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In 2019 Kent County still doesn’t provide translation during Commission meetings: language and participatory democracy

May 10, 2019

During the April 25th Kent County Commission meeting, a policy was adopted that will allow the board chair to decide whether or not a person’s public comment needs to be translated. The current board chair is Mandy Bolter, who was quoted in an MLive article stating:

“I would commit to do that at any time that we need to do that, and at any request.”

There was a proposed amendment to this policy, which would make it policy for translation of all public comments during County Commission meetings and not leave it up to the discretion of the board chair. You can watch the video of that conversation between Kent County Board Commissioners at a link that was posted on the Latino Community Coalition. The Latino Community Coalition was encouraging people to attend last night’s commission meeting to speak out on the weak application of translation for content during commission meetings.

If you want people to actually participate in local government, then providing translation of all content being discussed and public comment is absolutely necessary. Kent County is an ethnically and linguistically diverse community, and that diversity grows every year. This is especially true for the Spanish speaking population, which comprises 10% of the population in Kent County. If one out of every 10 people identify Spanish as their first language, then providing translation during Kent County Commission meetings should be required and not left up to the discretion of the board chair. However, it should be policy that the county provides translation of all content and comment during the commission meetings regardless if 10% of the population speaks a certain language or if .01% of the population does. If you want people to be able to participate in local government, then you need to provide these kind of basic services.

Commissioner Robert Womack said since the county would not make it a requirement, he has committed to paying for translation services for those who speak Spanish, according to MLive. While I can appreciate the intent of offering to pay, Comm. Womack and those who supported the amendment should have taken a different approach to making the necessary policy changes. Those who supported the amendment, should have reached out to the Latino/Latinx community, the Asian American community, the Arab American community, those who are from the varying African countries that live in Kent County, the indigenous community, those who speak Portuguese, Creole, Mayan,  Slavic languages or any number of the languages that people speak in Kent County, and invited them to attend the meeting, to speak their language and make it clear to the commission that not only do residents of Kent County speak a multitude of languages, but demand to have the content of all commission meetings translated.

Imagine what the discussion that began last June about the Kent County’s Sheriff Department’s contract with ICE would have looked like, if those from the immigrant community would have known that their voices, in their languages, would have been heard during the months that Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE had been pressuring the county to end that contract?

However, too often local politicians and local governments are content with the idea that their meetings are open to the public and if people want to participate, they can. This is an elitist position to take, because it not only doesn’t take into consideration that people speak other languages, but that the times that commission meetings are held do not take place at a time when most people would even be able to attend.

Then there is the issue of representation. Of the 19 Kent County Commissioners, seventeen are white, with only two African Americans and no latino, Asian American, Arab American or indigenous representation on the commission. What would the Kent County Commission look like and act like, if the make up of the commission was more reflective of the county? Imagine what kind of perspectives would be represented? Imagine if the lived experiences of the multicultural communities that make up Kent County were taken seriously about the issues and concerns that they face on a daily basis?

Lastly, while we are imagining possibilities……..what would it look like and feel like if we didn’t have a representative form of government, but a governance structure that allowed for direct, participatory democracy. Image if everyone who lived in Kent County could vote on every policy decision that was proposed? Imagine what it would look and feel like, especially for communities who are the most marginalized, if they had direct control over their lives?

Let us all push the county to provide translation for all content and public comment of commission meetings as a good first step. Once that is won, then we can imagine and demand more. Another world is possible!

 

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