International participation by sign language interpreters presents a valuable opportunity for self-reflection and identity exploration which enhances work and relationships at home and abroad.
When I was talking about getting ready to go to two international conferences this past summer, I heard several different reactions from my colleagues- everything from affirmation to indifference to slight surprise. As I thought about these reactions, several questions came to mind:
What motivates sign language interpreters to engage in our profession on an international level?
Why do we choose to expend or conserve our resources to do so?
What benefit can sign language interpreters gain from thinking outside their own borders to see how we fit into the larger world of interpreting?
While some may question the relevance of connecting to the larger interpreting community, I believe that participation in the world arena informs and runs parallel to our daily work. Interpreters are afforded new levels of insight if we show up with awareness, investment and humility.
One of my favorite aspects of travel is the opportunity and challenge to examine my reflexive thoughts and behaviors when encountering something novel. These manifestations revolve around identity. How we enact our identities shapes the perceptions of those around us and reinforces our affiliation and membership in certain categories, and they are mutable: I’m used to having certain aspects of my identity felt or perceived as primary, such as female or White, but it wasn’t until moving to another region of the United States that my home region became primary more often, and it wasn’t until I traveled internationally that my national identity took center stage in both inner and outer perception.
When we’re in places where we feel like the majority in some aspect, those identities can temporarily take a back seat from having to enact and defend, especially when those traits have power in the larger society. When identities that are yet unexamined suddenly surface as primary, the result can be destabilizing. We must find a way to understand and integrate what it means to be this new identity in relation to those who share it and those who may not. Dissecting what it is to be American, for example, requires the same kind of work as understanding what it means to hold any kind of identity with power. And like any kind of unconscious power, there is the potential for harm.
Power, whether we are cognizant of it or not, can give a sense of legitimacy on a personal and systemic level. The cycle to perpetuate some power hierarchies is firmly in place: wealth and resources are more concentrated within certain nations and racial groups, and infrastructure supporting Deaf community values and interests (for example, official recognition of a signed language, ADA legislation mandating reasonable accommodation) gives a leg up to some groups while others face more barriers without these as a foundation. These factors all can favor a group to have a strong presence in research and activism. Individuals and groups with this power become leaders internationally, and gain more decision making power and legitimacy as a result.
Information sharing in this context is most powerful when done in collaboration and with an eye toward impact and application. Some of the most meaningful sessions I attended at the last World Federation of the Deaf Congress involved partnerships between a researcher and a local community to address salient issues like language endangerment. To consider research on all levels as a form of service learning requires us to go beyond tokenism and elevate communities of interest as full partners in the trajectory of the research process.
Investment, Presence and Impact
When we are self-aware, we can better see those around us and the overarching structure and systems at work. I’m brought back to discussions and decisions within RID to add the Deaf Advisory Council and the position of Deaf Member at Large, as well as the aftermath of the failed vote to create an Interpreter with Deaf Parents position in the organizational structure. We must continually call into question who occupies the seats of power, who historically has been included, and what stakeholders are missing or silent. (2014 RID Demographics listed under “Membership Services.”) Once we have done that work, we must ask ourselves why, what the impact is, and if that impact aligns with where we want to go.
Organizational decisions can’t be made wisely until we know who we are and why we act in the ways we do. It takes emotional and intellectual buy-in. In the hundreds of decisions we make every day in our work, we have to take a pause for a power, privilege and identity check-in. If we came to a signing community later on in life, we need to look at our language skills and cultural internalizations and seriously examine how and if we fit into the Deaf and ASL-using community paradigm. As David Coyne wrote in his article “Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters,” “When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities.” Our global community is subject to similar pitfalls.
When considering the intersectionality of identity combined with privilege, personal understanding is crucial on an international level to ensure that divisions of all kinds are not tacitly or unknowingly sustained. The language we choose to use daily is an enactment of identity, and as a sign language interpreter’s language shifts, identity does too (Hunt, in press). Using languages of power internationally like English and ASL is an act of inherent privilege. Although International Sign is widely used, and IS interpreters are prevalent at international conferences, research suggests it is not accessible to all participants (Whynot, 2014). There is no easy or economical solution to bridging language gaps and making costly and/or time intensive events accessible for all stakeholders, yet it remains a priority and challenge. I’ve seen thoughtful leadership and action at many levels, and I’ve also witnessed divisive behavior based on assumptions. As always, there is more work to be done by all of us.
Show Up – The Right Way
It can be easy to congregate with others who share our identities, language preferences, backgrounds, etc., especially when traveling. We may rarely have to confront negative stereotypes or question our way of being in homogenous groups. Alex Jackson-Nelson, in his article “Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing our Power and Privilege,” suggests that dismantling systems of power depends on making connections to those historically marginalized in order to harness our collective passion for the field while at the same time fighting the status quo systems of oppression. When norms established by a majority permeate the entire group, barriers arise- not only for access, but also to leveraging the kind of open, collective thought and action that embodies the spirit of coming together.
