Social Justice Linguists: How nonprofits can leverage language for more than just translation services!
Social Justice
February 27, 2020

Your internal culture will impact your external relationships – make it for the better!

As Joan Garry says, “Nonprofits are messy.” And what can get messier than trying to motivate people to prioritize and invest in your mission, when you speak one language (or maybe two) and your audience speaks 350?

(That’s a real number – We didn’t make that up.  At least 350 languages are spoken in US households.)

Of course, if your work involves healthcare, legal services, or immigrant advocacy,  you’re probably already pulling from a variety of resources:

  • Freelance Interpreters
  • Translation Agencies
  • Bilingual Staff
  • Volunteers

But, leveraging language to advance your organizational mission is about more than using translation services or interpreters for ad-hoc meetings or unexpected drop-in appointments.

Need help communicating in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, ASL, or English?
Access our growing network of social justice linguists dedicated to #languagejustice!
Schedule a FREE Connection Call with Team Jamii!

In addition to drawing from our experiences providing translation services, we looked at resources from The Aspen Institute, the American Community Survey,, and asked bilingual social justice advocates from across the globe about their opinions.

As a result, we discovered these 6 tips that can help non-profit leaders transform their organizations by fusing a few best practices for social justice advocacy and multilingual communication. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a useful guide.

(1) Make sure your “Go-To” vendors/freelancers are passionate about your mission.

If you don’t have a “Go-To” language service provider – GET ONE! Your staff cannot be the go-to for all things in all languages, so you need a language partner that knows your work.

This article is entitled, Social Justice Linguists…, because there is a growing community of professional interpreters and translators that use their study of language and language skills to help promote equity and create change.

Remember, when lawyers rushed to the airport to help protect families facing an unjust ‘travel ban’?  Well, lots of linguists were standing side by side with them.

At Jamii, we call this being a “Social Justice Linguist.”

This is a major focus of our work because the terminology is always evolving.

According to Dédé Oetomo,“Indonesian words such as freedom, social justice, human rights, did not exist in the pre-modern language. They emerged as the nationalist (and socialist) struggle took place in the first quarter of the 20th century. The entire language of queer activism relies on a vocabulary different from the hegemonic mainstream’s.”Dédé Oetomo, founder of GAYa Nusantara, the first organization for LGBT rights in Indonesia.

When assembling your “Go-To” team, don’t underestimate the complexities of using social justice terminology in different languages. Many social justice terms are inventions derived from English.  

Can you say “Mansplain” in Vietnamese? No?

If you have a team member who is a native-Vietnamese speaker, they probably can’t say it either.

That’s why professionals come in handy.

When faced with new language that is hard to translate, a Social Justice Linguist, will not:

  • Insert themselves into the conversation
  • Provide their opinions
  • Summarize or explain details in one language without communicating the same in the other language
  • Omit information because it contains difficult or offensive language

All of the above commonly occurs among well-intentioned (but untrained) bilingual team members and is firmly against ethical standards for professional interpreters or translators.

A Social Justice Linguist, will:

  • Dedicate time to working for causes they value
  • Familiarize themselves with important terminology related to that work
  • Learn culturally relevant information needed for on-going collaborations
  • Strive to be invisible so that the true conversation participants can authentically engage with one another
  • Prioritize accuracy

(2) Build a linguistically diverse team

Having competent external partners is important, but it won’t replace the need for internal resources.

The top 10 languages spoken in US homes are: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, German, Russian, and Haitian Creole. (At Jamii, we also get requests for Japanese translations often)

What languages are most relevant for the communities you serve?

How does your leadership reflect that?  Make sure your leadership team is not mostly comprised of monolingual people who speak the same language. Alternatively, if they are bilingual, try to assemble a team with different native-languages.

Two useful approaches for building linguistically diverse teams are: (1) promoting those with the necessary language skills and developing their leadership skills or (2) requiring your leaders to learn a language that is of high-demand for your organization.

Want to go the extra mile and supercharge your language capacity? Offer incentives for anyone on your team who learns a foreign language.

AND, that includes English if it is not their native language!

No matter what option you choose, it is a win-win. Your organization will benefit from a more culturally competent workforce because language and culture are inextricably linked.

(3) Provide Multilingual Cross-Cultural Training &
Professional Development

The “Big 8” socially constructed identities (i.e., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status), will manifest very differently across cultures and languages.

Thanks to British colonialism, people born in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other primarily English speaking countries don’t often struggle to find resources in their language.


You are reading this article about language and social justice – in English!

