What is Global is Local: Comfort Women and Global Humanity

Author’s note–I wrote this over a year ago, and as the Chinese and Korean communities are organizing commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the issue of comfort women and global humanity and justice are still relevant, and will forever be. I applaud Congressman Mike Honda for his courageous leadership as an American who stands for justice for all people–whether they were comfort women brutalized by the Japanese imperial army or the Japanese Americans who forcibly relocated in internment camps during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack.

–Lily Qi

Original article as published in Asian Fortune, July 2014.

During this past Asian American Heritage Month (the month of May), the Fairfax County, Virginia government dedicated a Comfort Women Memorial inside the county government complex to honor and remember the women who were forced into sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While the women were from several East and Southeast Asian countries including Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc., the Korean American community was the main driving force behind the Memorial.

A month earlier, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that requires new state public schools’ textbooks to mention the Korean name “East Sea” for a body of water between Japan and the Korean peninsula that has been called “Sea of Japan.” Like the Comfort Women Memorial, this was also the result of effective local lobbying by the Korean American community and the support of a local Korean American elected official, Grace Wolf of Virginia.

These moves shouldn’t come as a surprise given the growing size, maturity and power of the Korean American community in Northern Virginia and the National Capital Region. Neither sits well with Japan, which protested to the Virginia officials. Accordingly to the Japanese Embassy, there have been recent incidents of harassment against Japanese Americans here related to the Memorial and the textbook name change of the Sea of Japan. They argued that since Japan officially apologized to the comfort women back in 1993 through a Kono Statement and the sitting Prime Minister of Japan at the time personally signed each apology letter to the identified Korean comfort women in addition to providing financial compensation to the victims, it is time to move forward rather than opening past wounds.

It should be noted that the local Japanese American community is very small relative to the Korean community and most are culturally and linguistically more American than Japanese, with much weaker ties to their ancestral homeland or what happened in Asia about 70 years ago than the local Korean community, which is a largely immigrant community. Between Japan as an important trading partner with Virginia and a growing Korean American community with voting power, Virginia chose the community.
My years of experience working in the community reminds me time and again just how deeply many in our community are still tied to their home countries’ happenings, at times much more than what’s going on around them locally. Some would fly half way around the world to cast a vote in their home countries without even bothering to register to vote in local elections that matter to their life here.

About two years ago, at a community fundraiser for a Congressional candidate, a Muslim community leader stood up and questioned why the candidate visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and not also visiting its neighbor, Palestine. Where the candidate stood on transportation funding or business competitiveness was irrelevant. What WAS important was where he stood on Middle Eastern affairs, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Such is our community dynamic today. A local government could find itself being caught in ethnic conflicts a world over and local leaders could find themselves playing the roles of international arbitrators on a mini scale to ensure community harmony.

Understanding such dynamics is critical to effective community engagement and to properly channel the energy and focus of our communities, who are increasingly involved in local civic affairs to exert their influences, even if what they are advocating for was something that happened half a world away, and over two generations ago.

In a super diverse region like ours, what is global can also be very local and personal. Whether it is different ethnic tribes or religious sectors that used to fight each other in their home villages now having to work together as colleagues, or people from warring countries now are neighbors whose kids play and go to school together, America is where cultures converge and mix. Of all things great and powerful about this country, what I found to be most remarkable is how well people of different religions, cultures and ethnicities co-exist in harmony. We do become Americans, not just by citizenship, but more importantly, by adopting its value of civility, tolerance and conciliation over our human differences.


A Jewish Christmas and Many Happy New Years

Since about five years ago, my family started celebrating what I call the “Jewish Christmas” on Christmas Day, with a trip to the movie theater for a new release followed by a dinner at a Chinese restaurant, though we would still attend the Christmas Eve service at a church.

