Evanston City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza prioritizes language accessibility


Courtesy of Stephanie Mendoza

City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza. Mendoza is working to reduce language barriers in Evanston through translation services and personal communications.

Avani Kalra, Reporter

Growing up, City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza remembers missing school to help her parents translate essential tasks. After serving as an unofficial translator for years, Mendoza prioritizes expanding language access for community members interacting with local government, which led her to take the dais last April. 

Mendoza said the city has not made much headway directly translating government documents, though it has advanced language access in other ways. The city is currently working on translating into Spanish the Freedom of Information Act request form, which allows residents to obtain documents like police reports.

“I want our office to be a place where people can come and get whatever service they need,” Mendoza said. “We’re able to provide a more personalized service to someone who comes in and does have language barriers.” 

Visitors to Mendoza’s office are greeted by a “language menu,” which she said presents visitors with a variety of language and translation service options. Mendoza added she wouldn’t call herself a trailblazer in her efforts, but she hopes when someone walks into her office, it is clear to them that language access is a priority. 

“It’s the first thing you see,” Mendoza said. “If you can’t navigate the services and information we have, there’s always going to be a sense of distrust. It’s not equitable.” 

Individual documents are translated on a case-by-case basis depending on what people request most often, Mendoza said. She added many documents are also available online in Spanish before the city officially translates them.

Case-by-case translation is the most cost-effective way to ensure city documents are accessible, Mendoza said. She added city officials do not focus on translating board, commission and committee meeting minutes, since they aren’t usually requested in Spanish. 

Only about $50,000 in funding has been set aside to translate documents, sourced through initiatives such as the Good Neighbor Fund, Mendoza said. About 600 to 700 pages of documents can accompany one City Council meeting, so translating all documents is not feasible. 

However, Mendoza said all of the documents and forms her office is putting out this year are available in Spanish. 

“Language access is, and will always be, an issue in my own personal life,” she said. “It’s really hard for me to remove myself from the issue.” 

Still, Mendoza said she is willing to translate specific documents herself if constituents ask. 

“If someone comes in and says, ‘Stephanie, I really need these minutes in Spanish,’ I’d be more than happy to translate them myself or send them out to be translated,” she said. “That is not ever going to be a barrier –– I’m never going to tell someone they don’t have access to a public document.” 

Alejandra Ibañez, executive director of Illinois Unidos and member of the city’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, emphasized the importance of access to information for all communities during the pandemic. 

She said the commission works to identify areas where structural racism exists through different methods, like presentations from community groups, and to improve those practices and policies.

Though document translation isn’t always a direct component in that work, Ibañez said the commission has discussed issues of language access. 

Ibañez said she also recalls translating important documents for her parents as a child. Today, she said she worries about children of non-English speakers being overwhelmed during Evanston’s vaccine rollout. 

“Language is the first major hurdle when it comes to not being welcome,” she said. “Language is a basic, foundational step in helping people feel that they can be truly civically engaged.” 

Deputy city manager Kimberly Richardson helped implement training on language accessibility for city staff this year. 

Although the city has always provided some form of language accessibility services, Richardson said the city lacked training on how to utilize those resources.

“Training staff … is a first step as we continue to identify and implement best practices to ensure community members feel welcome when interacting with city employees or participating in community meetings,” Richardson said.

Ibañez said Evanston’s new online system for water bill payments left her confused. She said if she were faced with a language barrier, it would have been even more difficult to pay. 

“Evanston is touted as such a progressive community,” she said. “I didn’t realize that there would still be hundreds of people who had maybe lived in Evanston for a long time but didn’t have access to all of the amazing services, opportunities and programs because of language.” 

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