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How to Engage Low-Literacy and Limited-English-Proficiency Populations in Transportation Decisionmaking

What special approaches are needed to outreach to low-literacy and limited-English-proficiency populations?

An individual who is low literate and/or limited English proficient is more than just a person who has poor reading, writing, and comprehension skills; and/or may not speak English well, or at all. These conditions affect a person's ability to participate in the decisionmaking process at many levels, some obvious and others subtle.

Having poor reading skills and the inability to speak English well, or at all, often relegates a person to low, wage-scale job(s). This affects their access to information online and in newspapers because they cannot afford to own a computer or subscribe to an Internet provider or newspaper.

In addition, being low-income often limits or eliminates having personal transportation. Therefore, they may be dependent on others or public transit for mobility. This can affect their ability to attend a meeting outside of their community. It can mean that transportation may need to be provided, or the meeting location may need to be near transit or in their community.

Often being low-income also means working second- or third-shift jobs or working two jobs. This affects an individual's ability to attend a meeting; it can mean that meetings should be held on a weekend, during the morning, or piggybacked onto another event they already may be attending. Providing food also encourages attendance at a meeting. It eliminates having to fix a meal at home, or making an extra stop for food on the way to a meeting. In some instances, it may provide the best meal the family has that day.

Watercolored photo of a public-involvement meeting held in a church.

A public-involvement meeting was held in a community church so everyone could walk to it.

Low-literate and limited-English-proficiency populations who cannot read, listen more carefully to what is said, how it is said, and who says it. Asking people "if they have time to talk with you" tells them they will not have to read or write anything, and will not be talked to, but talked with. Since they may not have the option of relying on written materials as an optional source of information, they often rely on radio, television, and word of mouth. Therefore, both the spoken words and the individual speaking those words are important and should be chosen carefully. The trust in which the speaker is held determines the credibility of the words being spoken.

Watercolored photo of an interviewer conducting an interview of residential occupants on the dwelling's front porch.

Interviews were conducted orally so that low literacy would not be a barrier to participation.

Look for clues that people cannot read English or another language

People who cannot read and/or write give physical and verbal clues. Because they are embarrassed by their inability to read and/or write, these clues are very subtle and easily can be overlooked. Often one person will sign in for several people. Other times, people will say, "My arthritis is bothering me, can you sign me in," or "I need to take the comment sheet home and think about it, then I will mail it back." Frequently, these comment sheets are never returned. Still other times, people simply avoid looking at a printed page. These and other clues must be recognized and responded to appropriately.

...I left my glasses at home

When asked to sign-in at a public meeting, a resident replied, I left my glasses at home. A short time later, a second person said they too had left their glasses at home. Realizing some people in the community could not write and probably could not read, a staff member put a sign-in sheet on a clipboard and asked a community leader to stand at the entrance to the meeting place. As the community leader greeted everyone by name, the staff member wrote down names and asked for their addresses. It was apparent that if residents could not write their names, they would be unable to provide written comments. To ensure that the residents' remarks were captured, comment sheets and a clipboard were given to each staff member. After residents were signed-in, they were divided into small groups and a staff member was assigned to accompany them into the display area.

Watercolored photo of a person completing a sign-in sheet.

A sign-in sheet can be a barrier to participation for those who are low literate.

Residents were asked where they lived and shown the location of their homes on the display map. After explaining each alternative, the staff member stepped back, let the residents talk among themselves, and recorded their comments. When the residents were finished talking, the staff member read back the comments to the residents to make sure their thoughts had been recorded correctly. The staff member also asked for their names, wrote these on the bottom of the comment sheet, thanked them for coming, and placed the comment sheet in the comment box.

...tell me what you are planning to do

If written material is put in front of someone who cannot read, they may only glance at it. Staffers should begin talking about the project with them so they will have enough information to ask questions. Give them a map, locate local landmarks, show them where they live, and tell them about the alternatives. By then, the fact that they cannot read becomes a non-issue. They can be interviewed orally and their remarks recorded.

