Interview with Maria Vertkin, founder & Executive Director of Found in Translation
MK: Can you give our BNID followers an introduction to your work and organization at Found in Translation?
MV: We are a job training program for low income, bilingual women to use their language skills to become professional medical interpreters. We provide both training for our interpreters, as well as all other supportive services to make it possible for them to succeed in our program and beyond. These services include things like childcare on site, transportation assistance, mentoring and direct job placement into the medical interpretation industry. We are also able to hire our own graduates directly.
MK: FIT has a truly holistic and comprehensive model to support women in gaining employable and relevant skills. How did your previous experiences and insight into addressing the needs of immigrant women in Boston shape FIT's program model?
MV: I think there are two main things that led to our current model. One is my own personal story, I myself am an immigrant and come from a low income background. So I'm familiar with some of the same barriers that the women that we serve encounter on a day to day basis. The other piece is that I'm a social worker, and within this program's model it is evident that we at Found in Translation consider many factors in the lives of our program participants--it’s not a shallow intervention.
We recognize the reason that many immigrants are not succeeding in getting out of poverty has nothing to do with what is intrinsic to them or a lack of skills or motivation, its more so a matter of circumstance, and external factors working against them. A lot of the program is designed to combat those external factors. We don't just provide interpreter training like other programs but we make sure that we address barriers like transportation and childcare. Addressing anything that can come up in a person's life that wouldn't be an issue if they had money to hire a babysitter or buy a car but becomes a huge problem if you don't have a lot of financial means.
MK: Sounds like the model has been a great success. Within the program what have been some significant successes, challenges and changes since FIT's inception and how have program participants and staff addressed and adapted along the way?
MV: One of our biggest challenges is the interpreting market itself and how it works. For a lot of professions you get trained and then there are vacant full time jobs waiting for you to fill them. But in interpreting it's a slower ramp to get into those more stable jobs. In the beginning most interpreters start working per diem and freelance for multiple agencies at for the first year or so. Then, as they work freelance, they gain a variety of experiences and skills and they establish a reputation and that makes them viable candidates for the more stable clinic jobs, hospital jobs, full time jobs, steady part time jobs. The challenge with that is that not everybody is able to make that investment. Not everybody is in a position to take enough time out of their steady low wage jobs to be able to climb that ramp to become a successful interpreter. One of the beautiful things about this profession is that the certification that you get in Massachusetts is good in any other state as well. It really is a skill you can take with you wherever you go, it doesn't expire, it's a permanent upgrade to get well paying work.
Another big success is that job placement is becoming easier because our community of interpreters is growing. New interpreters are able to build on the successes of those who came before them. For example, right now we have interpreters who have been in the field for three, four, five years and they aren't just interpreting. They may also be hiring, managing or teaching interpreters. They may have a public voice in the interpreting industry and be able to model success for those new to their career and increase their level of hope and thus increase our level of motivation. They're also able to open doors for them. They're able to give new interpreters the advice that you can only get from a near peer because they are the ones who have the most up to date knowledge. In some instances they are able to directly hire our interpreters or recommend them when they've been in an interpreting services long enough to have some clout.
MK: As FIT's mission states, the organization aims reduce ethnic, racial, and linguistic disparities in health care by unleashing bilingual talent into the workforce. How have you seen this transformation in action? What have been some amazing experiences and or insight that you've witnessed within your work?
MV: Regarding the two parts of our mission: the first is to create opportunity for women using their own language skills to get their families out of poverty and create a better life for themselves. I think the first part of the mission is pretty obvious in many ways. Earning higher wages while having access to more opportunities in one of the fastest growing fields in the US is one. It's very easy to picture how going from earning 14 dollars to 27 dollars an hour can make a huge difference in someone's life.
The piece that is right in between the two parts of our mission that is not that easy to pick up on right away is that a lot of these women are new immigrants and when people immigrate it takes a toll on their self esteem. When you come to a new country and suddenly the academic degree you have doesn't count, the skills that you have are not relevant and everywhere you go people underestimate you and devalue you because of the way you are perceived. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because you can't contribute as much as you are capable of because people aren't letting you. So this idea where immigrants are a drain to society probably could come true if they aren't given the opportunity to use their gifts to contribute. They don't feel the same respect or participation in society and often times a shame develops around one’s background, accent, food choices etc. That happened to me as an immigrant.
One of the biggest transformations we see through our program is that women are able to take pride in their culture again in a way that they haven't been in quite a while. Suddenly you are in a group where it's actually cool to speak your home language very well. And your whole future, career, and contribution to society in this profession really pivots on your cultural knowledge, your roots on your connection to your past that you may have been made to feel embarrassed about in some instances before.
The second part is in partnership with the women that we serve and their work helping patients. The reality is that without these women as interpreters, many immigrant patients wouldn't have access to healthcare and that can be a matter of life and death. If you are a patient in the US by law if you show up to a hospital speaking Korean they have to treat you in Korean otherwise going to the doctor is like a dog going to the vet. It is a violation of civil rights to try to treat you in English if that is not an appropriate language for you. It doesn't matter if people have different opinions if immigrants are entitled to healthcare access or other basic rights, those opinions are not consistent with US law. When it’s reduced to a dangerous game of pantomime it’s illegal and we have a way to fix that through certified medical interpreters. We are working to prevent a shortage of interpreters so patients can have that kind of access.
To illustrate it more originally, the most important part of a diagnosis is your medical history. If a patient doesn't speak the same language of your provider, you can't get a patient's basic medical history or an accurate diagnosis and that slows things down. In medical settings often every second lost is valuable. This can raise up healthcare costs because you have to run many tests for something that simple communication would have solved if they had an interpreter present.
Another thing we take for granted is informed consent. By law you can't treat someone without informed consent but without speaking the same language it’s impossible. Sometimes healthcare providers will try to pull shortcuts like saying your child can interpret for your or the secretary speaks Vietnamese or the janitor speaks Spanish and pull people inward who are not trained or qualified and they are going to be making mistakes that can cost someone's life. Second, for an immigrant patient in this situation it’s basically forcing them forfeit their right to confidentiality. Suddenly your confidential protected medical information is known to the secretary or to the janitor or to your child. We actually have many horror stories from our interpreters of them having to interpret as children including one woman who had to tell her own mother when she was 7 years old, that the doctor said that her unborn baby would be stillborn. All of these stories are the kind of things that can be avoided when there is a trained interpreter. The women that we serve don't just improve their own lives but they become agents of change in their own communities, helping the most vulnerable patients.
MK: Sounds like FIT really addresses a lot of issues surrounding social justice. Reflecting on your organization’s work in empowering women, what are you most proud of?
MV: I am really proud that we have developed a model that works. This didn't just happen automatically or by luck, it did take many iterations, testing things out and really listening to the community. I'm very proud to say the many improvements and changes that we have made over the years have led to better and better outcomes and have come directly from the women we serve because they are the experts. Personally I'm really proud to be an immigrant woman running an organization for immigrant women.
MK: What should Boston's International Development community know about Found in Translation's work? How can interested followers further support FIT's mission?
MV: We are running a grant match challenge right now, during the challenge any donation of any size will be matched dollar for dollar up to $50,000. We are aiming to raise $100,000 from just $50,000 donated. More information is on our website! We're on social media, active on facebook, twitter and we have a newsletter that comes out with regularly. We'd love to continue to connect with people to spread the good word!