UPDATED:  December 30, 2011 10:02 AM
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DC Asian Americans Connect With Other Minorities

By: Jenny Chen

Washington, DC – They are laughing and chattering excitedly in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese. The residents of the Chinese Senior Center don’t go out that often a tonight but this night is different. This night they packed into a van provided by the DC Department of Transportation heading to the Gala Theater at Tivoli Square for the Many Stories, One Night film event.

At the Gala Theater, the Chinatown residents were joined by nearly 200 members of DC’s many immigrant communities, including Ethiopian, Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Indian. The Many Languages One Voice film night on November 7, 2011 aimed to bring all members of ethnic groups together for a night of community story-telling related to issues of language access.

“We wanted to create a space for the community to tell their stories,” executive director Sapna Pandya said.

The night was full of stories, beginning with students Manuel Juarez and Chi Vo, who both spoke about their experiences with language barriers as high schoolers.

Many of the story-tellers spoke in their native languages, which were then translated into ten other languages through headsets donated by the Mayor’s office.

“[It] was really impressive being able to have literally many languages…people from so many different communities…being able to talk about common issues, shared experiences they can all relate to,” said Julie Koo, head of the Mayor's Office of Asian Pacific Islander Affairs.

During the second half of the evening, participants watched a screening of Robert Winn’s documentary Communities in Translation, which discusses the role language barriers play in emergency response situations, centering around the 2008 fire in Mount Pleasant. Local fire and policemen attended the film screening so that participants could connect personally with the emergency and rescue services in their area.

In 2010, Many Languages One Voice partnered with the Washington College of Law to write a report on language barriers in Washington, DC. The report surveyed immigrants from 28 different countries and aims to bring attention to the language difficulties of LEP (Limited English Proficient) immigrants as they try to access government services, schools, hospitals, and other entities in DC. The event in November was an effort to include the constituent population in the process.

“The rate of utilization of public services is shockingly low,” Pandya said. “We wanted to inspire people that they have a right to access services in this country. You don’t have to be a citizen.” The film screening, Pandya said, was an effort to include the constituents of the report in the process of calling for policy change.

And it seems to have worked. As the night closed, people filed out, talking excitedly as other’s stories sparked memories of their own experiences.

The night was inspirational for the staff of Many Languages, One Voice as well. Carol Tsoi, an outreach coordinator and an Americorps VISTA, is helping to launch a Health Community Club where community members serve as health navigators for immigrants going to the hospital or seeking other medical assistance.

In addition, Tsoi is working on a video project that will record the stories of the older generation in Chinatown.

“They’re been here for over 20 years,” Tsoi said. “We ask them why they came to DC instead of somewhere like New York. How are things changing? We don’t want these stories to be lost. We will publish them as a growing narrative of Chinatown so they can see ‘How does my story fit into the greater story of DC?’”

After Many Stories, One Night, Tsoi may not find it difficult to get the ball rolling.

“People kept coming up to me [after the event] and saying we have stories, please, we want to be part of the report!” Pandya recalls. “It was really exciting.”

To learn more about MLOV or to volunteer, visit www.mlovdc.org

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