written by the city manager to summarize the budget and highlight key elements — will be translated into both Spanish and Swahili. So will flyers advertising this year’s hearings. Attendees will be able to reserve an interpretation device so that the budget discussion can be translated in real time to one of those two languages.

“Our budget is a moral document,” said Councilmember Andrea Bough, who represents the 6th District at-large. “It is so important that we allow those (residents) full participation in this process.”

The ordinance comes with a price tag of $900,000 to cover salaries, translation services and technology such as interpretation equipment.

As the program develops, it would be informed by a monthslong research and engagement campaign by KC Tenants and Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRR). Their policy recommendations are published here.

On Feb. 22, the ordinance passed by a vote of 12-1, with only Council member Nathan Willett voting "no." The ordinance was amended to recommend that the Kansas City Police Department adopt a similar policy to expand language access.

Kansas City flunked an informal audit of its language services

Kansas Citians speak over 100 different languages, including Spanish, Swahili, Somali and Burmese. City government is looking for ways to better serve them.
Josh Merchant
Kansas City Beacon
Kansas Citians speak over 100 different languages, including Spanish, Swahili, Somali and Burmese. City government is looking for ways to better serve them.

Last fall, a group of volunteers took on an undercover mission.

They called and emailed about a dozen Kansas City departments to ask for help with things like trash pickup, water payments, vaccinations and park reservations.

The volunteer callers could only speak Spanish or Portuguese.

In theory, city staff can transfer calls to an interpreter. But KC Tenants wanted to know how well the system worked.

One out of five Spanish attempts was successful. Portuguese callers fared worse — only one out of 13 phone calls was successful.

“People were sometimes treated very poorly,” said Tadeo Weiner Davis, a leader with KC Tenants who organized the audit. “Being hung up on, being ignored, being passed around within offices.”

KC Tenants and AIRR also researched other cities’ policies and organized community engagement. In all, more than 400 people participated in their community engagement events, representing dozens of languages.

The groups recommended six to eight staff members, including people who can provide some interpretation at public meetings and advise departments on how to engage with immigrants.

They also recommend that the city use a variety of sources to decide which languages to prioritize.

For example, French is the fourth most common language in Kansas City, but the majority of people who speak French are also fluent in English. On the other hand, a large number of Spanish, Swahili and Vietnamese speakers are more likely to need translation and interpretation in an English-first city.

Marrying effectiveness and cost-efficiency

Given the steep cost of translation, it’s tempting to simply run every document and webpage through Google Translate — but some cities in the U.S. explicitly prohibit this practice.

“This needs to be competent translation,” said Mary Allison Joseph, a leader on KC Tenants’ language justice team. “Google Translate is not competent translation.”

In the U.S. immigration system, mistranslations have contributed to the denial of asylum applications. One asylum-seeker referred to her abusive father in an application as “mi jefe,” but when an AI program translated it literally to “my boss,” her request for asylum was rejected.

A botched water boil advisory, for instance, could threaten public health. Kansas City currently uses machine translation for its website. That’s far cheaper than paying a human to translate.

In the 2024–2025 budget, KC Tenants and AIRR recommend giving this office a budget of $1.5 million to pay for staff, contracts and technology. Under its existing program, Kansas City spends $28,000 on translation for the Health Department alone. The ordinance would add similar costs to multiple city departments.

With hundreds of City Council records and government documents going back decades, the cost could be ruinous.

Joseph said she doesn’t want translation to become another box for departments to check without real thought. A department might translate a brochure into Swahili, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to take phone calls in Swahili.

“What’s the distribution plan?” she said. “Have you built relationships with trusted messengers in that language community to make sure it actually reaches people?”

The new workers could also direct resources where they’re needed with more flexibility. For example, the staff might reach out to the Somali community to figure out the best way to share information from the Water Department.

Weiner Davis, who led the audit of city services, said every Kansas Citian has the right to engage with city services funded by their tax dollars.

“The north star,” he said, “is to truly be able to call Kansas City a multicultural and multilingual democracy.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Updated: February 22, 2024 at 4:49 PM CST
This ordinance passed Kansas City Council on Feb. 22 in a 12-1 vote.
Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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