Why “Jewish?” Because that’s what many people of Jewish faith would do on Christmas Day, which they do not observe as a holy day and the only venues open for people to hang out on Christmas Day are movie theaters and Chinese restaurants (with some exaggeration)! But I am not complaining. This is a fun time of the year to be Chinese Americans, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-culture Americans. Starting with Thanksgiving in November, we would celebrate Christmas and New Year with the rest of the country, then stretch our holiday season for two more months with the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival on January 31 this year, and officially finish the holiday season with the Lantern Festival 15 days later, which happens to be on Valentine’s Day in 2014! That’s three to four months of non-stop parties, food, friends, cultural festivals and performances!

But wait, the party is not over yet. There are many more Lunar New Years to celebrate if you care to join holiday celebrations across cultures. Following the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is also celebrated by the Koreans, Vietnamese, and Mongolians, the Southeast Asian communities including the Thai, Cambodian, and Sri Lankans, get busy celebrating their Lunar New Year starting April 13 this year. And in between the Iranian community would have celebrated its New Year called Nowruz starting March 21. If you find it dizzying, let me throw in a couple more—the Indians celebrate their Diwali New Year, a.k.a. the “Festival of Lights” on Oct. 23 this year followed by the Islamic New Year the next day.

These are just the New Year celebrations, which are now almost year-round phenomena in our community. And there is hardly any place more fun to celebrate these holidays than in a cultural melting pot like the Washington, DC region, where the large immigrant communities not only use holidays as a way to hold on to their heritage and pass on the traditions to their children but also a way of connecting with their communities. For many immigrant families, holidays are largely communal, not just familial, traditions. Most immigrants do not have large, extended families here to share the holidays with, and would instead join friends or other families. After all, it’s no fun cooking a whole feast for just a small family of two or three people, and it feels lonely eating a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with your nuclear family like every other meal around the year. That’s why it’s quite common to have large gatherings on major holidays including Christmas rather than the intimacy of family dinner tables.

That brings me to the topic of store closings on Christmas Day and other holidays like Thanksgiving and even the Easter Sunday. Sure, it’s nice to give store employees a day off on a day like Christmas with families and give our material-obsessed culture a holy break so we can focus on the real blessings in life, thank God! But with the ever-expanding variety of holidays we observe, and our evolving ways of observing them, I would think retailers who sell experiences such as nice restaurants and entertainment venues would flock to cater to our needs on those special occasions by providing more places for people to hang out. Yet our retail culture has been typically slow in keeping up with changing times.

Spending holidays outside of your own homes with people other than your families will become increasingly common as more people live alone due to aging or divorce, delay of marriage for the young, or otherwise unattached due to life circumstances or lifestyle choices, and would crave for a sense of connection on holidays with other human beings.

I am picking on retailers, but the idea of keeping up with our community’s changing needs applies to all service providers, be it government, business or nonprofits. This year, to my pleasant surprise, many restaurants are already opening their doors on Christmas Day and I have made my reservation for my Christmas dinner at an Italian restaurant! Happy New Year and Cheers!

Asian Fortune Article: “Montgomery County Business Leaders and Government Officials Visit China to Strengthen Ties”

By Jenny Chen

Rockville, Md. – From Sept. 15-25, Montgomery County executive Ike Leggett led a trip for four cities in China: Shanghai, Xi’an, Benxi, and the Gu’an County right outside of Beijing. The trip included over 80 business, education, and government leaders from Montgomery County and the DC metropolitan area including Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) superintendent Joshua Starr, county council member Hans Riemer, and Michael Goldman of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

Members of the Montgomery County delegation to China at the Shaanxi Province hosted a business roundtable for the Montgomery County delegation. Pictured L-R: Minister of Commerce Mr. Yao Chaoying, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Director of Special Projects Lily Qi, and Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Members of the Montgomery County delegation to China at the Shaanxi Province hosted a business roundtable for the Montgomery County delegation. Pictured L-R: Minister of Commerce Mr. Yao Chaoying, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Director of Special Projects Lily Qi, and Councilmember Hans Riemer.

This marked the first trade trip to china in five years by the county Executive’s office – the last one was in 2008.

