Since its establishment as a colonial outpost of the French empire, New Orleans has been an international and multi-ethnic port city full of immigrants, migrants, and indigenous residents. Languages of all kinds flourished even before European colonization, as the indigenous name for the region was Bulbancha, or land of many tongues

Today, the cultural and economic contributions of Vietnamese and Latin American residents in New Orleans are vast, visible and known. Yet they are not formally included in essential aspects of city life, particularly communication and political participation. 

Now, there is a chance to start a pilot of a government-funded Language Access Program for the City of New Orleans. The city has never had such a program, despite its long history of new arrivals, from forcibly enslaved Africans and French settlers to large migrations of Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Haitian/Saint-Dominguan, Latin American and Vietnamese people. 

For the tens of thousands of city residents who do not use spoken English as their first or preferred language, a Language Access Program would open up opportunities for civic engagement at public meetings and for accessing available services and information.

A Tulane School of Public Health campaign, translated into Vietnamese. “Elders remain at risk for COVID-19,” reads the flyer, which urges COVID testing to protect elders.

This step is not a nicety – it’s a moral, political and legal obligation. Cities like New Orleans, which receive federal financial assistance, must provide language services by federal law that’s rooted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

Despite its obligation, the city also stands to reap incredible benefits from implementing this pilot program. 

With better access to interpreters and translators, city officials can reach all of the city’s residents equitably. Through its investment, the city gains the energy, creativity and knowledge of all of its people. 

Currently, for those who are deaf or speak no or limited English, the American dream so often remains a hollow, heartbreaking myth. With this pilot, their ambitions toward that dream can be better fulfilled, because they will be able to talk directly to their elected officials, read materials printed in their own languages, and engage meaningfully in the larger democratic process.

Technically, that access is now possible through $500,000 that sits in the Mayor’s budget. It is designated to fund a Language Access Pilot Program that could pay for essential language-access services through, at most, the end of 2026. 

Though the money has been approved, more steps are needed to make the program a reality. If contracts are not sent out to bid and a contractor signed before the end of this year, the city risks losing this vital opportunity.

The Spanish version of the city’s COVID-vaccination campaign, “Roll Up Your Sleeves, NOLA.” Vaccination was essential because COVID rates had spiked within the city’s Latino community, due partly to poor access to healthcare, disproportionate representation in frontline jobs without built-in sick time, and multigenerational households where social distancing was virtually impossible.

How did this finally become possible? The federal government sent $387 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) local funds to New Orleans in 2021 and 2022. Local advocacy groups coalesced to collectively present the Big Easy Deal, a significant and forward-thinking package of $140 million in community investments such as permanent affordable housing, food support for low-income residents, and youth programs that directly addressed disparate impacts to residents due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2023, the City Council funded many of those proposals, including Language Access.

Community leaders in language access — including the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Our Voice Nuestra Voz and the longtime advocates from Louisiana Language Access Coalition — formed an advisory committee that met monthly starting in October 2023 and created recommendations on best practices and highest priorities to implement during the initial pilot. To comply with the City Council mandate, the committee submitted its recommendations which were included in the council’s April 4 consent agenda.

The Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity was also a leading collaborator, presenting an in-progress Language Access Plan to the committee and incorporating feedback from stakeholders in the Vietnamese, Spanish and Deaf communities.

The recommended priorities include:

  • in-person interpretation for residents who need to meet with city department staff, 
  • on-demand phone interpretation services to allow residents to walk-in to City Hall and be able to find the information they need,
  • interpretation at public meetings like City Council for residents to engage in real-time with the democratic process,
  • translation of public-facing forms, brochures, alerts,
  • and a Language Access Coordinator position, to tie it all together and ensure improvement of the process over time.

To have the greatest impact within our city, we pushed for language access to first reach those who communicate in American Sign Language and our largest non-English speaking populations, including roughly 14,000 Spanish-speaking residents and 4,000 Vietnamese-speaking residents, according to the latest available U.S Census data. 

We look forward to pushing for an expansion to Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Garifuna, and any other language that emerges in future years as essential for residents to be engaged, informed, and limit harm.

Language access is in line with eligible ways to use ARPA funds as it addresses negative health, social and economic impacts during the pandemic. The pandemic intensified the stakes for language access, as non-English speakers struggled to find life-saving information about virus-prevention and vaccines. 

Economically, too, there’s been no local account or reckoning of just how poorly non-English speaking households suffered during the pandemic in ways quite distinct from English-speaking ones. Through our organizing in immigrant and Black communities and a 50-question survey of our members during the pandemic, we at the Workers’ Center have heard common themes of unemployment, slow recovery and continued discrimination in the experiences of Black and Latinx New Orleanians. 

But a greater number of English-speaking households, who spoke the language of government, successfully navigated the array of government programs created to resolve the crisis. They were able to access federal stimulus-payment applications, business-support programs and loans, and new community services offering free medical treatment, food, and WiFi. Beyond aid, English speakers received accurate information about the risks of COVID, ways to prevent contracting the virus, and ultimately how to access the vaccine.

Once the Language Access Pilot Program goes into effect, we as a city will be on a path toward inclusion and justice. Last week, we heard positive news that the Language Access Coordinator position is now open for public applicants.

But it is not a panacea. Trusted grassroots advocates will still be vital to helping people from disenfranchised and marginalized communities push for their voices to be heard — and even for their very presence to be acknowledged. For instance, while New Orleans was recently certified as a “Welcoming City,” that welcoming spirit has not yet materialized in our communities. 

Let it show in street signage, in public statements that reflect on and consider language differences within communities, or in actions like a fully-funded Language Access Program now and beyond 2026. 

At its most basic, ‘Welcoming City’ is a short, comforting, aspirational phrase. By implementing a Language Access Program, the City of New Orleans will be taking an important step toward making sure that Welcoming City is a true confirmation of what is already evident, along the streets of the city and in the halls of power.

M.G. Olson is the Senior Researcher at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and has been involved in New Orleans social justice movements since 2006.

Rocio Aguilar is a former Congreso de Jornaleros member and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice organizer.