Dave Coyne | Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?17 min read

September 17, 2013

Dave presented, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?, at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta. His talk explored how sign language interpreters, acting on the basis of social justice work, can better align themselves with the Deaf Community and their plight for autonomy.

You can find the PPT deck for is presentation here.

Interpreters and Social Justice

Today I will be discussing Social Justice and its connection to interpreters. Many people are not sure about this association. Regardless, we must not let fear prohibit discussions – truly open discussions – because it is those conversations that are at the heart of a social justice lens, which is achieved via leadership.

I would like to start by asking how many of you present would call yourself leaders? Raise your hands. I have asked this question to numerous groups of sign language interpreters and there never seems to be enough answering that they do. For me, I am not satisfied with these numbers and this lack actually increases my own work towards, and my motivation towards urging interpreters because now is the time to step up into leadership roles.

“We must be the change we want to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

This has been a recurring, inspirational theme, at StreetLeverage – Live. And I’m glad it has been. Indeed, we must be the change, we must think that “I am change”, and that “we are change.”

Lets look at why a social justice lens works. I know that when I first started working as an interpreter, I witnessed oppression of various types, even marginalization. Lets get a show of hands if you too have seen such types of oppression. We feel helpless while we witness these experiences.  We are at a loss for what to do. We feel confined by professional boundaries, we take in each of these experiences, and the impact takes its toll on us.  Answers to what actions interpreters could take and appropriate approach comes from this lens.

Social Justice and LeadershipDave Coyne at StreetLeverage - Live 2013 | Atlanta

A Social Justice Lens can be attained via leadership. It allows us to partner once again with Deaf community members. The bridge between the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community fell apart long ago. We are aware of this disconnect. We feel its impact and we deal with its consequences while we are on the job. How can we correct this disconnect and start rebuilding this bridge to reconnect with the Deaf community?  Some may say the answer is to have a “Deaf heart.” However, it alone is not enough. Interpreters need to know what behaviors to showcase while we work. A social justice lens offers such specific social justice behaviors that we can implement while we work; interpreters finally can be more involved.

As interpreters we often navigate two truths: hearing perspectives and Deaf perspectives within situations. Social Justice is defined based on groups’ experiences regarding more burdens or fewer privileges than another groups.  Interpreters are indeed working within these unjust situations (e.g., educational systems, legal systems, healthcare). Systematic oppression exists and can further marginalize people. Oppression through ignorance occurs and unfortunately interpreters too have been known to add to oppression and marginalization experienced by Deaf individuals as well. So what do we do? Do we remove ourselves and remain uninvolved in such situations? Not any more, not with knowledge of a tool like leadership to achieve a social justice lens.

Social Justice Theory

Many conceptions related to social justice have been formulated over the years, e.g., criminal justice, retributive justice, and others. David Miller created a theory of social justice that is pluralistic in nature, allowing for multiple truths (i.e., perspectives) within situations – allowing for unique views to co-exist, i.e., multiple worldviews within situations. Sign language interpreters typically work with two worldviews: auditory understandings of the world and visual understandings of the world. Both being right, both very unique, but how are interpreters navigating these world-views? We find ourselves in the middle of situations, navigating – juggling – these overlapping ideologies.

Relationships

A social justice lens is correlated with relationships. It actually is dependent upon relationships. This fact parallels with interpreting, because the art of interpreting is very much dependent upon relationships. Interpreters’ relationships with hearing participants are navigated in addition to relationships with Deaf participants. Interpreters’ relationships with team interpreters are involved; though it should not take priority. Relationships with Deaf individuals should take precedence. These examples parallel the same level of importance as a social justice lens has between majority and minority members’ relationships.

Social justice theory recognized that people do have experiences that include more burdens and that groups do have more privileges than other groups.  Finally we have something that recognizes these differences. We can begin discussions that offer vocabulary for behaviors, as well as our observations.

Exchanges between individuals need not be monetary with a social justice lens but recognizes people’s values and beliefs; their experiences are valued. These intangible things (values and beliefs) all have a home within a social justice model. Also, cultural capital: As interpreters we navigate two sets of cultural capitals that don’t always hold mutual respect for one another. Do we fully respect these non-monetary items? To answer, we must further investigate ourselves and apply our findings to our role.

Locations of Social Justice

Social justice can be found within three locations. Do you remember the Green Book series? Let’s revisit the three avenues to membership of the Deaf community. Not the fourth avenue to Deaf community membership, and not meaning membership to the core of the Deaf community. I am discussing general membership.  The fourth avenue is living as a Deaf individual or the actual experience of being Deaf in our world. As hearing interpreters we don’t have that fourth avenue, so we can keep focus on the first three. You can see that the first three align well within the three locations of social justice theory.  And it is within these locations where interpreters can begin dialogue about our work, and learn what behaviors are deemed important. Preferred social-related [solidaristic] behaviors can be attained and can mirror what behaviors Deaf people actually want from interpreters. Behaviors at work [instrumental] are those that occur at work, or in places such that lead to our employment, such as our ITP and events such as workshops. Again, the first location is where you find social behaviors, the second is related to our education, and the third is political behaviors [citizenship]. We are quick to think “what are those?” and they are indeed something we need to listen more to and learn how we as interpreters can be involved with political activities like being on a board, what voting can lead to, and what political power we have. As interpreters, we have a kind of privilege that we bring to the table and Deaf individuals want to see interpreters use privilege, i.e., hearing privilege, to benefit their forward movement [towards achieving equality], not to hinder it: this can be done by working together more closely, more so now then ever before.