The purpose of this mission was to encourage Chinese investors to consider Montgomery County as an attractive location for their investments, open doors for MoCo businesses there, as well as establish a “Sister City” relationship with the city of Xi’an, said a press release put out by the Montgomery County Office of Public Information.

“Our county is competing, especially in biotechnology and health sciences, with other states, cities, and counties that are also looking to tap into the Chinese market. For a tiny investment, we have made a significant impact,” Leggett said.

As an immediate result of the trip Beijing based China Fortune Land Development committed to financially supporting a Rockville based public-private partnership called Biohealth Innovation, Inc. (BHI). BHI was started by Leggett and connects academic biomedical research with government and industry.

“I am enthusiastic to work in partnership with CFLD and Chairman Wang’s team to implement two new important programs that will further develop the Montgomery County innovation ecosystem,” said Richard Bendis, President and CEO of BHI.

The trip also brokered interchanges between Montgomery County’s education leaders and their counterparts in China. Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with its sister city school Xi’an No.1 Middle School. Representatives from Montgomery College visited Xi’an University and signed an MOU to form the broad framework for a partnership between the two institutions which will include exchanging visiting faculty, collaborative virtual online seminars or courses and more.

The trip also formalized the sister city relationship between Montgomery County and Xi’an. The sister city program is part of a larger network called Sister Cities International, founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Sister Cities International is a nonprofit, nonpartisan network that unites “citizen diplomats” and volunteers in programs in 140 countries on six continents.

 County Executive Ike Leggett (far left) led an 80-member trade and sister-city mission to China in September to advance partnerships with several cities. Pictured with Montgomery College president DiRionne Pollard (4th from right), Councilmember Hans Riemer and Montgomery County Director of Special Projects Lily Qi at the Xi’an Jiaotong University’s School of Engineering in the city of Xi’an, which is expected to be Montgomery County’s sister city in China.

County Executive Ike Leggett (far left) led an 80-member trade and sister-city mission to China in September to advance partnerships with several cities. Pictured with Montgomery College president DiRionne Pollard (4th from right), Councilmember Hans Riemer and Montgomery County Director of Special Projects Lily Qi at the Xi’an Jiaotong University’s School of Engineering in the city of Xi’an, which is expected to be Montgomery County’s sister city in China.

“This relationship will surely grow and strengthen cultural, educational, business, and trade exchanges between the two communities,” said Mary D. Kane, President and CEO of Sister Cities International.

The mayor of Xi’an is scheduled to pay a visit to the DC area in March, when the sister city relationship will be officially commemorated.


Visiting Turkey

By Lily Qi

I have meant to write about my last year’s trip to Turkey for a while. The recent turmoil in Turkey and its neighbor Egypt brought back memories that prompted me to revisit that unique experience of last spring.

What a difference a year makes. About this time last year, I was having dinner at an Egyptian friend’s home, when several of the local Egyptians around the table talked about the newly elected President, Mohamed Morsi, with much anticipation and excitement. Morsi would be Egypt’s first democratically elected president. No one would have foreseen that just a year into the office, he was ousted recently amidst protests and violence which has cost dozens of lives.

A month earlier, in May 2012, I visited Turkey as part of a capital region government delegation and left with wonderful feelings about Turkey’s vitality, hospitality and beauty. And yet just last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on the protestors who opposed a plan to turn a park in Taksim Square in Istanbul into a shopping mall, leaving several dead and hundreds wounded.

I am glad I visited Turkey last year. As a culturally rich and diverse country, Turkey spans both Asia and Europe and sees itself as the bridge between the East and the West. Its largest city, Istanbul, was the capital of the ancient Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Geographically, today’s Turkey is a mere fraction of its ancient self during the height of its power spanning Asian, African and European continents. The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, with a soaring dome and striking architecture, was the world’s largest cathedral for almost 1,000 years before it was turned into a mosque and now a museum.

