by Chris Smith
The NAI National Conference in Spokane, Washington, was a profound experience. I always learn and recharge when surrounded by fellow interpreters, but this year was about challenges. It was about understanding more about what we – as frontline faces and voices – build for our many audiences. What are projecting into the audience? What expectations are we setting up through our words and actions for our audiences that supports or deters them from full participation? Are we asking ourselves hard questions, giving ourselves honest answers, being willing to take a risk, and using our skills and abilities to meet the needs of our audiences?
I was very excited to be at NAI this year, but I was also nervous. The conference program had a keynote speaker with a topic that promised to present tough historical issues and how to deal with them. I counted about 10 sessions in the schedule that planned to consider topics of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. Looking at the conference schedule, I could tell the theme of the year was going to be making space. Space in our programs, at our sites, in our language and approach to interpretation, and space in our minds. I knew I wanted to participate in these discussions, and I expected to be challenged by them. I even expected to experience guilt for failing to make the space in the past, but I found encouragement to learn and grow because it was obvious that interpreters all over the country wanted to have these conversations.
I volunteered each day of the conference, and my duties kept me running most of Wednesday so I’ll start my story with Thursday morning. The first Thursday session set the tone for me for the rest of the week. Thursday morning, Sarena Gill from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation led a session entitled, “Let’s Talk About the Resource.” Her session was a discussion about the ways that language could lead our audiences down a less effective path to creating stewards. Specifically using the word “resource” to define our sites might invoke the idea that visitors make withdrawals, or take from, our sites without giving back or considering the wider community. Interpreters seek to turn visitors into stewards; we want the visitors to care about these resources like we do. Sarena used a game where each table had a communal fishing pond and a personal fishing pond from which each person could fish for the required number of fish to survive. We learned quickly that each of us tended to approach our personal resources more conservatively than the shared resources. This mentality toward our sites as shared resources might make a difference in how our audiences respond and how we build stewards. Even calling our sites a “resource” might miss the ways our audiences contribute and make deposits rather than withdrawals.
After thinking about how our language might be setting expectations for our visitors, I turned my mind to how language can include or exclude people from our programs. “From Diversity to Equity: Shifting the Way Interpreters Think,” led by Mac Buff and Julie Bowman, brought up the ways that interpreters can welcome diverse communities through mindful changes. The presenters emphasized that aiming for diversity and inclusion might still miss the mark if our programs lack equitable access for all. Language can make a difference in how we approach and respond to individuals. Replacing gendered language and avoiding making assumptions about individuals or groups can go a long way to making people feel comfortable in our programs. I especially appreciated when a suitable suggestion to replace “you guys” when addressing a group was “y’all.” Simple changes in the language we use to address others can create a comfortable, welcoming space for the many identities of the people we serve.
Friday morning’s keynote session was an incredible example of the good that interpretation can do in the world when we consider the complexities of history and humankind. Clarence Moriwaki, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, shared the story of the first Japanese Americans to be taken from their communities during World War II and placed in concentration camps. Racism, war hysteria and fear led to injustices that haunt American history. The keynote provided us an example of addressing complicated, troubling histories and using interpretation to bring healing and hope. Moriwaki’s comparisons of World War II racist cartoons of Japanese Americans side-by-side with depictions of Muslims following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks sent audible gasps through the hall. For me, it was a reminder that we’re not so far removed from complicated histories in America, and that we still have much to learn. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a space for sharing the history, calling out the fear and racism that persisted, and pointing towards a future free of those evils. The Memorial’s example shows us that interpretation – a powerful framework for changing hearts and minds – can be a force for good.
As I had expected, this year’s NAI National Conference challenged me to think beyond the boundaries of what I thought interpretation could be. Interpreters can use their skills of communication and connection to build even stronger bridges for more people and feel empowered to make positive, powerful changes in their communities. We just have to take a deep breath, listen, choose our words wisely, and act.