Social Justice Learning

Dave Coyne
Dave Coyne

A social justice model is not inherently known but is rather learned based on other’s experiences. Interpreters do so by listening/learning during those discussions with those we work with. These conversations can occur one-on-one by simply asking stakeholders questions, or perhaps establishing a meeting at your agency and inviting Deaf community members to come in and share their opinions and experiences. Note these experiences and allow them to guide your role as an interpreter. This can also be done on a national level. A community forum offers those who are invited into conversations, a type of empowerment. Often people are misled, believing leadership cannot be learned and it is for others to do. It is thought that leaders are aiming to change the world today, but this is simply not true. Unfortunately this type of change doesn’t happen the day of. Change is a long process that we contribute to, adding towards a goal. Leaders sleep knowing they contributed to a process in a good way, no longer worried they caused negative effects on others. This is because leaders take a close look at who they are, at their own specific behaviors (within specific areas that we are talking about: social, employment, and political behaviors).

Leadership

There are various forms of leadership out there. Social justice theory goes with one of them and on the other end of the continuum (far from supporting social justice) there is a type that is seen plenty of within our field.

Transactional leadership in the interpreting field has been borrowed directly from business models. This type of leadership has immediate consequences and impacts those involved.  An example of transactional leadership would be if two partners enter into mutually agreed upon transactions; they seek to simply finish their task and that is the end of their collaboration. Past the completion of the test, there is not any further investment of one’s time; it is not needed because the task coming to an end was what they wanted.

I want to discuss what leads to a social justice lens, how one achieves a social justice lens, and how it serves as an end by means of transformational leadership. The key to this type of leadership is having true collaboration as the main priority, where much empowerment occurs, and everything achieved is done so through discussions. The transformational leader listens to others. Those involved must support the leader’s behavior and if they do not, this type of leadership fails.

Transactional Leadership

First, I would like to further discuss transactional leadership. A significant amount of interpreting situations has this type of leadership. This type holds many positive attributes with business transactions. However, when working with people who have a significant amount of daily struggles, this type of leadership hinders forward movement and furthers misunderstandings. People who go into situations with their own set agendas are found in this model, e.g., interpreters who work simply to get paid and no further thought about others happens after the encounter.

For the individuals who are under a transactional leadership model, perhaps even unaware that their behaviors are more transactional in nature, they don’t necessarily have to share any organizational goals nor do they need to for exchanges to occur under a transactional leadership model. For example, if we look at two similar businesses, perhaps they are a chain within a franchise, each have different owners but may have different priorities within their business and different goals than their sister stores. They have the same type of exchanges, based on money, selling the same products; however, they may serve people very differently. This parallels with the business of providing interpreting services. Interpreters are not obligated to follow organizational goals/values to guide their work; in lieu of, you may find self-interest that guides them.

People working within a transactional leadership model operate by holding control. They provide praises, rewards, and punishments to those working with them (traits of transactional leadership).

There are some transactional leadership traits considered positive. These include having fast results and immediate closure with tasks.  As long as set goals by those involved are achieved within situations, they can consider the task completed. There are people out there who want that set up.

Transactional leaders encourage others involved through controlling methods; setting clear steps for people to follow, deeming an assignment successful if they merely follow A, B, and C (not leaving set parameters). This set up lends for transactional leaders to be very strict. If you do not follow their set protocol, they may retaliate, e.g., may not hire you again, they may withhold pay, they may challenge to the point of furthering any type of resolve regarding concerns you have with them. The transactional model also fosters the mindset of ‘I merely work for compensation.’ Those involved in this model are told to accept set circumstances created by transactional leaders and this process contributes to colonialism (in general) and specifically toward the colonization of those involved.

Transformational Leadership

Now I will be shifting gears to the other end of the spectrum: transformational leadership. Much research has been conducted over the years and has noted that transformational leaders typically display four types of characteristics; known as the four Is of transformational leadership. The first today, [individual considerations], interpreters do quite frequently. Interpreters have been known to already incorporate these components of transformational leadership within their work but are yet to use the vocabulary to employ these concepts to their work.

Trait One – Analysis

First, lets talk about individual considerations. As interpreters we analyze various language modes, attempt to identify educational levels, and match others where they are at regarding language use (both hearing and Deaf participants). Interpreters navigate situations mainly within this trait, and we do it well.

Trait Two – Intellectual Stimulation

The second transformational leadership trait is intellectual stimulation. If we believe that everyone in the world brings value, then we can be open to others to problem solve. Let’s not think that we, as interpreters, have better ideas to problem solve than Deaf community members. What interpreters can do is to collaborate with Deaf members regarding what they think are better approaches to problems and ask Deaf people what they feel should be done in situations. And listen to them; listen more than taking action independently. Deaf people have ideas and answers that interpreters need to value.

