Vermonters Making A Difference

Gonzalez: Found in translation

From flood info to apartment appliance guides, Vermont Language Justice Project aims to translate it all.

A screencap of the Vermont Language Justice Project’s YouTube playlist of flood-related videos.

by Camila Van Order Gonzalez, for Community News Service

The Vermont Language Justice Project began from a crisis. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 came a rush of guidance on masks, testing, vaccines and social-distancing. But even with all the messages from the CDC and local communities, there was a communication issue.

“It felt like every other day there was updated guidance and different parameters, and different rules were not being relayed in multiple languages,” said Ray Coffey, director of community services for Winooski. “So our multilingual community members were not always getting this really, frankly, life-saving critical information at the same rate that English speaking residents were.” 

Alison Segar, a former social worker in Burlington, thought the same. From this frustration came an idea to organize the writing, recording and release of translated Covid safety information on YouTube. For two years, Segar and a team of translators worked to make all that evolving, critical information available in over a dozen languages to Vermont’s non-English speaking population. They called themselves the Vermont Language Justice Project.

The effort soon involved collaborations with social services organizations and government officials, like Coffey in Winooski, to provide insight from different areas of Vermont throughout the height of the pandemic. By June 2020, the group had received funding from the Vermont Department of Health to pay their translators.

As Covid guidelines were being released with less regularity, and with further donations from the public, the group transitioned to offering general information for immigrants and refugees adjusting to life in Vermont.

But now, with homes and businesses wrecked from flooding across the state, the group has refocused its efforts back to crisis information: for example, how to recognize and avoid bodies of water now polluted with nasties like cyanobacteria. 

While walking along one of Burlington’s beaches, Segar noticed that signs about its closure due to blue-green algae were only in English. “Unless you can speak English,” she said, “you’re not going to know that you can’t go swimming.”

After the recent flooding, the project released videos about the risks of contaminated drinking water, floodwater making garden foods inedible, where to get help with flooded buildings and more. 

Vermont Language Justice Project meets with partners and community representatives from across the state every two weeks to discuss plans for future videos and campaigns.

Their partners include the Champlain Housing Trust and housing agencies from Burlington and Winooski. Katherine Decarreau has been working as executive director of the Winooski Housing Authority for four years and considers Vermont Language Justice Project crucial in helping immigrants and refugees acclimate to life in the states.

Some immigrants who arrive in Vermont come from impoverished living conditions, Decarreau said, where they’ve had little experience with some types of appliances. Especially, Decarreau said, those coming from refugee camps. The Winooski Housing Authority paid the group of translators to release videos having to do with general house care for that reason.

Not all refugees come from the same living situation. “A lot of the younger people were born in refugee camps, but a lot of the parents ended up there having fled war and starvation and horrors,” said Segar. “For some people, the refugee camp was a really peaceful place to be after what they had to endure, and for some people, refugee camps were horrendous places full of people desperate to leave, or people in poverty. So I don’t think you can paint (all) refugee camps with the same brush.” 

The Vermont Language Justice Project offers a wide range of video topics with refugees in mind. Due to the intricacies of language, translations aren’t always perfect. “Sometimes you need to explain a whole concept because the concept doesn’t exist in the (original) language,” Decarreau said. “In the long run, language is easy, culture is hard.”

Some languages have no written aspect to them, such as the Somali language Maay Maay. That’s why the group chose an audio format for delivering its translated materials.

Vermont Language Justice Project’s planned future uploads cover topics such as refilling prescriptions, domestic violence and hearing aids. Segar had planned to write and release a video on citizens’ rights in police encounters in July, before the floods changed the group’s plans. To make their translations even more accessible, Segar plans on developing an app.

As a former social worker, Segar is familiar with the needs of new Americans — and because she immigrated to the states too, from the United Kingdom. She has a close relationship with the refugee community in particular.

“A long time ago, in the early 2000s, my ex and our children took in one of the first Somali Bantu families of refugees who came to Vermont … Twenty years later, I still consider them my family. So when all this information was coming out about Covid … I was thinking, ‘How is my beloved family going to know what the heck is happening?’”

The group’s videos are translated into Spanish, Nepali, Somali, French, Kirundi, Maay Maay, Burmese, Ukrainian, Pashto, Dari, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Swahili, Tigrinya, English, Arabic and American Sign Language. Its YouTube channel has over 500 subscribers who watch from all over the world: After the U.S., most are from Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Mexico, Costa Rica, Britain, Taiwan, Colombia, Spain, Egypt, Nicaragua, Malaysia and Bosnia.

4 replies »

  1. hummm if they cared 1/2 as much about the old people living down dirt roads and unseen and not complaining it would be a miracle…

  2. I understand our government-employee to citizen ratio is among the highest in the nation. We’re one of those states that has made an enthusiastic commitment to the “administrative state” idea…government as the dominant enterprise in the state. The ideal being sought here is to have the government manage as much of our troublesome lives as possible…to alleviate our burdens. This appears to be another venture in that direction…citizens seeing a need, moving to do somethin about it, then government filling the void …spending money they’ve collected from us to “help us”. That about right? Anybody getting a little uncomfortable with this kind of thing yet? This seems to be a long way from our constitutional ideals.

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