Southold is taking additional steps to break down language barriers at Town Hall.
The board recently named Sonia Spar as Spanish-speaking community service worker, a new position aimed at improving engagement with the growing population of Latino residents.
“It’s a way to bring the entire community together,” Spar said. “It’s a way to fill in the blanks that we have had in the past.”
Since starting Oct. 25, Spar embarked on a tour of town departments to identify documents and signs that should be translated into Spanish. One simple fix she recommended was adding Google translation services to the town’s website, expanding access in dozens of languages at the touch of a button.
She said challenges exist across the spectrum, from providing residents information on obtaining beach parking permits and using the town dump to communicating with Latino residents about town services, including youth events and programs for older residents at the senior center.
Spar, 50, was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and has lived in the United States since 2006. She previously served as co-chair of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and has worked at the Anti-Defamation League in New York. She lives in Southold with her husband and two children.
Spar said many Latinos aren’t aware of public services available to them and said fear can play a role in accessing services. “Sometimes, people are deterred from asking questions” due to the language barrier.
In Southold, the Hispanic population grew about 10%, to 3,610, between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census. Spanish is the second-most spoken language at home after English, with an estimated 5% of residents speaking Spanish, according to the town’s 2020 master plan.
Minerva Perez, executive director at OLA East End, a nonprofit advocacy group, said giving Latinos a voice in local government is “a win for everyone” and described Spar as “a powerhouse.”
“It’s not about who speaks Spanish that you plug into a role like that,” she said. “It’s about who actually has a deep commitment to a full community and understands all the nuances and all the different ways that having access to the town is … going to be helpful for Latinos.”
The town’s master plan identified a lack of Spanish language resources as a barrier to providing services.
“We didn’t have good capability,” Town Supervisor Scott Russell said, adding the new position is part of a larger effort to improve communication with Spanish speakers.
Last year, following requests from social justice groups like the North Fork Unity Action Committee, Russell said the town began providing translation services via telephone in all town departments using a service called LanguageLine, which offers translation into 240 languages but "has its limits" since it isn't in person.
The town also has Spanish-speaking employees in several departments, including the town clerk’s office and building department. It already provided translation in the police department, Justice Court and senior center to comply with county and state mandates. This summer, public sessions on a community housing plan were presented in both English and Spanish.
The part-time position based out of the supervisor's office pays $38.46 per hour.
But the supervisor said it goes beyond just language.
“It’s understanding different cultures,” Russell said, “developing bridges and relationships with people who might be a little bit intimidated by government.”
Spar’s next goal is to connect with residents by setting office hours at local libraries.
The sessions will be held in Southold on Saturday and Mattituck-Laurel on Dec. 23, from 10 a.m. to noon; Mattituck-Laurel on Sunday and Southold on Dec. 17, from 2 to 4 p.m.; and Cutchogue-New Suffolk on Jan. 6 from 3 to 5 p.m.
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