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Chat with Language Advocate: Dr. Esther Ajiboye

Dr. Esther Ajiboye, a Content Specialist at Refugee 613, is a seasoned communications professional with over a decade of experience creating diverse, audience-specific communication products. She believes that a language is a tool of social inclusion, cohesion, organization and self-differentiation. This is also the core of her writings which have appeared in renowned language and communication journals, including Discourse in Society, Pragmatics and Society, and the Journal of Asian and African Studies. Esther has taught language communication strategies to university students, professionals and the service industry, and she is a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, an awardee of the African Humanities Program. In her current role, she works with the Refugee 613: Newcomer Info Hub project team to create trusted COVID-19 resources for newcomers in informationally, linguistically and culturally accessible formats.

Esther, please introduce us to your organization and your work in general.

Refugee 613 is an agile and innovative communications hub that works closely with newcomer communities and stakeholders in the settlement and integration sector to close information and communication gaps and create a more inclusive and welcoming society. We believe that communication is vital and integral to settlement experiences, particularly for newcomers, refugees and immigrants, and also racialized persons. For most of the work I am involved in, the Newcomer Info Hub revolves around information accessibility as an equity issue. Since language is one of the main vehicles of information exchange, our core priority is how to use language effectively and appropriately to reach everyone to be able to.

Your work has to be collaborative. Would you say that the pandemic changed the way you work?

Certainly, and not only how we work but also amplified the focus of our work. As you know, data and recently issued reports showed us that the pandemic was especially hard on refugees and immigrants; and racialized communities became infection hotspots, leading to a higher level of hospitalization and deaths. And as these numbers were growing, we realized that newcomer populations did not have access to adequate information about the pandemic’s safety protocols because the information was either not produced in languages they were comfortable with or now available in communication channels they used. Of course, the pandemic was very new to everyone, and we all had many questions. While the government was responsive and started producing content they thought was relevant and accurate, most of it was published in only English and French on official websites and not easily accessible to many newcomers. We realized the magnitude of information poverty imposed on newcomers but in addition to closing a gap, we also wanted to create a safe space for community members to exchange ideas about how to solve these problems, share resources, collaborate and have an opportunity to mobilize around needs for appropriate content and language access.

First, we reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for funding. Funders are very important because coalitions need abundant resources. Gratefully, we were able to pitch the idea about a “hub” that will build cross-sector collaborations for the creation and distribution of multilingual, culturally appropriate COVID-19 resources for newcomers. The hub is hosted on Facebook and Slack. Currently, we have over 300 members in these spaces, including physicians, researchers, communications experts, settlement organizations, settlement workers, teachers, and other people with knowledge, expertise or relationships with newcomers. We found that teachers, for instance, had a very important role to play in reaching newcomers because they have direct access to newcomers’ children. As a national space, we envisioned that the engagements would bring about galvanized efforts towards the production and distribution of newcomer-centred COVID-19 resources across the country and also reduce duplication of efforts being made by different groups and individuals. Our efforts could not be anything else but collaborative.

Every collaboration starts with an invitation. What was the best strategy for you to invite people to these spaces?

Here is precisely where having a dedicated team of people is very important, which goes back to funding. We are a very small organization with a small but mighty team working on different projects. However, on this particular project, the Newcomer Info Hub, we have a community and stakeholder manager who did massive individualized outreach - very crucial - to identified stakeholders, including umbrella organizations in the settlement sector. We explained to each one of them what we were doing, and invited them to join our spaces, while also encouraging them to amplify our work. We were able to convince over 300 people to come to these spaces.

One of the outputs of the Newcomer Info Hub is a series of multilingual COVID-19 vaccine bulletins we published in partnership with different organizations, including the Women's College Hospital in Toronto whose Crossroad Clinics has access to a large newcomer population and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, an umbrella settlement organization with a wide reach, and TAIBU Community Health Centre which serves Black communities in the GTA. We worked closely with our partners and local stakeholders on content development, design, translation and distribution. The vaccine bulletins are available in 17 languages, including English and French. We also got generous pro-bono translation support for many languages from MCIS Language Solutions - they learned about our work and offered their translation services freely because they saw the value in what we were doing. The success of the bulletins is very much attributed to collaboration. We were not working alone. Precisely, how could we produce consistent, professionally translated and culturally appropriate content in 17 languages all by ourselves? Besides MCIS, Punjabi Community Health Services, the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic and many other willing volunteers in the community helped us tremendously with translations and community review. Some of the connections we made were by just word of mouth. We put ourselves out there, and whenever we needed something, for instance, community review, somebody showed up to offer support.

We also recognize the importance of transferring knowledge and building relationships. And last year, we have invited health and communications experts to our Facebook group to host sessions on communication practices, misinformation and the safety of vaccination. The kind of work we all do is more successful when we come together, and the responsibility is not resting on only one set of shoulders.

Can you tell us a bit about the outcomes of your work so far?

