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Overcoming Cultural Barriers

Forum addresses gaps in providing services for the Spanish-speaking population in Loudoun.

Seeing yet another example of a communication barrier between Spanish speakers and service providers gave Robert "Bob" Lassiter the impetus to do something.

The department director brought up the subject to the county and Comité La Voz, a Hispanic and Latino advocacy group, that in turn sponsored a "Forum on Issues Related to the Spanish-Speaking People in Loudoun County." The forum was held last Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the Eastern Loudoun Regional Library.

Six months ago, Lassiter attended a Community Criminal Justice Board meeting where Tom Shinal, magistrate for the county, talked to the board about some Spanish speakers appearing before him without understanding "simple things," such as the need for a driver’s license and the state’s drinking and driving laws. Shinal acted as "the long arm of the judge," determining charges and immediate dispositions following their arrests, Lassiter said. "That started the seeds of it," he said.

Lassiter and Michelle White, criminal justice planner for community corrections, met with leaders of different county departments and agencies to identify how to address Shinal’s concerns. "The more we talked with people, the more we realized we’re dealing with a diverse population not limited to the Hispanic community," said Lassiter, director of the Department of Mental Health/ Mental Retardation/ Substance Abuse Services. That is because Spanish speakers move to Loudoun from different parts of the world that vary in dialect and culture, the largest group from El Salvador and Peru. NOVEC, northern virginia electric cooperative

AFTER LEARNING about the new La Voz community-based organization, Lassiter arranged for his and White’s attendance at a La Voz meeting. There Lassiter came up with the idea to hold a forum and began enlisting the support of others to plan the event that could begin closing communication barriers.

"There are things we don’t even think about if we’re raised here, because we know the civics structure," Lassiter said. "We need to make efforts to make it easier for [Spanish speakers] to understand how to get an education and what laws affect them."

For instance, Spanish speakers may have a fear of law enforcement and the government that they carry over from their native countries, a fear that may cut off their ability to get the information they need, Lassiter said. Or they may not know about or have misinformation about available programs and services.

"We want to make sure those services are being accessed by the people who need them," said Laura Valle, president of La Voz, which means the voice in Spanish.

Valle, a second-generation American born to immigrant parents and a Leesburg native, helped organize La Voz in November 2002 to identify the needs of Spanish speakers living in the county and to improve community resources and access to those resources through partnering with county agencies. "The way this works is through education, outreach and networks," she said.

The forum itself was a way to do all three things. Representatives from government, non-profit and private sector entities broke into nine groups to identify the issues service providers face when working with Spanish speakers.

"Many people for a long time have been developing different approaches to help the Hispanic population deal with their organization. Today is an opportunity to discuss issues affecting your organization, share ideas and give us some information," Lassiter told the 75 people attending the invitation-only event.

THE FORUM PROVIDED the representatives with three questions to answer in their groups and to report back to the larger group. The questions addressed the challenges the organizations and agencies face in providing services to Spanish speakers, the approaches and services that already are effective and the areas of service that need additional support. Some of the agencies already hire interpreters and provide services specific to the Hispanic population, which represents more than seven percent of Loudoun’s population, or 14,200 people, that increased 368 percent from the 1990 to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The small groups reported back that they encounter language and cultural barriers when providing the services to Spanish speakers and need to understand the cultural differences of Hispanics and Latinos coming from different areas of the world. They said that the agencies need more funding to inform Spanish speakers about the current level of services available in the county, to build trust with those clients who are uncomfortable with the government and to offer the services at times when the clients can assess them beyond business hours, along with hiring more bilingual staff.

Ways to inform the Spanish population about the available services include giving referrals, providing community outreach through churches and other agencies that deal with the population, providing literacy education on the American culture and basic life skills, and printing fliers, newsletters and other materials and documents in Spanish, as identified by the small groups.

The groups recommended that Hispanics and Latinos be given input on different organizations and committees that make decisions affecting their lives. They identified the need for a central location for service referrals and for a needs assessment of the Spanish community that would identify gaps in services.