Some of the most fascinating sceneries, blending mountains, buildings and water, reminded me of San Francisco with its layered beauty. At the same time, some of the housing structures also reminded me of Shanghai in the 70’s and 80’s. From ancient ruins to modern metropolises, from schools and nonprofits to business, government, and media, our visits exposed us to all facets of the Turkish society with the constant indulgence of Turkish tea served in bulb-shaped glass and the signature Turkish coffee.

This was my first time visiting a Muslim country. One of the most memorable experiences was probably the call for prayer, which could be heard five times a day starting before the crack of dawn, permeating through the air. Both mythical and musical, it was an experience unlike any other whether you hear that in the middle of the day at a bustling street corner or in the stillness of night in your hotel room. In the public, Turkish women looked modern and fashionable. Some wore headscarves with carefully coordinated handbags and outfits while just as many didn’t wear headscarves, which are more of a fashion statement than a religious symbol, as I was repeatedly told by the locals and the tour guide.

In spite of Islam’s deep influence on its culture, Turkey is a mostly secular government and society with a parliamentary democracy and multiple parties. While in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, we got the special treatment of visiting the Parliament and sitting at the back to observe the discussions on the floor among the major political parties debating whether to allow foreign-born Turks to vote in Turkish elections. A woman presided over the parliamentary debate, which was quite refreshing given what we typically think of women’s roles in Muslim countries, especially in politics.

Of all the visits and conversations, the ones at Turkish families’ dinner tables were the most meaningful and enriching. Our conversations ranged from American presidency and U.S.’s roles in the Middle East, to sports, youth, economy and America’s cultural minorities. The fact that I am a government official from the U.S. but a Chinese immigrant clearly fascinated them.

Here in the capital region, the local Turkish community, though relatively small, is highly active, youthful, and well-organized. The annual Ramadan Iftar dinners often involved Christian ministers as well as a cross-section of government, civic and community organization leaders, and the Rumi Forum actively facilitates interfaith and intercultural dialogues throughout the year. This is a community eager to be understood and proactively reaching out to build cultural ties and understanding.

Summer is a travel season for many. Wherever we go and whatever we encounter, the most fascinating thing will always be what we learn about our own humanity from learning about others.

Translating Cultural Diversity into Global Opportunities

We often hear public leaders say “our diversity is our strength,” which has become somewhat a cliché over the years. While I don’t doubt their sincerity in believing what they say, I wonder how many truly understand what it means to have a large, diverse, and global population in their communities.

This past weekend, I attended the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association’s (CBA) 18th annual conference, which attracted scientists, educators, businesses and entrepreneurs from the region as well as delegations from several cities in China. It was a high-energy conference hosted by an all-volunteer crew of local community members.

CBA is hardly unique in actively making global connections between this region and the homeland of its members. For my “day job,” I oversee special initiatives for Montgomery County Executive related to innovation economy and global partnerships. In recent years, I have attended similar biotech conferences hosted by the local Indian and Korean communities.

The 21st century being the bio century and Montgomery County being the epicenter of health research and life sciences with the likes of National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, interests in such conferences were hardly surprising. For Montgomery County, this region or this country to effectively translate our unrivaled health research assets into health benefits for the world and economic opportunities for the local community, we need active facilitators to better connect the growing global markets with our medical technologies.

But of course, such opportunities don’t stop at science or biotech. There has been a proliferation of ethnic-based groups in education, science, businesses, etc., that actively facilitates global partnerships in the past decade. The rise of new economic powers such as the BRICS pack (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other emerging markets such as Mexico and Vietnam has energized our local communities from these countries to be community ambassadors making the local and global connections.

What stands in the way is our antiquated ways of thinking about race and diversity. The 21st century is materially different from the 20th century in how we live, work, process information and connect with one another, yet our collective mindset is still in the 20th century. First, in spite of the rich ethnic diversity in the region, we as a society continue to see our communities through the antiquated lens of race, as whites, blacks, Hispanics or Asians, for example, rather than Russians, Ethiopians, Salvadorians and Koreans—the way people see themselves. Such framework overlooks the significance of immigration in our community dynamics and the opportunities it can present. It is no secret that many in the immigrant communities are far more engaged about global affairs half way around the world than local public affairs that immediately affect their daily lives.

