One million vaccinations a day was certainly a lofty proposition as we began the year grappling with how to effectively rid ourselves of COVID-19 and get back to business. As a business owner, diversity specialist, and community advocate, I wondered how this would be accomplished because I know there are still so many gaps in addressing the United States’ diverse populations through linguistically and culturally appropriate initiatives. This is especially true in underserved and underrepresented communities where people, including senior citizens, have little to no access to reliable transportation, major healthcare facilities, or the technology needed to secure an appointment to get vaccinated. Let’s face it, we need everyone to have access to one of the three available vaccines, regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, cultural background, or language proficiency, so that we can get back to business and to our lives. But how to gather individuals with the linguistic and cultural competence required to effectively communicate with members of these communities in order to promote and provide access to vaccines?
And then it happened. On a busy morning of back-to-back Zoom calls, I received a text from Father José Rodríguez, a community leader at the local Hispanic Episcopal church in Orlando, Florida where I participate as a volunteer and as a bilingual resource to develop educational programs. He had an opportunity to secure 500 vaccines for local residents of a neighborhood where 59% of working-class families live under the poverty level. Residents are mostly essential workers who have kept the economy going and many are English language learners, not proficient enough to navigate making an appointment to get the vaccine. His question to me was: “Do you think we can get all the community leaders together, from non-profits to small businesses and government officials, to support the National Guard to administer the vaccines in ten days?” My answer: “Absolutely!”
Language and cultural competency were at the epicenter of every tactic used to accomplish this goal as we assembled a team of talented bilingual workers for the cause. Local Hispanic supermarkets were contacted to serve as sites to enroll predominantly Spanish-speaking people 65+; local media made announcements on TV stations and radio shows, Spanish-speaking elected officials helped with logistics. They were so happy to see Father José scheduling appointments with a brigade of bilingual volunteers from various grassroots organizations. Many senior citizens had tried to secure appointments with the help of their loved ones, but the vaccination sites were a long drive from the neighborhood and they didn’t have transportation. There was a general sense of relief that now all they had to do was show up on Saturday, February 20 to the church’s parking lot at their scheduled time for the National Guard to administer the vaccine. Our organizations’ and bilingual volunteers’ efforts would bring the vaccines to the community.
That Saturday morning, I realized we were experiencing a major breakthrough that was a direct result of the measurable language skills of our team and their cultural competence. Having advocated and volunteered during several crises in Central Florida that lacked any true exercise of cultural competency (the Pulse Night Club tragedy and the displacement of over 200,000 Puerto Ricans after Hurricane María), this vaccination effort was efficient, effective, and smooth because the importance of language and cultural context was taken into account from the get-go.
So, as we finish the business at hand of making sure everyone gets vaccinated, I encourage corporations, small businesses, community organizations, healthcare facilities, and government agencies to be intentional in preparing to get back to work building our economy by ensuring their teams have language proficient and culturally competent professionals that can help accelerate our growth and do so in an equitable way. One important strategy for doing so is by assessing the language skills of your team members and volunteers using one of Language Testing International’s proficiency tests.
Samí Haiman-Marrero is the President/CEO of URBANDER, a Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) solution-based agency that assists the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors overcome their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Multicultural Marketing challenges. Under Samí’s leadership, URBANDER was awarded with the Orlando Business Journal’s 2020 Diversity In Business “Helping Hand” Award for their caused-based work and its impact on underrepresented and underserved communities.
Samí is one of the nation’s leading experts specializing in the U.S. Hispanic market. Her career started over 25 years ago working in Public Relations, Marketing and Publishing companies headquartered in New York City. Career highlights include handling the first-ever Spanish language media effort for a U.S. Presidential candidate which led to winning the highly coveted Hispanic vote in 1996, becoming the Publisher of a national Spanish-language magazine, and being interviewed by international, national and regional media such as The Wall Street Journal, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), Huffington Post, MSNBC, Florida Trend magazine, NBCnews.com, and Canada’s CBC News, regarding the Latino experience in the U.S.
Haiman-Marrero holds a Master’s in Communications from the University of Puerto Rico, and was recognized as one of the 25 Most Influential Hispanics in Central Florida in 2016 by VISION Magazine. She has served on several prestigious boards such as Visit Orlando, United Arts, the Hispanic American Professional and Business Women’s Association, the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund’s TAC committee (Orlando chapter), the University of Central Florida’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) Community Engagement Council, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando’s Supplier Diversity Council. In 2019, she was appointed by Orange County Florida Commissioner Maribel Gómez-Cordero to the county’s Arts and Culture Council, where she also serves as Chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEI), and she was invited to be an Official Delegate of the 2nd Annual Latino Leadership Summit held at the United Nations by the We Are All Human organization.
As a dedicated community leader, Samí co-Founded Proyecto Somos Orlando in 2016, a culturally competent community program that assists survivors and families impacted by the Pulse tragedy. And in 2017, she decided to launch a nonprofit organization, SOS by Urbander, after the devastating impact of Hurricane María on her beloved Puerto Rico, which now hosts Talleres de Bienvenida (Welcome Workshops) and the Azalea Project which she also co-founded. SOS is also the fiscal sponsor of Del Ambiente and Gender Advancement Project (GAP) which focus on providing programs and support to LGBTQ+ people of color.
Along with her husband Scott, Samí is head-over-heels for son Pedro, daughter Catalina, and the family’s Lab/Pit mix, Oreo.