MRAC Evolve: The Language Edition

Image description: The header image is by Kristen Stoeckeler from 20% Theatre Company. Two people are sitting on stools in a conversation – the person on the left has grey hair and a blue smock and is speaking with her hands in mid-air. The person on the right has long brown hair and a blue button-down shirt and jeans. Their hands are in their lap, looking intently at the other person who is speaking.

MRAC Evolve

This issue of MRAC Evolve summarizes the staff team’s thoughts on MRAC’s relationship with language. We want artists to express themselves authentically and that sometimes requires multiple languages. Yet, the majority of art and culture grant-makers require applicants to tell their stories in English. MRAC is exploring this dichotomy and ways to mend the disconnect.

In the last couple of years, MRAC has taken steps to broaden the ways in which we communicate and connect, in terms of language:

  • A one-page information sheet about MRAC grants and services is available in Amharic, Hmong, Lao, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
  • Live human-generated captions and live American Sign Language interpretation are available for MRAC workshops and webinars.
  • MRAC staff who present describe all visual elements of presentations verbally.
  • Workshops and webinars are recorded and available on MRAC’s YouTube channel with captions.
  • A translatable document outlines steps to translate English captions into other languages. This document is on the website in English and in Spanish.
  • The online grant portal allows for Google Translate to access the application in a variety of languages.
  • MRAC contracted with a Spanish speaking interpreter to assist in meetings with staff and applicants / grantees.
  • Alternate application formats have been used, including filling out an adapted form in Microsoft Word, and providing verbal responses that MRAC shares via audio recording or transcription.
  • MRAC contracts with a reputable service used by local multi-lingual organizations to translate grant documents.
  • MRAC staff produces grant documents in English, Spanish, and in accessible / translatable formats.
  • Hiring staff that speak two or more languages.

As we continue to evolve in our work to advance equity, language will be a part of that work.

Stay tuned for an online forum MRAC will host in January 2022 — local artists, whose preferred language is not English, will discuss how they navigate as artists, as grant-seekers, as people living in the 7 county metro area.

Image description: The image is of Kathy, an Asian woman with black hair pulled back, wearing a black turtle neck and gold sweater. Behind her is a white wall filled with all sorts of 2D art.

Kathy Mouacheupao, Executive Director

Nyob Zoo
There is no Hmong word for art. Imagine how I felt when I learned this as a young 20-something that just fell in love and committed my life to the arts! I knew Hmong art existed, but I was confused by the language. It has become more clear to me over the years that language isn’t just about communicating, it is also the way in which we understand the world – it is culture. We don’t have a word for art, because it is a way of life. At MRAC, we recognize that language can be a barrier, but we are committed to learning how to make it a gateway to accessing our resources – regardless of your native language. I am definitely anxious about making mistakes, but I’m more afraid of not learning how to make the necessary changes.
Ua Tsaug

Image description: The image is of Masami, an Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair, wearing a fuschia v-neck shirt. Behind her is a couch and wooden curio cabinet.

Masami Kawazato, Program Director

As a multilingual person for whom English is a learned language, I constantly think about language and its implications. Language is an evolving reflection of culture and there are often words or concepts that do not have direct translations. Language is also one of our primary tools for communication and can be expressed through sound (speaking and hearing) as well as visually (think written text, ASL, and braille which adds yet another sensory element). Add to that all of the languages in this world and their various dialects – it’s a lot to consider. As an equity principle, I hope we are thinking about understanding through preferred language(s) rather than assuming a universal shared language. At MRAC, we ask applicants to share their project ideas with us through language. Historically, that’s meant that MRAC has written guidelines in English, and applicants were required to submit written applications in English. And, shouldn’t we have the option of understanding, sharing, and communicating in our preferred language?

I’m excited about the ways in which MRAC has broadened language access recently – ASL interpretation is offered at our grant application workshops and videos include written captions that can be translated into different languages, guidelines and webpages in Spanish, applicants submitting verbal responses – to name a few. I want community members to know they are welcome to request different language formats of us – do not hesitate to get in touch to start that conversation.

Image description: The image is of Becky, a white person with brown hair pulled back, wearing dark rimmed glasses and a blue and white cowl. Behind her is a brown couch and a white wall with a colorful painting.

