City’s coordinator gives update to City Council; cites data obtained from new City Hall multilingual phone line
Look at any list, poll or data set available, and the same answer is evident: Malden is one of the most diverse communities in Massachusetts. That designation was proven by the granddaddy of all data – the U.S. Census – which showed that for the first time in its nearly 400-year history, Malden is officially a “minority-majority” city. Nearly half of Malden’s now 66,000-plus (and growing) residents were born in a country other than the United States.
That is why Mayor Gary Christenson and the Malden City Council teamed up to take the issue of language diversity and bring it to the forefront about one year ago. A tiered plan to tackle language diversity and make accessibility to municipal departments and resources one of the city’s highest priorities was put into place, using federal grant money. The Council approved a $350,000 expenditure in a multiyear approach to “bring City Hall to the people,” particularly its residents whose first language is not English.
On Tuesday night, the coordinator hired to lead this push, Elena Martinez, gave the Councillors a positive update filled with progress on the plan they approved.
Call ‘I Speak’ for language access
The overlying message to Malden residents of any language, origin country or culture is now: Call this number – 617-865-2273. This program, called “I Speak,” connects any caller, speaking any language, to a City Hall-connected live interpreter who will first ask the caller what help they need – in the language with which they are most comfortable speaking. The interpreter will then stay on the line with the caller, should the caller be speaking a language other than English, and connect them to the appropriate department in City Hall. The interpreter will also take the call to the Police, Fire and School Department if needed. Further, the interpreter from Rosetta Languages, a Malden-based translation company, will stay on the line and help plan a callback to the caller, to resolve the reason for the call.
Martinez said this breakthrough language access line, which is not available in many communities in Massachusetts, has proven to be an extremely valuable asset to Malden residents.
Data accumulation from language line is key
It has also been valuable to the city in accumulating data from actual residents in need of services. The data can be used in a lot of ways, she explained, particularly in determining where people in need of language access live, which languages they need to be able to speak freely and how they need assistance.
“The top three language access requests have been in Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic,” Martinez said, “and the top reasons they are calling is that they are looking for help with housing issues like rent or eviction. They also are asking how they can find a job, due to some language barrier issues.”
This data matched the numbers apparent in the latest 2020 Census, which showed Malden’s Hispanic-Latino-South American population as the fastest-growing since the last Census, with the numbers of the Arabic population right behind them, percentagewise.
“It is all about opening up lines of communication and expanding the outreach efforts of every city department to service our residents, some of them who need help the most,” Martinez told the Councillors. “The multilingual line [at City Hall] receives many calls every day. Every call is handled, and the caller is directed where they want to go to ask about a city service or for help.”
According to the city’s website, where the language access line is listed on the website (www.cityofmalden.org) under “Services,” it is defined: “The City Hall Language Access Line will connect all callers, via interpreter, to all municipal services and opportunities. It is a free service for the community to reach out to City Hall and ask questions about services, voting, to register complaints, etc.”
Information on specific city Wards being put together
Martinez said that in addition to compiling data that can be broken down to use in future decision-making about language access, she and her assistants are in the process of sifting the data to create folders for each of the city’s eight wards to further identify trends and provide information for the city councillors and city departments. “We intend on partnering with each one of the city councillors. When you are meeting with your ward you will have better idea of which particular area and neighborhood has needs and what those needs are,” said Martinez, who also noted that the city is still hiring Language Ambassadors to assist in this process.
“I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished in one year,” said Councillor-at-Large Carey McDonald, who noted the success of the first language-based Town Hall recently, this one centered on Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking Malden residents.
McDonald also pointed to the efforts of State Representative Steve Ultrino, who helped this city in securing language translating headsets the Councillors and others were able to use during that Town Hall. “This is laying the foundation for a broader goal of helping our residents who need language access engage in the civic life and decision-making in the city.”
Ward 6 Councillor Stephen Winslow agreed with McDonald. “We have important issues like transportation and housing, among others that we make as a Council,” Winslow said. “We have to reach the broadest amount of the community we can. Meeting people where they are is critical.”
“We are being called upon to shape our community. We always have to adapt to our residents,” Winslow added.
‘Helpful initiative to bridge communities’
“This is a really helpful initiative to bridge communities like ours,” Ward 4 Councillor Ryan O’Malley said. “There are lots of people who would like to participate and help with language access.”
O’Malley referenced the Plain Language Act of 2010, which specifies that Massachusetts communities must write municipal forms and applications in a manner that is easier translatable. “All of the ‘whereases’ and ‘therefores’ are a trouble to translate. Language access is very important to me,” O’Malley added, noting that he believes funding could be accessed to provide more language access around City Hall, particularly in building signage and similar improvements.
City Council President Barbara Murphy (Ward 5) joined all the councillors as she thanked Martinez for the informative presentation. “I’ve been calling you ‘The Missing Link’ with the knowledge you have on what’s going on in the city and the data you have in your possession,” Murphy said. “We look forward to more updates [on language access] so we can further help with the issues affecting our constituency.”