From the local Burmese community’s excitement over President Obama’s historical visit of Myanmar (aka Burma) to the Brazilian community’s excitement over Brazil’s hosting of Summer Olympics 2016; from the Pakistani community being shaken by the bombs in Lahore three years ago, to the Turkish community’s concern over the current unrest in their homeland, we are reminded time and again that what’s global is local. These ties to their home countries can mean tremendous opportunities for the many globally-diverse communities in the Washington region, which has seen its immigrant population doubling since 1990.

Second, much of our diversity rhetoric still focuses on disparity reduction in accessing services or opportunities in employment, contracting and education rather than opportunities. While disparity reduction continues to be relevant and important, such exclusive focus undermines our ability to capitalize on the tremendous human capital and global partnerships. In Montgomery County, where half of our communities are made of ethnic minorities and fully one third are foreign-born, we have established two sister city relationships in recent years in El Salvadore and Ethiopia and are on our way to establishing a sister city in China. These relationships are meant to outlast any sitting administrations or political leaders, and the process of selecting countries and cities have energized many in the community who otherwise would never have paid much attention to what a local government is doing.

Leaders and communities that understand the innate connection between the global and local are poised to gain from both community engagement and global economic, educational and cultural opportunities. It is upon both our communities and institutional leaders to capitalize on such community energy and channel it in the direction that benefits all of our communities, whether immigrant or local.

Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

Public condemnation has been swift and abundant for former DC mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry since his infamous remarks about dirty Asian shops that, in his opinion, “ought to go” and be replaced by African-American business people. It was a sure sign of progress to see the mainstream media turning the heat on Barry, and for groups from advocates to public intellectuals and elected officials make it clear that such divisive and racist rhetoric would not be tolerated.

It is easy to be outraged and to demand apologies. What is much harder to do—though equally necessary—is to reflect on how our community is perceived by others and how we can improve our public image and community relations.

Here is what Mr. Barry actually said at the primary election victory party in April: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops… They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Mr. Barry wasn’t just talking about the Asian shops being unsanitary; he saw the Asian business people and their shops as outsiders that didn’t belong in Ward 8, a predominantly black community. While his intention might be to see more black businesses in the community, his tactic of scapegoating by pitting one community against another is most unfortunate and drives a wedge in community relations.

Anyone who has been paying attention should hardly be surprised at these remarks from Marion Barry, who, in spite of his past glory as a civil rights champion in Washington, D.C., has become synonymous with reckless and shameless personal conduct by public officials. What bothered me more than his comments was the audience’s cheers and applause at his words. Right or wrong, Mr. Barry seemed to have echoed a sentiment among some residents in Ward 8 towards Asian American-owned businesses.

This should sound an alarm to the Asian business community and our community leaders about how we are perceived by other communities. The residents in Ward 8 elected Mr. Barry repeatedly to represent them because he is seen as a fighter for the underclass.

Ward 8 still feels left behind in spite of the capital city’s remarkable economic turnaround and massive revitalization since the late ‘90s. It is one thing to be poor, quite another to be “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his “I have a Dream” speech. That feeling makes some residents resent “outsiders” who are seen as only interested in making money without being part of the local community.

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

Asian immigrants all over the world are known to be industrious and successful in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But history teaches us that focusing only on making a living or a fortune may be fine for the short-term interests of individual businesses, but over time may breed resentment among locals who may perceive us as opportunists. Investing in community relations by hiring local residents, volunteering or donating to local charitable or social causes, and living where one does business are not only sound business strategies, but also economic imperatives for survival.

Wake-up Call

What happened in Indonesia during the mid to late ‘90s, when Chinese immigrants were targeted and had their properties and lives violated, should serve as a wake-up call to Asian immigrant communities everywhere. Economic success without community involvement or political empowerment can be a lethal combination that isolates us from the larger society and deepens mistrust between newcomers and the local communities.

