This summer, the Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resilience conducted a series of workshops inviting the community’s input into the drafting of the county’s climate action strategy plan. These workshops were held to offer community members the opportunity to comment on local policy measures as well as shape the direction of current and future policymaking by offering suggestions and ideas. Rather than simply checking off boxes for expectations of citizen engagement by local government, the stated goal of these workshops is to produce an accessible avenue for community members from all identities, especially those that have historically faced discrimination, to take the lead on local climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. In accomplishing this goal, language accessibility is a key consideration to ensure effective citizen engagement and maximized impact.
The Case for Language Accessibility in Local Climate Planning
Language accessibility is especially important for diverse jurisdictions like Miami-Dade County, where more than 75% of the population over five years old speaks a language other than English at home and around 70% self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino. But while the Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resilience offers a translation of their web page in Spanish and Haitian Créole, it falls short in many respects. For example, there are no translations of the Climate Action Strategy Draft into either language. Furthermore, the County opted for live interpretations of these climate action workshops instead of dedicated workshops in Spanish or Haitian Créole for the community members who belong to these specific linguistic groups.
How do I know? I was a participant in these workshops, where I used the interpretation tools to recreate what the experience must have been like for an audience member who spoke only Spanish. It didn’t take long for me to see there was ample room for improvement. The third workshop in the series, “Transportation and Land Use,” offers one such illustration. Upon activating the Spanish interpretation, the first issue I noticed was that the service itself did not start until 10 minutes into the workshop. As a result, any Spanish speaker in the audience would have missed the first part of the workshop, which was dedicated to climate science education. Moreover, the Spanish interpretation was significantly hard to comprehend since it was layered over the live feed in English, meaning that a participant would hear two people simultaneously speaking in two different languages. These challenges make interacting in these sessions more complicated for non-English speakers, and important information is likely to be missed.
These language accessibility challenges are not exclusive to Miami-Dade County. Other localities across the United States with large Spanish-speaking populations, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque, fall behind in terms of language accessibility in one of two ways. First, they often fail to successfully engage community members who identify as Hispanic or Latino at all. Even when engagement efforts are made, localities typically only provide interpretation services for workshops targeted at the general community rather than offering dedicated workshop designed and targeted specifically to people in these linguistic communities. Unsurprisingly, there was minimal participation from Spanish-speakers at the workshop I attended. Although the workshop hosted a Spanish-speaking breakout room, it was empty throughout the entire duration of the workshop.
By employing remote conferencing and communications, climate action workshops for language minority groups could be provided with less effort and lower costs. However, holding these climate action workshops is not enough to resolve the attendance gap with the Hispanic community. Many people belonging to linguistic minorities are also low-income, creating further obstacles for accessibility to climate workshops.
Why does this matter so much? It is critical to communicate to the entire community their vulnerability to climate change impacts as well as ongoing efforts to redress these impacts through adaptation and mitigation strategies. Even more crucially, language accessibility provides community members the opportunity to shape the direction of climate policymaking on the local level through the implementation of their ideas or suggestions.
In some cases, courts have ruled that ensuring language accessibility is required for the environmental decisionmaking process to be considered adequate under state law. For instance, in El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio v. County of Kings, the California Supreme Court declared that the local government’s failure to provide Spanish translation excluded Spanish-speaking community members from participating in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process. The case, which centered on the siting of a hazardous waste incinerator in Kings County, set a precedent for future cases addressing language accessibility on the local level.
Three Factors to Consider for Equitable Community Engagement
To achieve the full potential climate workshops offer, three key factors must be met: transparency; accessibility; and citizen power redistribution. These factors must work together to make outreach efforts truly effective exercises of participatory democracy and policymaking.
The first factor, transparency, requires providing community members channels or avenues to observe how their suggestions or ideas are being implemented and allowing them to comment on how these policy measures should be put in place.
Accessibility, the primary focus of this blog post, requires creating a space for people from underrepresented or disenfranchised communities to meaningfully participate in the policymaking process. This involves not only translating online materials or conducting events in those languages, but also creating a framework that actively seeks to engage these language minority groups in policymaking. How would this work for climate policy workshops? This could mean creating an environmental and climate education program specifically customized for audiences for these communities. Providing not only educational resources, but also technical support to utilize these resources to create effective policy measures is key to ensuring the active engagement of minority groups in the realm of climate policy.
Accessibility connects directly with the last factor, citizen power redistribution. In essence, successful citizen power redistribution entails enabling citizens from minority groups to be deliberately included in local policymaking. It empowers these communities to induce social reform through their active participation in local policymaking—which, in the climate planning arena, could help design climate adaptation and mitigation efforts that specifically address the needs of the community.
Addressing the shortcomings of current language accessibility efforts can help to advance diversity and inclusion efforts in local policymaking to adequately address the needs of minority groups. Shaping local policy outreach efforts and civic engagement taking these three factors as absolute requirements will maximize and diversify community representation and active engagement in environmental decisionmaking fora like climate workshops. Doing so will mean community members from historically underrepresented groups—which often bear the brunt of environmental and public health issues as well as the impacts of climate change—will have their voices heard. This will allow their ideas and viewpoints to be incorporated into local climate and other policy measures, ultimately driving equity in local climate action.