In his essay “I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option,” author Walter Mignolo (in press) discusses the need to think decolonially in politics, where minority identity traditionally has been constructed by imperial, racial and patriarchal systems. He quotes the intellectual and activist Fausto Reinaga, who said in the 1960s “I am not Indian, dammit, I’m Aymara. But you made me Indian and as Indian I will fight for liberation.” As a community of diverse identities, how do we work as allies to recognize, decry and dismantle the chokehold of systemic oppression?
Whether or not we participate in the international interpreting sphere, the process is akin to the effort we make to understand the privileges and impact we have in our daily work at home. How do we, literally and figuratively, show up? At interpreter and signed language-themed conferences, nationally and around the world, we must be aware of who we are as interpreters and how our choices shape our environment. Debra Russell in her StreetLeverage – Live 2013 talkposited that before changing the world, our organizations and our field, we must turn inward. Becoming a more introspective sign language interpreter at home will make one a wiser interpreter abroad and a better agent of social change.
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Questions for Consideration:
How has your awareness of your identities changed over time? Why, and in what context?
Where in our field do you see missing or silent stakeholders? What can be done to create an environment where all can feel represented?
Think back to a recent conflict you experienced in interpreting. Where could identity enactment have impacted the situation?
Coyne, D. (2014, May 20). Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters? Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2014/05/social-justice-an-obligation-for-sign-language-interpreters/
Hunt, D. (2015). “The work is you”: Professional identity development of second-language learner American Sign Language-English interpreters. (Doctoral dissertation, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.)
Jackson Nelson, A. (2012, August 1). Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/08/sign-language-interpreters-recognizing-analyzing-our-power-privilege/
Mignolo, W. (in press). I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option. Duke University Press.
Russell, D. (2013, July 16). Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2013/07/debra-russell-sign-language-interpreters-discover-recover-an-enduring-legacy/
Whynot, L. A. (2014). Assessing comprehension of international sign lectures: Linguistic and sociolinguistic factors. (Doctoral dissertation, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia).
The field of sign language interpreting still finds itself at a very serious and critical juncture as interpreters and educators attempt to put Deaf community members back into its center. Without considering the tenets of social justice and the perspectives of those who aim to proliferate it, sign language interpreters face the reality that they may be contributing to the oppression of Deaf people.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” -Desmond Tutu
The aim of social justice is to prohibit privileged majority members from taking control – accordingly, a significant amount of guidance and support by those in the minority is needed. Social justice permeates daily experiences because practices, policies, and laws perpetuate the very existence of majority members. Though there is little space today for the appreciation of individual efforts toward justice, and perhaps less space to celebrate times of creativity, sign language interpreters need to create the capacity to give meaning to the Deaf experience in socially conscious ways.
Embracing social justice and incorporating its tenets at the center of interpreters’ practice moves professionals away from explanations that people’s outcomes in life (more specifically minorities’ lives) are merely results of their good and bad choices toward a position that highlights the strength and conviction required to create opportunities for positive change. Social justice works to include the experiences of others that showcase both social injustices as well as how to move us toward equality—in the case of sign language interpreters, this process is about keeping or changing behaviors that are supported by Deaf people and support their desires and goals to achieve autonomy.
What is Social Justice?
While the United States Government is responsible for ensuring basic quality of life for all citizens, interpreters know too well that people’s reactions to injustice in situations differ depending on their political background, media influences, and affiliations. Often we use the same terms to talk about differing scenes of injustice (political, social, economical, and the like). We find that these terms can be vague, meaningless, and often leave us with our wheels turning, but going nowhere. Although the terms justice, e.g., political and social justice, are often seen as interchangeable and often used synonymously, but they can also be defined as distinct terms concerning various inequalities experienced by minority groups.
But do not allow all of this wordsmithing to stop you—minority groups’ injustices (regardless of the realm they fall within) are about being targeted, discriminated against, and oppressed; often concerning power rooted in the social order of our society.
An important component of any social injustice is that conversations about minority lives are happening.
Discussions guided by the uses of status, meaning the effects of today’s socially constructed hierarchies (i.e., social ordering), are real and important pieces in sign language interpreters’ productions of interpretations. Taking types of social ordering into account within interpretations can show us how status affects people (their views and how they are represented in the eyes of others, both individually and systematically). We are talking about reading between the lines of language use to show prestige, respect, and esteem for individuals. In addition to this, those working with hearing interpreters are often from very different communities. To articulate accurate messages, we must consider the real challenges of attempts to maintain fairness based on the myriad relationships (which are symbolic of status used within the exchange) possible within situations. Status can be used to maintain, leverage, and define the types of relationships between people, e.g., best friends, teachers and students, employees and managers.
Social justice is also a concept that deals with people’s actions to craft equitable opportunities for positive change (Rawls, 1971), so it is vital that interpreters work closely with Deaf community members to support equitable experiences. These practices can include sometimes-controversial behaviors, yet are critical interventions of oppressive acts found within our professional role, e.g., advocating, supporting, educating. The more we shift control of our field to the hands of Deaf leaders, the less controversial our behaviors will become because appropriate actions will carry the Deaf community’s seal of approval.
