Language Access Team provides information in multiple languages to support community needs

This year saw the first time that the King County Employee Survey was translated into multiple languages – six to be exact – and the feedback about this offering has been overwhelmingly positive. The translations are primarily an outcome of a busy, dedicated team that until a little over a year ago, did not even exist at King County.

The Language Access Team provides COVID-19 information in over 30 languages.

The COVID-19 Language Access Team has been receiving kudos and recognition within the enterprise as well as the community for their success in putting information into the languages that our diverse community needs. The team grew out of an urgent call to action last year to provide up-to-date, concise, and relevant information to the various people in the area that do not speak or read English as a first language. King County is known to have one of the most prolific collections of languages spoken in the country and the pandemic amplified a need that had already been identified.

In fact, Senayet Negusse had been recently hired for purpose of providing leadership for the county and operationalizing and integrating language access for the County departments and agencies in the newly created position of Language Equity Program Manager in the Office of Executive’s Equity and Social Justice. However, she was quickly tasked with helping to build a team and process that could support COVID-19 communications.   

There was a strong partnership already underway with the City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Peggy Liao, Negusse’s counterpart at the City of Seattle, had been assigned to work with King County Public Health to support the language access efforts. When Negusse joined in March, they worked closely together and began creating a system for King County. Negusse developed a COVID-19 language access guide and the team co-created processes for items such as translation requests, project tracking, and invoicing translators.

“The vendors we had in place for translation were taking 8-10 days to turn around work,” Negusse stated. In the early months of COVID, this was obviously not good enough. The team began building a base of “over 100 local translators, individuals committed to making sure our communities receive information quickly, while considering their cultural needs.” 

Negusse explained that this team did not just manage the translation, but also helped to provide guidance on such things as how to reach audiences. It involved connecting to people in numerous ways, like the distribution to ethnic media and by harnessing the power of targeted social media as a strategy.

It started with a call for volunteers

When the message went out that there was a need, a team of volunteers began to come together in  February last year for the enormous task of reaching out across a county that is as varied in cultures as it is in landscape and structure. One of the first to join up was Francesca Collins, who was working as an Education Consultant in the HIV/STD program at the time. She was recruited by the team to work with Liao, having previously collaborated with the Communications team on health education campaigns. With the support of her manager, she offered her community health expertise to do whatever was needed.

“It was bananas last year,” Collins laughed, bringing a little levity in retrospect to a serious issue. “Health and Medical Area Command (HMAC) was overwhelmed with emails, people just wanting answers to every question you can think of.”  According to Collins, HMAC was serving as a hub for COVID-19 updates, tracking cases, providing reports, talking with the public, strategizing testing and response, and COVID-19 communications, “on top of managing many other COVID-related things.”

When Liao returned to her duties at the City of Seattle, “It was just Francesca and me, until Amanda came on,” Negusse said. “We all worked together and brought on more coordinator staff.”

Amanda Kay came from Communities of Opportunity in response to the call for volunteers to join the team. What started as a four-week rotation helping to operationalize the work, kept getting extended. It has since turned into a Special Duty Program Manager position. She’s also a leading evangelist for the Language Access Team.

“The team has flourished in the last year, there’s a lot of passion and encouragement,” says Kay proudly. “Our team has become a cohesive service for COVID-related materials.”

“It would be nice to see a service like this expanded in the future,” she continued, “but for now we are only funded to provide COVID-related translations and reviews through September.”

Another early team member to join was Angélica Esquivel, a contract Spanish translator and interpreter working for the City of Seattle, who was recruited last February to help with the heavy workload. She’s now a regular member of the Language Access Team, working as a Coordinator, and bringing a wealth of experience beyond just reviewing documents.

“There are multiple Spanish-speaking cultures here,” Angélica explains. “Taking into account the words and expressions requires research and review. You have to make sure the language is appropriate across cultures.”  That includes elements such as other language bases or CDC resources, and even outreach for input from the translator community for direct feedback.

The work continues

Equity and accessibility are key components to the future of a thriving, successful King County. The gaps that had been identified highlighted the need for language access services to be implemented into the practices, policies, and procedures of King County. The goal is building trust and relationships with limited English proficient communities. 

The arrival of COVID-19 accelerated the implementation of these programs, resulting in over 30 in-language website pages, plus videos and public service announcements in over 20 languages. The team’s accomplishments had other regional, national, and even global jurisdictions looking to King County as an example in how to reach out to culturally diverse constituents.

Now back in her regular role for the Executive’s Office of Equity and Social Justice, Negusse is tasked with leading policy development and operationalizing and integrating language access in collaboration with King County departments and agencies. In conjunction with her colleague Hamdi Mohamed, they have been creating a hub of materials and resources, including a training on KING COUNTY CODE 2.15 Immigrant, Refugees and Language Access Ordinance (KCC 2.15), which, in part, requires all departments to have a language access plan.

Negusse has also been working closely with KCIT to develop what will be known as the Community Engagement Translation Program. The Office of Equity and Social Justice and KCIT are preparing to launch the Community Engagement Translation Program (CETP). This program will provide funding for translation of select web content into the top six most spoken languages, and an enterprise translation management platform.

If you have COVID-related materials that need translation, or you would like to know more about the Language Access Team, please contact