...I want you to know what I think

The following is an example of the need to be sensitive and observant. At an open house, an older gentleman arrived early and spent a great deal of time looking at the display maps and drawings. He approached three different staff members. Each, in turn, had talked to him and then pointed to the comment table. Instead of going to the comment table, he approached a fourth staffer and voiced his concerns. Again he was asked to go to the comment table and fill out a comment sheet to document his concerns. Slowly, the older gentleman said he did not write very well. The staffer finally picked up a comment sheet, wrote down the man's comments, and read them back to him. The man said thank you and left the meeting. The staffer added the comment sheet to the comment box.

Watercolored photo of a group of people looking at a project display which is hanging on a wall.

Residents were taken in small groups into the display area and introduced to the project.

Train staff members and use residents from the neighborhood

Not everyone makes a good interviewer. Many do not feel comfortable talking with those who are not like themselves or in settings that are foreign to them. Others may lack patience or be judgmental. Before sending anyone out to meet the public, engage them in role playing and present them with a variety of scenarios in which they may be placed. Since opportunities must be seized when they occur, staff members need to be comfortable anywhere - on a front porch, in a back yard, under a clothesline, in an office, over a septic field, or in a Laundromat. Stress that everyone should be shown respect, addressed courteously, and treated with dignity.

...hire local residents

In Denver, CO, local residents were hired to interview people in their own community. This not only provided temporary jobs for many in the project corridor, but also eliminated the need to train outsiders. Nonresidents might ignore or miss the subliminal things that local residents
would know; such as, how to talk to people, what kind of respect to show, how to engage them, and how to make them feel comfortable. Local residents also were hired as interpreters for those communities where many did not speak English.

...use someone who knows the people and their culture

A staff secretary, who was a former welfare mother and single parent, was asked to go out into the field and conduct interviews in a low-literate community. She was very effective because she knew what the residents were going through, what was important to them, and the lingo that they spoke. Other team members were able to learn a great deal by watching her.

Watercolored photo of two men sitting on steps. One gentleman is interviewing the other.

Local residents were hired to interview people in their own community. out the elders

Communities with low-literacy and limited-English-proficiency populations often do not have written histories because their residents could not write them. Instead, their histories are oral and kept alive by the community elders. Look for these elders, engage them in conversation, let them share their stories, and ask them to identify others who might be able to contribute to the community's history. This can be time consuming, but the information conveyed in their remembrances will assist in identifying current concerns, uncovering past discriminations, and revealing familial relationships.

...use staff that reflects others in the community

In Atlanta, GA, the project involved widening an interstate and reconstructing an interchange in a predominantly minority and elderly community that had been divided by the construction of the original interstate. The Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) staff sent to conduct interviews with the residents included a mix of ages and races. After visiting a community center and attempting to interview some of the residents, it became apparent that the residents talked more openly with those closer to their ages and of their same race. They wanted to talk with someone who appreciated their life experiences, respected their status in the community, and understood what they had gone through the first time.

Watercolored photo of meeting attendiees sitting in a group with others standing looking at a project display which is hanging on a wall.

Ask the elders to share their stories of the community's history.

Provide food at the meetings

Often, food can serve as a catalyst in getting people to attend meetings. In many cases, it provides a backdrop for social interaction, demonstrates commitment to community vendors, and allows a parent to quickly pick up a child and get to a meeting without an extra stop. Still other times, it is a meal that otherwise might not have happened.

...the food, the chairs, and the tables

While being interviewed, residents in Denver, CO, were asked if they would sponsor a block meeting and invite their neighbors. Many were reluctant because their homes were small and their incomes were limited. They were told that the location and the food would be provided, and all they had to do was pick a day and time, and invite their neighbors. By using the neighbors to invite their neighbors, the invitations were conveyed by word of mouth. This meant that no one had to read anything and everyone got their invitation from someone they trusted in a language they understood.

The block meetings were held in the middle of streets that had been closed off, in neighborhood parks, and in other convenient locations. The project team provided the food, chairs, and tables; and conducted presentations complete with displays. These small block meetings formed the foundation for the entire public-involvement effort. After holding more than 60 block meetings, larger multi-block neighborhood meetings were held. Following these, still larger corridor-wide meetings were held that brought together several neighborhoods. At each level, neighbors were still asked to invite neighbors and food was served.

