Janet Pablo, a Camden mother of three, says when the clock read 5:30 p.m. on March 23, she dropped what she was doing at home and clicked the Facebook app on her phone as the local school board meeting began streaming.
With her kids preparing to return to classrooms after more than a year of remote learning, she was eager to hear updates. And, for the first time, she was able to listen to the online meeting in her native Spanish.
“Before this, I’ve never been to a school board meeting,” Pablo said in Spanish. “When I heard this was happening I felt relieved.”
In what may be a first for the state, the Camden school district recently began to live simulcast its board meetings in Spanish. Local officials said they are trying to better communicate with the families of Camden’s 6,000 students, who are 54% Hispanic and include 30% who primarily speak Spanish at home.
While a number of New Jersey municipalities have provided live Spanish translation at some local municipal meetings for those attending in person, Camden officials believe they are the first in New Jersey to offer a live online Spanish translation for meetings that residents can watch at home.
“This is groundbreaking for us as a city… when we think of inclusivity and the importance of all voices being heard,” Superintendent Katrina McCombs said.
The live Spanish simulcasts, which will run for at least three months, launched as a pilot with news and media company The Latino Spirit, through a $6,000 grant provided by the Camden Education Fund (CEF), a local non-profit geared toward helping public schools. School officials say they’d like to find funding to extend the pilot.
And as New Jersey’s Spanish-speaking population grows, advocates say more local and state government meetings should be offered online with live translation to reach non-English speaking residents.
“Being an immigrant, English has always been a second language for me. I’ve been translating for my parents since I was 10,” said 32-year-old Falio Leyba-Martinez, the school advisory board member who led the effort to offer the live Spanish translation in Camden.
“It’s time we worked to remove this barrier, especially for a community that’s growing so fast. This is a huge triumph for us and I think can set a precedent for New Jersey,” Leyba-Martinez said.
Spanish is the second-most spoken language in New Jersey but Diego Maya, who heads The Latino Spirit, says this is the first time his company has partnered with a municipality for live Spanish simulcast services.
The state’s fall enrollment data for the 2020-2021 school year shows that of the more than 1.3 million students enrolled in New Jersey schools, more than 400,000 are Hispanic.
In Camden, when municipal meetings moved online due to COVID-19 last spring, the district began offering a phone number that residents could call during school board meetings to hear the proceedings translated into Spanish. But the translation was only offered live and it could not be played back later. Under the new service, the videos can be viewed later. Plus, the district said, written documents are translated into Spanish on its website.
For the March meeting, 65 “steady” attendees tuned in for the entirety of the three-hour board meeting during its live Spanish broadcast. Three days later, over 100 people had watched it online. McCombs said she thinks the numbers will only increase as word gets out.
“They provided updates on the (coronavirus) protocols being put in place, the continued availability of meals and what we as parents need to know about our children’s safety this year,” said Pablo, whose children — ages 8, 11 and 13 — all attend the nearby Thomas Dudley School.
“It makes us feel like they care about our community and want to inform us, instead of leaving these families to the side,” she said.
Maya said he saw a need to add Spanish simulcast translations as a service at the start of the pandemic. Spanish simulcasts of Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 pandemic briefings out of Trenton have garnered about 2 million views, he noted. (A spokesman for the governor clarified that these broadcasts were not done in an official capacity or partnership with the state.)
For the Camden school district simulcasts, Maya said he translates the entire meeting via Facebook Live out of his Princeton home studio. Five people assist with the production.
“It’s more than just translating words. I think by having parents more involved with what’s going on (in schools) there’s less of a chance that kids go the wrong way, that kids make the wrong decisions,” Maya said. “But it’s bigger than that. People’s voices need to be heard on transportation, city and county elections and public safety.”
Maya said he’s most struck by 2019-2020 enrollment figures showing that 94 of the state’s close to 700 school districts and charter schools were made up of 50% or more Hispanic students. And research shows the size of New Jersey’s Hispanic communities continues to grow.
Officials in Camden said they are encouraged after hearing from school leaders in other municipalities in New Jersey about wanting to offer live video translations of their public meetings as well.
“[The Spanish simulcasts] would mean these parents would be able to advocate better for their children,” said Dania Martinez, a newly elected school board member in Paterson, a city made up of close to 61% Latino and Hispanic residents.
The Paterson school district has provided translations in Spanish during in-person board meetings via headsets. The headsets also offered the live broadcasts in Bengali and Arabic. However, during virtual meetings, the online broadcasts have solely been in English, Martinez said.
“A lot of parents reach out to me for Special Education (questions) if there’s something they don’t understand in English. We do have materials that come in Spanish, but we can definitely offer better support in that area,” Martinez said.
Sara Cullinane, director of advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, said she thinks the state should prioritize live Spanish translations, and not just for school board meetings.
“In order for there to be full participation in our local government, everyone has to have a voice and when you don’t have these translation services, you’re leaving out huge swaths of the population,” said Cullinane.
Communities across the state offer translations in different municipal areas. In Red Bank, where the population is about 33% Hispanic, the police department works with Spanish translators on a case-by-case basis for public safety matters and larger events like National Night Out.
In the state’s capital city, the pandemic was the impetus behind the non-profit Trenton Health Team launching live Spanish meetings focused on health services. Last June, the organization began holding COVID-related live events in both English and Spanish.
“From early in the pandemic we found nuance is also important. Sometimes when you translate from English to Spanish verbatim the result may not be appropriate. The exact ‘contact tracing’ translation pulled up something that had to do with tracking animals. ‘This isn’t right,’ I remember thinking,” said Gregory Paulson, executive director of the Trenton Health Team. “As we look at more of these services, we need to keep that in mind, too.”
The pandemic’s impact on communities of color played a big role in the organization’s move to offer live Spanish meetings. But the Trenton Health Team has since expanded to host meetings on everything from domestic violence to emergency food services.
William Skaggs, a Trenton spokesman in the mayor’s office, says the city has used Trenton Health Team’s services for communications on the coronavirus and other health topics.
As far expanding the Spanish translations to become the norm at other public meetings Skaggs said, “It would be amazing to do that.”
“What may make it difficult is the length of some of these meetings. A council meeting can go up to six hours and that’s twice a week every two weeks,” he continued. “Regardless, any time we can get more of the community engaged it’s something we want to aim for.”
Eventually seeing thousands of residents across the state tune in to Spanish live broadcasts would not surprise New Jersey City University English professor David Blackmore.
“There are definitely communities that want this information, it’s just a matter of it being accessible,” said Blackmore, who teaches an undergraduate research seminar called “Latinos and Language in the U.S.”
“Giving them a chance to speak is important too, rather than just being able to get a report afterwards. It’s about playing a more active role,” he added.
Blackmore said while New Jersey may not be unique in its progress when it comes to offering these kinds of live Spanish translations, it’s ahead of states that have “English-only laws” for public services.
Michael Zhadanovsky, a spokesman for Murphy, said the governor’s administration has taken a number of steps to include and inform Spanish-speaking residents, like hosting bilingual meetings and issuing written updates in Spanish.
Itzel Hernandez, an organizer with American Friends Service Committee, a group that focuses on social justice, says though the logistics may be difficult, extending translations to public meetings could start with prominent topics or special requests.
“To do this for every meeting would be a big undertaking … very important, but tough to do,” Hernandez said.
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