When a Seattle-area immigrant family sent their three children to school, they were happy that their children had a place to learn.
Then the bullying started.
Their sons, who have disabilities, were picked on. Their daughter came home crying. Some classmates tried to pull the hijab off her head.
In Washington state, the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds can help families work out issues with schools. But the family had no idea such help existed — and were too angry to reach out.
“The dad didn’t trust anyone,” said Hodan Mohamed, family support and advocacy manager at Kent-based Open Doors for Multicultural Families. “He didn’t trust the school. He felt his rights were violated.”
That’s where groups like Open Doors come in. With an outreach staff that speaks more than a dozen languages, they specialize in connecting clients — often immigrants, refugees and people of color — with services, education and help.
Word of mouth eventually led the family to Open Doors. The group taught them how to request a meeting — and a translator. It connected them with the education ombuds office, which reached out to the school. School officials said they were unaware of the situation. It was quickly resolved.
“We built a trust,” said Mohamed, a Somali speaker who wears a hijab herself. “The students are more connected to schools and teachers. And the families are more familiar with the system.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
Groups like Open Doors are key partners as Washington strives to foster equity, diversity and inclusion in state government and with the people it serves.
“One of the hardest things in any organization is to institutionalize a culture,” Gov. Jay Inslee recently told a gathering of more than 100 state leaders. “That’s what we’re engaged in here: Embracing a culture of inclusion and diversity and equity that becomes embedded in our organizational DNA.”
The meeting, convened by the governor’s Results Washington team, gave agencies a chance to share ideas about making government more accessible to all. That, Inslee said, includes building a welcoming, diverse workforce.
“It brings talent into our organization and ensures that everyone can perform at their highest level,” he said. “And that improves services for our citizens, which is our ultimate goal.”
By 2040, 44 percent of Washingtonians will be people of color, said Lisa van der Lugt, director of the state’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. For one in five Washingtonians today, she said, English is not the primary language.
Reaching those clients, customers and potential employees, agency leaders said, often means working with local partners in underserved communities.
“We’ve really benefited from leveraging the trust and cultural and language skills of Open Doors to work with their family support workers and figure out community needs,” said Carrie Basas, director of the education ombuds office.
Reaching non-English speakers
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, which helps prevent workplace injuries and helps injured workers recover, has made similar connections with local groups.
“We have an obligation to meet our customers where they are, and to put ourselves in their shoes,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks.
Part of that is language access. L&I boosted its bilingual staff by 25 percent last year. It’s translating key documents into eight languages. It handles more than 6,000 calls a month in a language other than English.
Nonetheless, far too many Washingtonians, Sacks said, still don’t know that they have rights if they’re hurt on the job. They’re often afraid to reach out for help.
Community partners, Sacks said, can be trusted intermediaries.
One of those partners is Project Help, in a longstanding collaboration between L&I and the Washington State Labor Council. Project Help shows injured workers how to navigate the claims process. Their services are free, open to anyone and confidential.
“I talk to injured workers every day,” said Jessica Gallardo, a claim specialist with the group. “They don’t know how to file a claim or where to start.”
L&I has a lot of services available to workers, she said, such as a web-based tool to find a doctor. But workers often don’t know those options exist. Some cannot read or write.
And sometimes there are unexpected challenges. Sacks said he recently visited an L&I office to see how a telephone interpretation service is working. One problem that’s arisen: in the short time it takes to get an interpreter on the line, some customers hang up, thinking they’re being ignored.
“We need to understand what our customers experience,” said Sacks, “not just what we experience on our end.”
Showing respect, building trust
It’s also important, Dr. Benjamin Danielson said, to understand implicit biases and the need to build trust.
Danielson chairs Inslee’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities. He’s also a pediatrician at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle.
“There’s a history with so many of these families of not being listened to, not being treated well, not being respected,” he said.
At the meeting with the governor, state agency directors were asked to consider what they could do to improve equity, diversity and inclusion.
Inger Brinck, director of Results Washington, made three commitments:
- Ensure that data used in Results Washington work is broken down by race, ethnicity and other factors, to see the impacts of policies on different groups.
- In meetings, prioritize the voices and experiences of marginalized communities.
- Launch a new team dedicated to finding ways to improve state governments performance on equity, diversity and inclusion issues.
Basas said the education ombuds office is putting extra focus on who it’s not reaching. The office is paying special attention to issues like language access, bullying, discipline and graduation barriers. It’s doing more outreach to families with limited English proficiency, for example, and to incarcerated parents. It has a language line that allows the office to support families and students in more than 230 languages. And it has started educational clinics to help reach refugee and immigrant families, among others.
As the demographics of Washington continue to evolve, several speakers said, it will be more important than ever to keep close links to community partners.
“While we may know state government,” said van der Lugt, “they know our communities like no one else.”