I was impressed by a poignant commentary in the Washington Post (April 27), “Still the Same Marion Barry,” by Colby King, a Pulitzer Prize- winning Post columnist who happens to be African American, condemning Mr. Barry’s remarks while putting his life and popularity with some blacks in perspective. It is important that leaders and pundits in the black community speak out on such issues to advance other minorities’ rights and well-being. While we shouldn’t cut slacks for anyone, especially elected leaders, we should also rise above outrage and use each incident as a teachable moment to advance the bigger purpose of social integration.

Culturally Speaking

A friend from South Asia told me about his recent conversation with a colleague, who told him to “calm down” because he was making a strong point and got a bit animated with hand gestures. He found that remark condescending and objected to the perception that he was not calm or collected just because he felt strongly about something.

I can completely relate to him and feel his frustration as I have been in his shoes many times. It is not unusual for American-born or -bred colleagues and friends to misinterpret the communication styles of those who grew up elsewhere. When we passionately talk about something, we are perceived as being emotional, even irrational or unreasonable. To be told to calm down in the middle of an engaged and serious conversation is humiliating, especially given how important face-saving is for many Asian cultures, unless we have clearly violated your personal space and are rude or aggressive.

For many foreign-born professionals, verbal communication is our last frontier in career advancement and personal integration with other Americans, for several good reasons.

First, vast majority of immigrants who came as adults, including some from English-speaking countries, have some degrees of accent no matter how well we speak English, not to mention many who still struggle with spoken English in spite of having advanced degrees in this country. Second, as self-respecting adults, we tend to be conscious of how people perceive our linguistic competency and tend to hold back if we don’t have to embarrass ourselves.

Over time, the lack of practice in verbally articulating our thoughts, coupled with the lack of vocabulary for some to adequately express ourselves, can lead to serious lack of confidence when we do speak. Finally, either due to cultural habits or our tendency to compensate for inadequate verbal skills, we tend to get animated with our gestures when we speak, making us look as though we are overly emotional, or less leader-like.

As individuals it is to our detriment if we don’t pay attention to how we come across to others. The American cultural norm assigns great value to being cool and collected under any circumstances. The well-educated and civilized are expected to conduct themselves with impeccable manners, including how we speak. The little things we don’t pay much attention to can be big traps that erode people’s comfort levels with us. How we cut people off before they finish their sentences, how we use our hand gestures, eye contacts, and postures, all affect the quality of our interactions and ultimately our relationships with colleagues and friends.

Another issue that comes up every time in my cultural competency training class is people’s resentment towards colleagues speaking a language other than English at work. As our workplaces become more multicultural and multilingual, it is almost unavoidable when people choose to converse in their native tongues. What is important is for both individuals and organizations to develop some awareness. When we speak another language at work, we need to be mindful of how our conversations may sound to others who don’t have any clue what we are talking about. On the other hand, it serves to remind ourselves of the power of languages as a bond for individuals as most people are much more relaxed, lively and gregarious when they speak their native languages. In addition, speaking one’s native language is a more productive and effective way of communication than speaking a second language.

The fact that many American expatriates working overseas choose to hang out with their fellow Americans and speak English whenever possible tells you it’s not just the non-English speakers who love to speak their native languages. We all do. Language humanizes us as people.

Cultural competency goes both ways. For immigrants like me, personal cultural competency takes lifetime to perfect. For organizations, cultural competency takes purposeful actions on daily basis, such as paying attention to communication dynamics, especially in group settings, when conversations are often dominated by native English speakers and the agenda is less structured in terms of who speaks next. It helps to draw out less vocal individuals and encourage them to comment on something they feel comfortable talking about or have expertise on, or to give them a heads-up that you expect them to speak at the next meeting so they can be prepared. Awareness combined with thoughtful practices can go a long way in developing our individual and institutional cultural competency.