Watercolored photo of a group of people sitting outdoors listening to a presentation on a project.

The food, the chairs, and the tables were provided for block meetings throughout the community.

...culturally appropriate food

Food and drink are more appreciated in these settings than in others. It is not necessary to provide a meal, but the food can be used as a good icebreaker. The food should be culturally appropriate to the community. For example, Cuban sandwiches with pork would not be appropriate for a group that includes Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or vegetarians.

...a meal, not a snack

Instead of having just pizza at a meeting, food vendors from the I-70 project corridor in Denver, CO, were used to provide meals. Even though this cost a little more, it showed the community that outside providers were not being brought into the area. These neighborhood food businesses ended up being partners with the project. In addition to food, as many services and products as possible were purchased within the project corridor, including printing services. This demonstrated to the community that the project coordinator was willing to spend money to strengthen the economic viability of the neighborhoods in the corridor.

...local spaghetti suppers

In Warren and Edmonson Counties, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) asked local emergency management officials, volunteer fire department chiefs, and firefighters for help in getting the public to come out to meetings. The volunteer fire departments offered to let KYTC "piggyback" onto their scheduled chili suppers, spaghetti suppers, and auctions. This increased attendance by attracting people interested in both transportation and spaghetti. KYTC found this partnership more effective than holding big meetings at the public library.

Watercolored photo of a group of people sitting around a table discussing a project.

Residents were served meals purchased from food vendors in the community.

Be aware that public meetings may not be part of some cultures, and/or government may have a negative connotation

Many who have limited English proficiency formerly lived in countries with repressive governments and may distrust government agencies. If providing community members with transportation to a meeting, or using an official government vehicle in the community, be aware that the color and type of vehicle used may have negative connotations. Until becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Naturalization Service used recognizable white vans and the Border Patrol used green sedans. State and Federal vehicles may frighten away residents because of the seals on their doors.

...religious activities and ethnic festivals

In Columbus, OH, the Asian and Somalian populations are not predisposed to come to public meetings. Attending public meetings simply is not part of their culture. Because of their reluctance to attend meetings, churches and ethnic festivals were targeted along with social service agencies, schools, and the malls.

...government buildings

Hispanic populations in Charlotte, NC, have been reluctant to attend meetings in government buildings. They preferred Hispanic-only meetings in safe environments, such as churches. In many cases, they do not feel safe asking about or questioning a government action. When asked a "yes" or "no" question, the answer was generally "yes" because they did not wish to offend. This required that questions be posed in an open-ended format. Often, they came as a family, with the male answering any questions that were asked. The most effective presentations had limited written information, were filled with graphics, and included an interpreter.

Watercolored photo of people attending a meeting in a gymnasium.

California DOT consultant staff held a project meeting in a local school, accessible to transit, and conducted in Spanish.

...proximity to the police precinct

A neighborhood meeting was held at the local branch library, one of many functions housed in the new community complex. One of the other community functions housed in the same complex was a local police precinct. No one from the public attended the meeting. A debriefing with the neighbors revealed that the proximity to the police precinct kept people from attending.

...meetings just for them

In Milwaukee, WI, the project area was thought to include a Hmong community; however, it was difficulty to define it in terms of location and size. The Hmongs did not respond to mailings or telephone calls imploring them to attend a public meeting. This close-knit community was skittish among outsiders. Hmong America (, a national group that helps Hmongs assimilate and assists with basic family service needs, provided assistance in communicating with the local Hmong community. The group's director, who spoke both Hmong and English, suggested several methods to keep the community informed and recommended a service for interpretation and translation. As a result, an interpreter was used at meetings, and newsletters and fact sheets were translated into Hmong.

Watercolored photo of Hmong people standing around a table looking at project displays.

Wisconsin DOT held Hmong-only meetings in their community center that improved attendance.

Updated: 3/21/2012
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