What is Language Justice?
While language access focuses on using interpretation and translation to reduce communication barriers, language justice is a framework that recognizes language barriers as a tool of oppression. English language supremacy is used as a tool to force assimilation, exclude people from needed services, and further powerlessness and exclusion.
Language justice offers a vision of a world in which language is not used as a tool for exploitation. Rather, with a framework of language justice, we support everyone’s right to communicate, understand and be understood in the language in which they feel most powerful. We recognize that language is an important part of community building and advancing racial and social justice.
Move to End Violence speaks to the history of language violence and need for language justice: “We live in a context where people are discouraged from speaking their native languages, where people have been punished, criminalized and discriminated against for doing so, where thousands of Indigenous languages have been forcibly disappeared across the globe. Language injustice perpetuates violence in the ways that it silences, erases, and dehumanizes whole populations of people. Language Justice allows us to disrupt privilege and colonization, challenging English dominance and Western-centered knowledge, communication, and leadership.”
Community Leadership: Connecting Food Justice and Language Justice
Eman Abbas is a community leader, an immigrant, a mother and an advocate for housing, food assistance and legal assistance in Oregon. Eman says that she sees every day how language barriers prevent people from accessing social services including food assistance, using their skills and talents in the workforce, and feeling confident to participate in community spaces.
She speaks to the connection between food and language justice:
“When I moved to the United States in 2015, I needed help accessing a lot of resources that were available, but that I didn't know about. And maybe because of my language skills, I was able to navigate the system here and to see where the things were that I needed. But what if somebody has immigrated to the United States and they don't have the language skills that I have?
Put yourself in their place. If you don't know how to read or how to navigate the system, you don't have the support.”
Lourdez Estrada is another Oregon Food Bank ambassador and community leader in Oregon. From facilitating classes like Seed to Supper (Siembra la Cena); to distributing food, basic necessities and garden supplies to families; to educating community members on the importance of being counted in the Census, Lourdez has impacted countless lives.
But it’s not just the volume of work that Lourdez does in the community that has made such a difference. Her lived experience makes her a trusted, beloved person in the Latina community — she knows what it is like to struggle with language barriers, need help and not know where to start, and feel disconnected in a new place.
“It is important that we have leaders who have sufferedbecause we know what people who are just arriving can go through due to lack of information.”
Language Justice at Oregon Food Bank
At Oregon Food Bank, we recognize lived experience as meaningful, invaluable experience that informs the work we do every day. For many of us who grew up in non-English speaking households, language violence and injustice became clear early on. ColorLines describes how organizer Roberto Tijerina “began informally interpreting for his Spanish-speaking family at age 8. By 7th grade, at his school outside of Chicago, he was translating his own parent-teacher conferences. ‘Without having any language for it, I came to understand how fraught the process is,’ he says.”
In recent years, we have taken several steps at Oregon Food Bank toward language access and justice for our staff and community members:
We increase wages within our salary structure for staff members with language proficiency and/or lived experience in a community that disproportionately experiences hunger.
Our website is available entirely in Spanish, including trasncreated versions of forms, blogs and social media posts, so that information is accessible to Spanish-speaking individuals.
Spanish interpretation can be provided for virtual and in-person Oregon Food Bank events and for community members who engage in storytelling opportunities with us.
Our Food Finder is available in the 14 most commonly spoken languages in the Pacific Northwest (specifically among SNAP and Oregon Health Plan participants), so that food assistance information is more accessible across the state.
Supporters of Oregon Food Bank can let us know which language you prefer so we can better reach you with opportunities for action and resources in our shared effort to end hunger.
In 2023, Oregon Food Bank hired our first Language Access Manager. This position will implement our Bilingual Infrastructure Framework and work to advance language justice throughout the organization.
Language should never be a barrier to accessing needed services, including food assistance, or getting involved in the movement to end hunger. A language justice framework creates more inclusive, more powerful communities in the fight to end hunger and its root causes.
Resources and Learning for Advancing Language Justice in Our Communities
Language justice tools, resources, research and analysis — Racial Equity Tools
Language justice tools, resources, and education — Move to End Violence
How to Build Language Justice and other tools — Antena Aire
Social justice movement terminology for interpreters and translators — Spanish for Social Change