Reflections from the 2022 Summit: A Conversation with Language Justice Champions

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By: Ameera Basmadji, Access California Services

Orange County continues to be an ever-changing landscape. A landscape that has been home to diverse communities throughout history. As we welcome new immigrant and refugee communities, it’s important we ask ourselves – are we doing our part to help them belong? And are we helping build an equitable society that is inclusive for all?

The 2022 Orange County Grantmakers Summit invited participants to engage in conversations regarding belonging and the role language justice plays in the immigration narrative and building an equitable society.  These conversations were divided into two sessions: “Who Gets to Belong” and “A Conversation with Language Justice Champions.” Both sessions provided a safe space for speakers to share how language plays a critical role in belonging and establishing equity.

In the “Conversation with Language Justice Champions,” session, under the facilitation of Nithin Jilla, speakers Lilly Mena Ahmed, Raghad Albibi, and Spencer James addressed what language equity means to them. What was clearly articulated unanimously is how language plays a critical role in belonging – whether it may be cherishing, respecting, and upholding the languages of our ancestors and not having these languages diminish or whether it is ensuring lack of language does not prevent access to services and resources. Language accessibility plays a key role in empowering communities and is a first step towards making societies inclusive.

Lilly Mena Ahmed of Access California Services spoke to her experience working with young refugee youth and she highlighted that it was of utmost importance to serve them in their primary language at first to build a trusted relationship and to provide a sense of comfort while guiding them in their migration journey. By providing that linguistic and cultural sensitivity, youth were more inclined to receive services and receive the help they needed to learn the language and become active youth in their circles. Raghad Albibi who accompanied Lilly as her refugee youth mentee described how hard it was to navigate her new home without knowing the language but because she was able to connect with someone who understood her – she had the motivation to take the extra steps to move forward in her life and accomplish her goals to attending college and working. Raghad expressed that the lack of language accessibility is a significant reason why newcomers are facing challenges and it’s important for organizations to be aware of the language challenges of all residents and to do their best to accommodate or many families will be left between the cracks. It’s important to be linguistically competent and provide access to resources in the diverse languages that exist in our society. Raghad’s own experiences have helped her become a leader in her community and help her fellow refugee youth.

Spencer James of SPI, spoke to importance of supporting indigenous communities to revive their languages. Spencer highlighted that language justice is as simple as preserving our individual languages and not allowing them to diminish. Languages have been forgotten due to language suppression and with that the culture slowly dies as well. Spencer underlined the importance of reviving these languages if we truly mean to have an inclusive society in which all customs, cultures, languages are appreciated and live in harmony. Let us continue to speak in the languages that we all share.

In the session “Who Gets to Belong,” the speakers Aurora Pedro (CIELO), Priscilla Gonzalez Sainz (Sainz Films), and Ualani Hoopai (Pacific Islander Health Partnership) all spoke to how language can foster belonging or diminish belonging. Susan Lew of Asian American Futures moderated. What was central to the conversation was how language is key to access services and without access to services, communities struggle to belong.

Aurora spoke to the importance of recognizing different languages as a human right and acknowledging these languages throughout the government and system at large. To fit in and assimilate prevents an inclusive society and we need to cherish these differences. By assimilating we are taking away from establishing data for our different communities. Having data on communities is what helps ensure equity but by diminishing these linguistic differences, these communities will not exist. It’s important to ensure services are available in the diverse languages that exist.

Priscilla also noted the importance of cherishing differences but also doing it in a fashion that does not “other” different communities. It is important we recognize different communities’ assets and the contributions they bring to the table rather as oppose to sharing in our narrative the negative aspects of their struggles. It is important we recognize these communities of different languages as assets and contributing citizens.

Ualani echoed Priscilla’s words in how it is critical to focus on the assets of our communities – not differences and the most important component of being able to thrive is to be able to access the services to help our communities. Without language accessibility to services, our communities cannot access health care, employment, education, and more. Which are all key factors to belonging and becoming contributing citizens.

These sessions at the 2022 Orange County Grantmakers Summit truly opened our eyes on how to make Orange County more inclusive and what we can do as providers to help communities belong and become contributing members of society. 

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How do we build a compassionate and inclusive America in an age of distrust? WAJAHAT ALI knows from personal experience that when we come together to be the superheroes of our own stories, we can create honest social change. The beloved TED speaker has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic about our urgent issues—immigration, politics, parenthood—with boldness, hope, and humor. His memoir Go Back to Where You Came From, one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year, follows his life as a Muslim Pakistani-American on a surprising, emotional, and challenging quest for the good life. Iconic journalist Katie Couric says that “we are all so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his intellect, his humanity, and his heart.”

Wajahat Ali

“With wit and charm, Ali delivers a masterful meditation on growing up brown in America...he gives us a clear-eyed affirmation of the country America could be.” — Mara Gay, New York Times

Wajahat Ali uses his platform to fight tirelessly for the social change we need in our country—and he isn’t afraid to get personal while doing it. The Daily Beast columnist and former New York Times writer, TED speaker, award-winning playwright, and Peabody-nominated producer of the documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims offers us his experiences of triumph over hardship as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of life’s impossible situations. From his experiences of Islamophobia growing up as a Muslim Pakistani-American to his two-year-old daughter’s liver cancer diagnosis, Wajahat is living proof that when we share our authentic stories, we build the America we wish to live in.”

In his memoir Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, Wajahat teaches us how to create our own superhero origin story, invest in hope for the future of America, and enact real social change. The book was called “biting and funny and full of heart” by NPR. Representative Ilhan Omar called Wajahat’s work “hilarious” and “deeply moving”, and legendary writer Dave Eggers said it was the book he’d “been hoping Wajahat Ali would write for ten years—hilarious, stylistically fearless, deeply humane.”

Wajahat is also the author of The Domestic Crusaders—the first major play about Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world. He was the lead researcher and author for the Center for American Progress’s seminal report “Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and served as a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he told stories about communities and individuals often marginalized or under-reported in mainstream media.

As Creative Director of Affinis Wajahat Labs, he worked to create social entrepreneurship initiatives to support and uplift marginalized communities. He also worked with the US State Department to design and implement the “Generation Change” leadership program to empower young social entrepreneurs. Wajahat initiated chapters in eight countries, including Pakistan and Singapore. For his work, he was honored as a “Generation Change Leader” by Sec. of State Clinton and recognized as an “Emerging Muslim American Artist” by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. 

He has given keynote speeches around the world such as TED, The Aspen Ideas Festival, Google, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. His writing appears regularly in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s a Senior Fellow at The Western States Center and Auburn Seminary and co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.