Up until now, we have been able to record about 16,000 downloads of the vaccine bulletins from our end, and that’s not including other partners’ numbers. Our success with the Info Hub is based on collaboration by design. For example, even before creating the content, we started by looking out for issues of concern, by listening to the community and stakeholders, then organizing them sequentially, and tackling them one after the other. This helped us to foster both engagement and transparency. We used collaborative documentation, mostly Google Docs, enabling commenting and editing. And we established a structure in terms of formalizing roles - this helped us to manage expectations. For example, I am a communications professional, not a medical professional. We do have medical doctors on board with needed expertise who are tasked with the first draft of the content. We then simplify the content to make it more accessible to the audience, and of course, review each content collaboratively to maintain the accuracy of the resource in plain language. It was important for us to do it this way, to co-create and maintain inclusivity which goes back to the idea of creating welcoming communities.

We also do lots of content curation and have a COVID-19 Multilingual Info Bank, formerly hosted on Google Sheets, but now on AirTable with over 500 multilingual easily searchable COVID-19 resources in different formats for newcomers and those who support them.

What is your take on language as an instrument of access and equity?

Information is an essential service. When we talk about language access, it is not about improving literacy or fluency in English or French. It is often about intentional multilingualism as a foundation of a welcoming society. To quote Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In other words, if there are campaigns or initiatives, governments/organizations are planning, and they intend to reach particular newcomer target audiences with, accessibility in English and French is not enough. They also need to simplify their language and translate and localize the content to get the kind of engagement and response they hope for. This should be planned for from the get-go.

But this is a lot of work and somebody needs to coordinate these efforts because there are a lot of moving parts, including consultations, creation, translation and community review. For instance, sometimes we are working with a language whose script is written left to right or right to left, so we need to pay extra attention to the layout. All of those details require deliberateness or intentionality. We put processes in place, such as always including the community review stage which is done by speakers of the languages we are producing content in, to ensure that we deliver unambiguous and culturally appropriate messages.

That was one of the key questions we are coming back to over and over again - how do you keep folks engaged? What is your secret sauce made of?

When we launched the Info Hub, there was an obvious information vacuum to be filled. The pandemic was on the top of everyone's mind, so it was easier to reach people's hearts and captivate their interest. We hosted the “hub” on Facebook, but as the project evolved, we wanted to reach more people to help them to build stronger information networks. For that reason, we have a Content Corner on Slack, which allows for more flexibility for collaborations and organizing conversations across multiple channels. Of course, everybody has a lot on their plates these days because of the pandemic. But we are strategic about how we use the different spaces we have and ensure that information is always relevant and timely to keep people engaged, either directly by communicating with others in the group, or indirectly, by further distributing the content that we or other members share in the spaces.

And in addition, of course, our social media channels and mailing lists are used to build engagement, mobilize our community and keep them informed. Through our communications, stakeholders and community members are aware of our work and reach out to us with questions or even requests because they’re familiar with our initiatives.

This is why you need a community and stakeholder manager's role because somebody needs to keep people together, and “sell” your story in various formats, and also other relevant stories from other organizations or individuals who have. For these reasons and more, I don’t think we have a secret sauce. Our “secret” is to work in the open - with the community - to show why we do what we do and spotlight what others are doing.

Do you have suggestions for us in terms of how we increase the resonance that will draw in people we never engaged with, especially as we are coming closer to our 2nd Language Advocacy Day on February 22, 2022?

I keep going back to the concept of co-creating. You do not want to go forward and say, hey, here are the problems with language access and here are the solutions. I suppose you could ask - what are your particular concerns, and keep collecting and categorizing them, and then go back to your stakeholders and say, this is what we are hearing. Are these your priorities? And then to keep reaching out with storytelling and a personalized approach. We use that a lot. We proactively reach out to individuals, telling them, I got your information from this person, or we have been seeing your work and understand your interest, and we also think that your expertise in XYZ will be very useful here. Of course, this requires a lot of customization and tweaking, but if people are going to invest their energy into our work, we need to let them see the value of their contributions.

Another strategy is to continue to connect with other people - stakeholders with related interests. Use storytelling strategies to share the impact of/need for the work that you do, hear their stories, tell your stories, and advocate by consciously foregrounding these stories and others’ related work in a way that ensures that the shared value is increased. For example, you can find some resources/information on YouTube and reframe it to be Instagram-worthy or blog-worthy. You have to keep translating, repackaging, reframing the content as much as possible into plain language and bite-sized information, and keep encouraging stakeholders and the community to share these. Maybe it will not be each time about “language access” but it could be about “mother tongue”, “indigenous languages” or something similar. This requires putting in a lot of work, but it is fruitful. It works.

Finally, I also wanted to say, concerning storytelling, your Language Advocacy Day 21 campaign was very strong. You were everywhere, it was punchy, and I liked it a lot. The Language Access Coalition of Canada can expand the LAD message further so your promotion next year could revolve around the value of language access in all kinds of microenvironments. Go to all of the various places you want to reach, and your efforts will be manifested as micro efforts that will birth significant results over time.

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