Breaking Down Language Barriers at LIFT-NY

By LIFT on April 20, 2016

Categories: Our Work, Real Stories, Social Connections

Walking into the LIFT-NY Bronx office each day, you are greeted by a familiar combination of English and Spanish conversations between both staff, fellows, and members. Because of the office’s location in the South Bronx, nearly half of the members served each day are Spanish-speaking. As the only Spanish-speaking Member Service Fellows, Melinda Escobar and Amanda Reyes balance fully booked schedules and the distinct challenges their members face.

For both Amanda and Melinda, the vast majority of their members are Spanish-speaking, though some of the members know a limited selection of everyday English phrases. Melinda’s members remind her of her own upbringing.  Her parents immigrated to the U.S. with the goal of building a better life for their family. “It’s very hard for me to hear that these members are coming to the US with the American dream or trying to get out of their home countries to give their kids a better education,” she explains. “But then they come here and they are also living in extreme poverty compared to the average American lifestyle.”

For Amanda, working with members at LIFT resonates with her own background of moving to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and learning English at the age of six. “That’s how I connect to members because I’ve been there before. I know the struggle, I know how it is,” she explains. Through member service, Amanda gives her members something she herself needed: positivity and support. As well, Spanish-speaking members often struggle to help their children with homework, just as Amanda’s mother did. “That’s why I say to the members that they need to learn English because it affects the child’s future so much. New York is such a melting pot where you listen to different languages, but English is the primary language and that’s what you learn in school.”

Many Spanish speaking members are also undocumented, meaning they do not have legal permanent residency or citizenship status in the U.S. This means that these individuals face different challenges – such as finding employment, renting an apartment, or accessing public benefits – compared to other members. For example, undocumented parents are not eligible for food stamps, but their children born in the U.S. are eligible; the entire family can receive food assistance based on the number of U.S. citizens in the household. However, the public benefits application process is overall more strenuous for undocumented members because “they have to go out of their way to get a landlord to fill out a form or get an employer to sign something that they don’t usually want to sign because they’re off the books,” explains Melinda.

In terms of employment, Amanda recognizes that “the undocumented situation is really frustrating because it is easier for someone who is English-speaking to get resources, even to get a job. When an employer hears someone’s accent, it is a door shut in the face because the employer doubts their English ability.” English is one of the most crucial steps for LIFT members because of the doors it opens, but ESL classes in New York are scarce and fill up quickly.

When her members cannot attend ESL classes, Amanda helps her members practice their language skills by speaking some English during their meetings. “That’s one little step I can take to help them overcome that barrier to achieving their goals,” she explains. “With one of my members, I encouraged her to take the CV survey in English and she did it. I helped her with that and she was really happy. She felt proud of herself after.”

Citizenship is another common goal of both undocumented members, visa holders, and Legal Permanent Residents. However, “a lot of members come here with emergencies, like housing or employment, so citizenship is on their horizon but they have other goals that need to be accomplished first,” explains Melinda. Obtaining citizenship status is also a lengthy and expensive process. Because of this, finding employment is a crucial first step for Spanish-speaking members – regardless of documentation status – to achieve citizenship and stability.

In addition to the regular member meetings, both Amanda and Melinda maintain regular contact with their members, such as reminder texts or email updates. “Depending on what their goal is, then I’ll call to follow up. If they said they were going to go to an organization or a food pantry I make sure to follow up and see if they got what they needed,” explains Amanda. Despite busy schedules and challenging cases, Amanda still believes that “it’s wonderful that we get to help different people, hear amazing stories, and see different cultures” beyond her own Dominican roots. Though the stories that members share are sometimes disheartening to hear, Amanda recognizes her members’ strength and how much they have overcome. Melinda also loves to hear members’ stories. “I can reassure them that there is someone here for them and try to help them in the best way possible,” she says.