Testimony of Natasha Riddle Romero, Bilingual Community Organizer before the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities

February 24, 2022
Person Testifying: Natasha Riddle Romero
Title: Bilingual Community Organizer, Under 3 DC coalition
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Government Operations and Facilities

Good morning Chairman White, members, and the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities staff. My name is Natasha Riddle Romero, and I am the bilingual community organizer at Under 3 DC and a member of the DC Language Access Coalition (DCLAC). Today, my testimony will focus on the Office of Human Rights’ Language Access Program.

I work primarily with Spanish-speaking child care providers and early educators who rely heavily on the District’s various services and programs to provide care for children. One of the main agencies that providers and educators interact with is OSSE. For the past year, I have been helping LEP (limited english proficient) providers navigate an incredibly complex licensing and monitoring system at OSSE. We have also been advocating for more provider participation in the child care subsidy program at OSSE, which allows low-income families to access high-quality care. Many District families, particularly LEP immigrants, cannot access culturally competent subsidized care near their homes.

While early educators are finally getting the recognition they deserve with the generous investment in ECE salary increases, I am concerned that there is not enough investment in the Language Access Program at OHR, which helps to improve language services at each DC agency. Without more investment for OHR to expand its complaint monitoring and investigation ability and enforce the Language Access Law, LEP communities have no recourse for language access violations. District agencies  required to comply with the law can get by with the bare minimum.

Over the past six months, the DC Language Access Coalition and the Under 3 DC coalition have been working together to address some of these systemic issues at OSSE. Rosa Carillo and her team at OHR have been extremely proactive in addressing some gaps in language access compliance at the agency. Due partly to our efforts and OSSE’s internal changes at the Department of Early Learning, we have been able to take the complaints we hear from providers in the field to OSSE, which has resulted in some action to translate necessary forms and documents. But it is not enough.

DCLAC and Under 3 DC would not have been able to truly delve deep into the issue of language access at OSSE without the first-hand accounts of the LEP community and the help of OHR. However, the Department of Early Learning at OSSE is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the only resource to eliminate language access gaps or encourage change within agencies is the very small team of 3 people at OHR. The Language Access Program at OHR needs more funding to hire more staff to increase their capacity to encourage agencies to improve their language access resources, They also need to expand their partnerships with community organizations to inform the LEP community about their language rights. Finally, they also need to hire an advising attorney to ensure agencies are compliant with the law and that violations are taken seriously.

As of now, a language access complaint submitted by an individual whose language rights were violated could take up to one year to address. This has led to extreme underreporting of violations. Why would an LEP person issue a complaint if little to no recourse exists to ensure their rights are not violated again? The lack of impact from the complaint process has created a deep cultural fissure between LEP communities and DC government programs and services.

LEP communities are already deeply distrustful of the agencies that claim to support them. That mistrust can only be addressed through meaningful change at OHR so that Ms. Carrillo and her team can expand their work and ensure people’s rights are not violated.

The truth is that DC is very behind where it needs to be truly inclusive of its LEP residents. Improvements to the Language Access Program at OHR are just a start. Once those improvements are made, OHR can begin to address some of the systemic gaps in language access with the help of the LEP community.