Language access

Bicultural and bilingual staff

A staff that reflects the languages and cultures in your community is best positioned to provide all survivors with meaningful access to your advocacy services. Bilingual advocates can speak directly and unambiguously to survivors, determine if they are safe, inform them of services available, and assess whether survivors are getting the supports they need.

Many programs have only one or two bilingual staff members responding to a large percentage of the survivors with LEP utilizing their services. Some programs compound this inadequate staffing decision by asking bilingual staff to also act as interpreters for survivors with LEP working with other advocates, or others outside their programs, such as law enforcement or social services agencies. However, the costs in services, morale, and turnover can be high. Bilingual advocates in these types of situations often report feeling isolated and burnt out since they bear a disproportionate burden of the language access and outreach responsibilities.

Tips for putting this strategy into practice

It is important to keep in mind that bilingual staff members are not necessarily interpreters or translators:

  • Interpreters must state exactly what the survivor and other parties say. Advocates who are not trained interpreters usually end up summarizing, paraphrasing, or explaining, which is problematic and inevitably leads to miscommunication between the survivor and the third party.


  • Serving as an interpreter, particularly for outside agencies, undermines their main role as an advocate for the survivor. For example, an interpreter cannot interact directly with or provide supports to the survivor, not even to explain a question the survivor may not understand.


  • Similarly, serving as an informal interpreter undermines survivor confidentiality. For example, the third party expects to know all that is being communicated, even if it is a side conversation between the advocate and the survivor.

Bilingual advocates are also frequently asked by other programs, services, or systems to interpret for survivors with LEP. There are many critical issues to consider, including, in addition to those referenced above, survivor safety and setting precedents. When absolutely necessary for an advocate to provide emergency interpretation, these limitations and pitfalls should be clearly explained to the participant before interpretation is begun.

Note that even if some of your advocates are bicultural and bilingual, you must still develop an access plan for the languages they speak:

  • Unless you have a number of bilingual staff on each shift and all written materials and services are language accessible, there will be times when language is a barrier to survivors with LEP meaningfully accessing your services.


  • Your organization may need to develop policies and practices about when and how advocates should (and should not) provide interpretation for others.


  • As your organization builds better practices for its use of bilingual advocates, you may find you need additional bilingual staff and/or to support them through the use of translators and interpreters for meetings, proceedings, etc. outside program services.

See also a guide developed by Esperanza United and PCAR (Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape) “Strategies for Supporting Bicultural and Bilingual Staff.”

See “Resource Building Plan” for discussion on developing and supporting a staff with the language skills that reflects your community.

Recruiting, hiring, and retaining bilingual staff takes time, planning and funding. Esperanza United provides technical assistance on assessing and improving your team.