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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

Language, Accessibility, Community Engagement, and Inclusion

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


During the winter of 2020, I worked as a volunteer at Agincourt Community Services Association for their project Recipe for (Climate) Change. The project used video recordings to document senior community members’ knowledge of cooking, food preservation, and gardening, as well as its connection to their personal history. Youth participants then utilized the material to create a series of cooking lessons and a cookbook.

Most of the senior participants were immigrants with minimum English and I was brought in to be a Chinese translator. While there were second generation Chinese speakers among the youth participants, they either didn’t have or were not comfortable enough using the language abilities required to transcribe full meetings and recipes. During my time spent working with the participants, I realized the challenges of documenting storytelling and oral history in the face of the language barriers, technical difficulties, and the social isolation of COVID 19.

Translation sample for a workshop survey. Courtesy of the author.

I had a background in translation studies as an undergraduate student, but I had only been trained to translate written text in an academic context. Translating unscripted speech was challenging and I often encountered unfamiliar vocabularies when cooking ingredients and techniques were involved. The language barrier was intensified by technical difficulties. It was already difficult to communicate with seniors through zoom call; the process became more challenging when we had to instruct them to turn on cameras, set up their phone or laptop at a correct angle, and start recording. It would have been much easier if we were able to communicate with them face to face, help them set up recordings, and give them direct assistance. However, none of these could have happened due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

Facing these difficulties, I had to use an extra amount of time to email back and forth with staff members and make multiple phone calls with senior participants. Still, I wasn’t satisfied with my work. Sometimes I failed to translate phrases and sentences during workshops or video calls, which took more time to communicate again later on. The deadline was pushed back once and once again due to these delays. However, the senior participants still expressed their gratitude despite the frustrating communication situation. They mentioned that they often felt isolated and lonely during the pandemic and were grateful to be able to participate in the project.

Example of a transcription for a cooking video. Courtesy of the author.

A year ago, I joined the MMSt program without knowing much about the demographic of museum workers. The summer before my admission, the iSchool conducted research on the diversity and inclusion of the faculty. The working group formed by 3 students identified various issues. The adjustments to the curriculum were made and, in many of my first-year courses, the topic of diversity, inclusion, and decolonization in the culture sector was the centre of discussion.

Compared with the previous cohort, I wasn’t feeling as isolated, but I was still overwhelmed initially. Getting to know the statistics of underrepresentation of the BIPOC community and white dominance in art and culture-related careers was a setback. I almost lost hope in being employed at museums as an international student because a lot of institutions specified that the jobs are funded by YCW or Canada Summer Jobs. I also felt confused when we discussed “the lack of representation in the GLAM sector” and “how to diversify the museum field” in class. These conversations made me feel invisible at times and misplaced at others. I wasn’t sure how to approach these topics as a racialized person since it seemed like a conversation about us, not with us.

When I thought of diversity and inclusion before, it occurred to me more as recognition and representation, more on a psychological level than a physical level. Working with these senior participants made me realize that language was the key point for their engagement and in this case, the risk of exclusion wasn’t on an emotional but a physical level.

We always discussed engaging the community, sharing their voice, and making them feel included. However, in reality, how could we approach them if we don’t even speak their language, how could we share their voice if their voice is not accessible to the rest of the community, and what is “inclusion” when only the space is shared but not knowledge and thoughts? Through the time I volunteered as a translator, the participants tended to approach me with any questions, including information about compensation and confidential agreement that I wasn’t capable of answering. Even when the staff members sent out translated information through email, they tend to approach me for confirmation. The simple fact of a familiar tongue made me seem more approachable, thus granting me authority and trust.

It was with this new understanding that I joined Museum Professionals of Colour, students aimed at addressing the lack of racial diversity and representation within the MMSt program and GLAM sector at large. I’ve long followed their activities and was tempted to reach out several times during my first year. I was held back by my fear of not having an understanding of my role as a racialized museum professional as well as what changes I could possibly bring with my effort. The experience working as a translator didn’t fully address my doubts, but it allowed me to realize that diversity and inclusion is not a conversation about big ideas – but, rather, small tasks that could be exhausting and troublesome. That’s why it requires effort from as many individuals as possible, and I need to be one of them.


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