In the article, Linguistic Diversity in the US Hits Record High, Esther Bond, details the results of the American Community Survey which found that more than 20% of people in the US speak a language other than English at home.

We’re sure you have already started the process of tapping into that 20% by recruiting bilingual staff.

Now, it’s time to make the effort to share more resources in their native language. Of course, finding Spanish translation services will probably be easier than hiring a last-minute Twi interpreter, but the priorities remain the same.

  • Eliminate structures that magnify privilege
  • Promote equitable participation

(Your internal culture will impact your external relationships – make it for the better.)

“Language can either allow or disallow someone from participating in and creating social justice movements. The greatest impact I’ve found as the child of Haitian immigrants is that people find a lot of creative ways to disrespect Creole. “Bastardized language, trailer park French, broken French,” these are all things I’ve heard said about my language. Our language is part of our history. Your language is part of you. If people don’t want to see you, they don’t want to see your language or your culture. Some local businesses may be owned by immigrants…but I will go to  Rite Aid and there will be 10 languages and Creole won’t be one of them.”  Rutherford is a second-generation Haitian-American living in New York. She is also the founder of The August Project and Black Power Brunch. The August Project uses imagination to alleviate poverty

As an organization that prioritizes equity, your goal is to avoid exacerbating privilege and adding to people’s feelings of being invisible or voiceless. (See The Aspen Institute’s, The Invisible Latino in America)

(4) Leverage technology for
reading, writing, speaking, and listening

Technology is transforming how people communicate! Translators Without Borders highlights why true equality requires individuals “to be stewards of their own information and communication,” regardless of the language they speak. According to TWB, the goal is a shift of control, not mere ‘language access.’

Ask yourself…

How can we leverage technology to ensure speakers of a variety of languages have the opportunity to control and share information they feel is important?

A few options might include:

  • Translating your online content!  Use website translation services for a variety of online content, including translating your social media. You need multilingual feedback and two-way communication. Internally, you can also use staff portals to host multililingual HR resources online. (At Jamii, we use WordPress and the polylang plug-in and provide training and installation support to help our clients use the free or paid version.)
  • Using remote interpreters – Having an interpreter on-site is not always possible. Simultaneous interpretation has long been a resource for multilingual conversations that require a real-time flow of information that simulates conversations among those who speak the same language. Once upon a time, it required a lot of equipment – costing $1,800 or more. Now there are apps that help support simultaneous interpretation for meetings, conferences, and one-on-one conversations. If your participants have a smartphone and an earpiece – they can communicate.
  • Use different modes of communication – Think – reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Create opportunities for all stakeholders to receive information in a variety of languages. Share information in writing and verbally. You may even want to consider making videos available for your team and community members. Videos can have subtitles or voiceovers to serve a variety of audiences.

(Feel free to comment below with any questions about different technology resources)

(5) Collaborate and pool resources with others connected to your community

“…the nonprofit sector, like business and government, has had to respond to a dramatically new social
and political landscape. The contours of this landscape include a new and constantly evolving mix of peoples and cultures; instant and interactive technology in all arenas of life; downsized and devolved governments; a global marketplace; a commercial presence that reaches into almost every aspect of life; and a volatile economy.
These new realities pose a complex mix of opportunities and challenges for nonprofit organizations.” – The Non-Profit Sector and Government, Aspen Institute

That quote from the Aspen Institute is from 2002. Yet, public sector organizations are STILL facing many challenges in meeting the needs of a growing multilingual population.  They are always looking for support that can help pick up the slack.

Schools are one prime example.

“In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) are planning to expand translation services to facilitate communication within their district, where families collectively speak around 80 different languages.”

If your organization engages in public sector partnerships, having the resources to communicate with people makes you an incredible asset! Not to mention, an asset that funders are willing to pay for.

(6) Organize your files

We’ll keep this simple.

If you implement everything we’ve suggested but do not have a way to store, share, and manage multilingual versions of your emails, hard copies, online files, social media, website content, pictures, videos, …

etc etc etc…

You will not see as significant an impact for your organization. It may even cause your team to revert back to one-language only practices because they feel frustrated and confused about how to get what they need.

That’s one of the main reasons we’ve developed a customized suite of services with the interests of mission-driven organizations in mind. Saving time and making it easy to stay organized is essential.


If you’ve read this far, this topic is clearly important to you.

While a social justice linguist may not be able to personally put an end to all the -isms and -obias, they can certainly help you bring together the coalitions needed to create such changes.

With current innovations in technology, you have more options for affordable translation and interpreting services than you might imagine.  As a nonprofit, It can even give you a competitive advantage, over less linguistically savvy organizations, for funding opportunities.