Doing More with Less on Language Access

This article was first published on the Migration Policy Institute’s Language Portal, http://www.migrationinformation.org/integration/language_portal/corner_jun11.cfm.  Migration Policy Institute (www.migrationpolicy.org) is an independent think tank studying the migration of people worldwide.  Part of my job is overseeing Montgomery County, Maryland’s language access work. 

Like many counties and districts across the country, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County, has experienced a rapid increase in its foreign-born population, doubling since 1990 to account for nearly 31 percent of the community’s 1 million residents. At the same time, Montgomery County faces a tight budgetary environment, like others across the country. In order to meet the growing needs of the limited English proficient (LEP) clients the county serves, we have learned to do more with less.

Below are some of the cost-conscious strategies we have used as part of our recently redesigned language access framework, which aims to achieve accountability, awareness, and cost-effectiveness in language access during these challenging times.

Negotiate Contract Costs
In order to negotiate the best price possible, it is important to know the market for which you are contracting for language services. We conducted a cost comparison of telephone interpretation contracts for a neighboring jurisdiction with similar demographics and found that our county was paying 13 to 33 cents more per minute for each call. Despite the fact that we used a different contractor than the neighboring jurisdiction, we were able to negotiate down our price per call to match the prices paid by the neighboring jurisdiction. The non-technical Spanish language interpretation rate has dropped by 33 cents a minute, and technical or non- Spanish language interpretation is down by 13 cents a minute. At the current volume of usage, Montgomery County can expect to save tens of thousands of dollars starting in fiscal year (FY)2011.

Hire Bilingual Employees
Bilingual staff is one of the most important language resources an organization can use for cost-effective language services. In Montgomery County, full-time employees who pass language tests receive a pay differential and are expected to make their best efforts to assist other employees and departments when asked, in addition to using their language skills on their own jobs. Based upon the telephone interpretation usage data of the past couple of years, we decided to certify the top six most used languages: Spanish, Chinese, French, Korean, Vietnamese, and Amharic, which account for 98 percent of all telephone interpretation needs.

Conduct Staff-Led Training
Training by staff instead of a contractor can save costs while increasing flexibility. Montgomery County had initially contracted with an outside organization to train county employees on working with LEPs. By moving training responsibilities in-house, we saved on contract costs and were also able to increase the frequency of classes and tailor the classes to different departments’ unique needs. As a result, the number of staff and managers trained jumped from 178 in FY 2009 to 488 in FY2010, a 174 percent increase.

Digitize Different Forms of Data
Centralizing and digitizing information into public and private databases can lower translation and printing costs and avoid duplication of efforts across lines of government.

  • To provide a one-stop resource for county staff and the public, we created a new website (www.montgomerycountymd.gov/LEP) that contains an archive of translated documents submitted by the county’s various agencies.
  • Further, we automated translation of basic public documents in the top five most spoken languages. While automated translation is not used for any county documents that are actively distributed (such as print publications or media releases), it can be a practical and efficient tool to communicate basic content on over 26,000 pages on the county government’s website.
  • Internally, we also redesigned a bilingual employees database in order to make it more user-friendly and efficient for county staff seeking to locate bilingual employees for assistance. This has enabled the county to cut down on the need to rely on contracted service providers.

Share Resources 
Sharing resources across government agencies can save time and money. Departments and agencies can use existing contracts from other agencies for language services. In Montgomery County, the police department is the lead agency for the telephone interpretation contract and negotiates rates on behalf of all other agencies that use telephone interpretation under this contract.

Leverage Community Resources
Engaging with community organizations can be an effective strategy for providing alternative translation and interpretation services free of charge. Montgomery County runs a Volunteer Language Bank that provides free language services to both registered nonprofits and public agencies as a supplemental service. The county government also taps into community in-language media and service providers to distribute translated materials to maximize exposure and save printing costs.

Related documents:

Montgomery County, Maryland. 2010. Annual Report on Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Policy Implementation. [download]