Becky Franklin, Director of Administration

At a gathering of my partner’s extended family a few years ago, a relative declared that the German language is ugly. My one living grandparent at the time, who happened to be a first generation German-American, would chat with me in the language he knew as a child and had to abandon as a young adult to assimilate to the white American English-speaking culture. Yes, the comment she made was personally insulting, but it’s also absurd. Words and intention can be ugly (like the comment), but not language! It represents our autonomy of expression, our pre-assimilated identity, and our foundational understanding of the world. Language is beautiful, and I am excited that MRAC is recognizing its beauty by including more opportunities for constituents to share their stories in their preferred language.

Image description: The image is of Jovan, a Black woman wearing a brown shirt and her hair in a bun. Behind her are a couple of green leafy plants.

Jovan C. Rebollar, Program Director

As a visual artist my relationship with language, and how language is defined, is broad and spacious. For me, any attempt to communicate is inclusive in how I think about language; whether verbally, non-verbally, through physical expression, written word, gesture, or imagery. What excites me is when I consider new ways MRAC can engage with applicants and invite them to tell their stories in order to receive support. I’m curious about what is possible, and what new processes MRAC can develop to support this openness and give power to the diversity of language.

Image description: The image is of Scott, a white man in his 30s with an orange beard and dark rimmed glasses. Behind him are books, green file boxes, and a framed piece of artwork.

Scott Artley, Program Director

About a year ago we began regularly working with applicants with disabilities to submit spoken audio recordings in place of written narratives. I’m proud of this work, and it has been the best kind of challenge to refine how artists’ (literal!) voices could be at the center of their proposals. But audio narratives are temporary accommodations that don’t address underlying preferences for the written word. Efficient, specific, logical: these are the features of applications that do particularly well in our process, including audio applications that “read” the most like a standard application. It’s no coincidence that they match the features of the allegedly “correct” written language most lauded in dominant Western culture. I hope that as we continue transforming our processes, we find ways to not only accept applications in preferred languages and formats, but to make even the most seemingly inefficient, vague, and illogical applications fundable if their resulting projects are going to make a positive impact on the community.

Image description: The image is of Mirella, a Latina woman with black hair pulled back, wearing red lipstick and a black shirt. Behind her is a white wall with colorful 2D artwork.

Mirella Espino, Program Director

Language is the lens through which we express ourselves, our culture, and our history while also having the power to build community and create a sense of home away from home. As an English Language Learner, growing up in a Mexican household in rural Wisconsin, language was powerful. It granted me access into two worlds: the English and the Spanish. There is a wealth of wisdom, stories, and art being created in all communities and increasing our ability as an organization to support these activities is major for the vibrancy and growth of the region.

By providing grant resources in Spanish and welcoming Spanish application submissions, we are opening the door to new artists that have been creating art within the community for years and even decades. Because language accessibility is new work at MRAC, we will without a doubt face learning curves, but are eager to learn and continue to have these important conversations with the community.

Image description: The image is of Sam, a white woman with a short blonde choppy bob haircut, wearing gold hoop earrings and a gray turtleneck shirt. Behind her is a desk, instruments, and framed artwork.

Sam Stahlmann, Panel and Events Manager

I think the beautiful part about artistic expression is that the underlying emotion is often understood regardless of language. You can experience a painting, a sculpture, a song, a performance, and still feel a deep emotional response even if it is not presented in your language. So, how can we translate that experience to grant making? How can we ensure that all of our applicants, regardless of their language, can convey their art, skills, projects, and community connection in an authentic way? I’m excited to take this journey with MRAC and explore how our grant process can be accessible in all languages.

Image description: The image is of Yong, an Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair wearing a gold and purple scarf and gray shirt. Behind her is a couch and green plants.

Yong Her, Organizational Support Staff

Languages are nuanced and some languages don’t even have counterpart words in English. We might lose the depth within the stories and their unique meanings. There’s also cultural, religious, spiritual, social and behavioral meanings that may get lost, among other things.

At MRAC, language matters, because it allows the artist to be authentic to all these identities, whether they’re applying for a grant or having gotten one and working on their project. My only worry is that we won’t be able to offer comprehensive services to those with language barriers. What I’ve run across is that some languages are dying, others are losing fluent speakers/interpreters, and that may be an issue.


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