15:30 PM

UHD Executive Director Helps City Address Language Access for Houstonians

Building on her research with refugee populations and immigrants in Houston, Noël Bezette-Flores, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Public Service and Family Strengths, addressed the Houston City Council in December to encourage the hiring of a translation firm to expand language access for Houston's diverse citizenry. Following her presentation, city council members unanimously approved the suggestion and now are moving forward to select a firm.

In 2011-2012, using a methodology based on appreciative inquiry, Dr. Bezette-Flores of UHD and Sacha Lazarre of Neighborhood Centers organized nine focus groups composed of different refugee and immigrant communities throughout the city. Partnering with Neighborhood Centers Inc. and other organizations, including NALEO, Boat People SOS, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (now Mayor's Office of International Communities), and the Mayor's Office of Education Initiatives, they facilitated the focus groups and organized a retreat with 35 community organizations and international communities. One critical theme which emerged was the need to improve language access for city services, which became a formal recommendation of the group.

Dr. Bezette-Flores commented, "I am proud to have been a part of this broad community effort and to see that community-based research can have a profound impact on the lives of underserved communities."

Her research played an important role in the establishment of an executive order - signed by Mayor Annise Parker in July 2013 - that addresses the language barriers many Houstonians face when accessing information and services pertaining to public safety, health care and economic development.

At the time of its adoption, Mayor Parker said, "Whether it is to plan for a hurricane or ways to reduce the possibility of becoming a crime victim, all Houstonians should have access to vital information that the City provides. This executive order will bridge the access gap by making it easier for residents with limited English proficiency to obtain essential public information and services."

According to the city, "The language access order calls for the translation of essential public information into five languages other than English for which there is the greatest need among Houston residents. [It] is aligned with Mayor Parker's commitment to strengthening the city's economy and improving the quality of life for all Houstonians."

Following the signing of the executive order, each city department appointed a language access coordinator to oversee the development of a language access plan. The city's Office of International Communities - a division of the Department of Neighborhoods - will lead the program and assist city departments in its implementation.

"We are the most diverse City in the country," said Parker. "That means we are a community of many languages. This executive order challenges us to better serve our constituency, our global business community and visitors. It's a step toward making Houston one of the most inclusive cities in the world."