Trait three: Inspirational Motivation

The third transformational leadership trait is inspirational motivation. Interpreters must be able to share field goals and visions with others to the point where it draws others in and they incorporate them too. Negative behaviors, e.g. gossip, pessimism, blame, complaining, do not warrant other’s investment in our work. Those negative behaviors do not shine well on the field’s goals and visions. Interpreters must manipulate those negative behaviors to work more optimistically.

Trait four: Idealized Influence

The fourth, and last transformational trait is idealized influence. This is the ability to influence as well as shape our vision and to lead us to actually achieving our vision, our shared vision. Currently, as a field, we do not have the four transformational traits and, to note, they are usually ordered and discussed in a different order. I flipped their usual ordering in todays discuss because the fourth, idealized influence, i.e., shared vision, isn’t something established in our field yet. We have been more focused on individuals, and have mastered skill-sets within the first trait, individualized considerations; however, we haven’t come to attaining a shared idealized influence.

Empower

Transformational leadership can promote participants’ goals and wants. It can be a humbling experience. It’s humbling because we have our degrees, we hold the knowledge, and we attained certification. We ‘know what is best in situations’, but now I am to inquire about wants such as where you want the interpreter to sit?  With transformational leadership, we aim to empower and remove control. Lets think of the word control, I really hate that word.  People can control cars; we do so by first turning it on. We control its features. We control all the functions of the car. Now, we cannot control the city though.  But we do navigate through the city.  Interpreters navigate through job assignments; we navigate through the interpreting process. We don’t control anything.  We must surrender any control we think we have. We must surrender control; we never had it anyways nor will we ever have it.

Through discussions, through listening to others – to other’s valuable stories – we can begin to identify defects in the status quo. We do this by truly listening to others. We cannot assume we know. My privilege may not allow me to see much. Many experiences continue to be overlooked. This ignorance may continue until we are truly able to live in other’s shoes. But I know I can’t. I am not Deaf. So what I am able to do is to take time to listen to their experiences, as many as you can.

The Pros

Transformational leadership has positive attributes. A pro for this leadership style is that if an organization needs change, transformational leadership has actions that can offer change. It does this by its grassroots approach and allows the people involved taking back control and it requires us interpreters to step back and empower others. Secondly, transformational leadership is focused on satisfying the needs and wants of stakeholders, this continuous collaborating and navigating ensures their needs and wants are being met. It is about interpreters thinking less about themselves.

The Cons

A con: transformational leadership does not offer fast results. It requires time. Change requires time. I may not see it in my lifetime, but I do hope that my vision will happen. I believe that my vision of equality will happen. It may take a long time; I realize it will not any time soon. Additionally, transformational leadership does not have a roadmap to follow. If the end is for true equality, we will not know how to specifically achieve that goal, but – we move towards our goals by working together, have creative solutions, and work toward true collaboration. I do not know how it will all unfold. Not having a roadmap is unsettling for many; they must have an A, B and C to follow. People like to be told how to get the things that they want.  But I can’t ask for such a thing within this model, we simple can’t ask.

Conclusion

We work within unjust situations that are simply unfair at times. We are within situations that a social justice lens, via transformational leadership, would do well in. The goal of transformational leadership is to empower others. If the goal of like-minded groups of people is working together then it is possible to overcome barriers, such as political agendas. Just as gay and lesbian individuals are together fighting a larger battle with other people, e.g., straight allies, their parents, their children, come together and have the power to change political agendas. This is the same with the Deaf community.  We shouldn’t think the Deaf community should fight battles alone. Where are interpreters in all this? We need to continually listen, to learn how we can be involved, e.g., support.

With this, the bridge between the Deaf community and the interpreting community can begin to be mended. We can re-connect once again, but to do so sign language interpreters must empower others. First, it must begin with conversations. We must inquire from outside of our field.  It can begin now when you all leave today and arrive home. Ask your Deaf friends and ask those you work with (hearing and Deaf). Ask them “what do you think our job should look like?” and “what would you want from an interpreter?.” We are not seeking to please every request of interpreters but the inquiry is a start; start these discussions and brainstorm ideas with stakeholders.

“Transformational leaders don’t start by denying the world around them.  Instead, they describe a future they’d like to create instead.” –Seth Godin

Transformational leaders do not deny what is around them. They take the world as is, and evaluate it, acknowledging, and assessing one’s own involvement. Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?

Today’s presentation was regarding social justice lens via leadership, this afternoon’s workshop will be more about leadership and specific behaviors based on the 4 Is of transformational leadership. Transformational leadership traits, some that interpreters already show within their work, can surface vocabulary to be applied to our professional role. Again, it starts with having discussions with Deaf individuals. This can be done locally, in your own area, but this involvement also can be done on a national level. RID’s Deaf Caucus will have a national forum this year. We can sit in and learn from the experiences that will be shared and then begin forward momentum, together.

 

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