family multigenerational hugging

Anyone in a leadership role quickly learns the value of good communication skills if they want to be effective. This can be especially challenging if language is a barrier between the leader and those they are trying to lead. Language Testing International is proud to have provided language assessment services to many leaders around the world who have taken this challenge head-on.

The reality is that there are still many more leaders in positions of power who never take on this challenge, and ultimately cause sometimes-large segments of their prospective audiences to be left unheard and unattended to. However, we can find inspiration to act from the trajectories of leaders like Johanna López, who joined us as a guest during a recent episode of LTI’s “Language Is Your Superpower” podcast.

Johanna López is a member of the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Board in Florida and the first Latina to attain such a prestigious role via landslide vote in 2018. It was the culmination of a strategic campaign fully managed by her former students coupled with an impeccable career as an educator and advocate for marginalized youth. Ms. López is fully aware that she has been tasked by the community she has served for over two decades to be the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. She takes this responsibility very seriously in her continued work championing minority student empowerment with a special focus on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), supporting undocumented students, and advocating for the provision of better treatment for teachers and non-instructional staff.

Ms. López knows first-hand the importance of overcoming language barriers for effective community building. “Number one. You have to go to the community,” she said. “You cannot depend on other people’s opinions or because you are just only reading articles … you have to go to the community and you have to speak with the people who are facing the situations, and not listening to the situations from second-hand opinions.”

Not speaking the language of the community that you serve doesn’t mean you can ignore their needs, explained López. “You have to find somebody who can translate to you what people are trying to say in their native language.” She gave an example that “if you try to make somebody from Puerto Rico, who doesn’t know enough English, explain the situation they are facing, they sometimes cannot describe enough in their second language the way they feel.” In other words, the essence of what someone is saying can literally get lost in translation if the person facilitating communication isn’t fluent enough in the language and doesn’t understand the cultural context and nuances.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. López advocated for all information from the school system to be translated into every language represented within the schools. “We have a lot of information that sometimes did not go first-hand to our Hispanic community, or the Portuguese-speaking community, or the Vietnamese-speaking community. So, I requested publicly that we have those translations, because it is important. This is about life.”

Due to her efforts, the county’s superintendent agreed to Ms. López’s request and “now they translate the manuals, and they post videos in different languages.” When possible, López says you should try to go beyond just translating from one language to another and address each audience separately. Ms. López did this during the pandemic, “when I had educational town halls, because it was a lot of information, you know, we were changing everything in the system. So, I provided educational forums, one completely in English, for 1.5 hours … and then one completely in Spanish … because when you have the translations, you know, our community is not going to feel the same way. Nobody is going to feel comfortable enough to participate in that town hall. So, I provided it in both languages, one after the other one.”

Ms. López explains the value of treating the school’s diverse employees with inclusive and equitable practices, as those individuals are ultimately who impact the students. “I have a lot of janitors that are Hispanic, so I think they deserve to have the same information in their native language, and also for our bus drivers. … As a school board member, we have to be able to identify the populations and the ethnicities that we have in different areas, so we can provide information and be fair and equal to everybody, because this is our country. We want to be better, to provide good services for our students. If I serve my teachers, my bus drivers, and my janitors, I know for sure the students are going to feel more comfortable. They are going to have better services, because they [are around staff] that are being attended to and valued.”

The approach Ms. López uses for effective community building—by being inclusive of non-English speaking segments of the community she serves—makes it easy to understand why she was the recipient of the prestigious Teacher of the Year award and is a popular School Board member, especially amongst her community’s non-English-speaking populations. The difference Ms. López’s makes in the public school system of her community is a perfect example of the superpowers of language proficiency!

Learn more about Johanna López’s inspiring story by tuning in to our podcast.

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