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.