On the other hand, pausing or avoiding behaviors that intervene oppression may actually prohibit various forms of respect for individual autonomy. The explanation behind such pauses/avoidance may be due to our understanding of ethical relativism, whereby those experiencing the injustice may have the right to determine right and wrong behaviors based on their cultural norms and individual contexts within situations. Perhaps some of us are too worried about doing wrong that we perpetuate current habitual patterns that support the status quo, and thus, inadvertently contributes to injustices.
Similar worries have given rise to growing public controversy surrounding political, social, and economic institutions, which have centered conversations on social justice since the late 19th century. Though these conceptions related to justice have been formulated and reformulated over the years, we realize that political justice generally deals with equality, while social justice addresses freedom (Rawls, 1971). These forms of justice are actually elements of each other and represent unique challenges of those experiencing injustices.
Because inclusion related challenges exist (which many minorities experience) the Deaf community faces similar challenges about involvement in conversations about roles of social structures. Special attention to the needs of those we serve, as professionals providing a service, is vital. These needs are a part of an overarching holistic understanding, not solely based on communication exchanges, because majority members (yes, even sign language interpreters) lack full awareness of experiences of Deaf community members.
So, while sign language interpreters work, they permeate participants’ experiences during the communication exchange. Working between two or more people communicating makes the use of status and its social roots (that are often unfamiliar to the parties involved) visible to the interpreter. All injustices are social in nature, even those within political situations, and are based on the relationships among those involved. This makes interpreter’s positions in the interaction between people useful in working toward social justice (e.g., addressing, supporting, opposing). Again, most injustices experienced by Deaf people are types that interpreters will never fully ‘get’, because as hearing individuals, hearing interpreters may only have secondary experiences to associate with individuals who experience our world differently.
Social justice emphasizes that privileged majority members do not have full understanding of minorities. This makes minority groups’ involvement, guidance, and support with professionals serving them imperative.
Of course both social and political justice need to occur under the eyes of the law, but we are far from achieving equality; social justice exposes social deficits and injustices that bring Deaf people’s experiences to the center. The social injustices experienced by the Deaf community create a call to action for everyone, reminding us that we are all part of a much larger battle. Liberating actions cannot be successful without true community involvement because no one can liberate themselves by their own efforts or solely by the efforts of others (Freire, 1971). Interpreters’ community involvement should include being a part of a force attacking the social injustices experienced by Deaf community members.
This support is pertinent in the lives of those we serve, and for most interpreters, this is as personal as it gets.
The Examination of Power
A multitude of personal and institutional concerns surround a fear that the behaviors of sign language interpreters’ will remain static despite the shifting needs of the Deaf community. One example may be the identified need to establish ASL as the language used at interpreting-related conferences as a norm and the historic struggle to achieve it. In the big picture, static and indifferent stances can stymy efforts to overcome systemic injustices (not that they need interpreters, but working both with and beside them supports their efforts tremendously). This makes social justice even more important. A position of indifference creates a critical need to examine the power, inequality, and transformational opportunities central to our work as interpreters in mastering language and culture.
This examination allows for the formation of a bridge between the need of social justice in the lives of minority groups and the practice of sign language interpreting (a significant influence within Deaf people’s lives). This bridge only holds if stakeholders are involved in its design. Grassroots reform movements have historically relied on strong collaborations among members of various groups that come and go from the lives of minority groups. Unfortunately for the Deaf community, interpreters’ involvement in grassroots reform movements are not a given; views of such involvement differ widely from interpreter to interpreter. Even interpreter organizations and educators vary widely in their stance on such involvement.
Both the positive and negative affects relationships have on experiences dictate one’s unique understanding of the world (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, the relationships that sign language interpreters maintain make their positions on issues of social justice even more vital because power struggles are bound to arise among participants who require negotiations through interpreters (this includes relationships between Deaf individuals and interpreters).
Therefore, an interpreter’s understanding of the Deaf community must extend beyond their own experiences, thoughts, and actions (majority-centric) in a way to support their overall wellbeing based on their understanding (minority-centric). The potential to build the bicultural attributes needed to promote the wellbeing of others lies within the social rules, experiences, and signed language of Deaf people, especially in matters highlighting social justice itself. Social justice begins by upholding the belief of minority groups on matters of equality.
A Conscious Choice
Exploring a sign language interpreter’s cultural competencies challenges them to understand their own position within situations as well as the positions of those involved. Critical language study expert Fairclough (2001) indicated that for groups to make real progress toward their liberation, social emancipation of minority cultures is essential. The first step for interpreters to support the progress of the Deaf Community toward equality is to openly evaluate and strengthen their own behaviors. Locations are already being created and discussions are taking place all over the country: Jean Miller’s TerpTalk or as suggested by Damita Boyd in her article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs.
The need to change the collective stance of interpreters has become a moral imperative today more than ever—this change begins individually. Sign language interpreters cannot expect those we serve to believe that change can occur for the Deaf community if we are not sure ourselves that such change is actually possible. We must ask ourselves what we truly believe and understand that social justice leaves us with a choice.
We have to choose to do something about how we position ourselves as professionals.
How can Deaf individuals trust that there is a modest level of integrity in interpreters if they do not see us learning and emulating models that aim to eradicate stereotypes, prejudices, and the discrimination of Deaf people? Exploring the dynamics of relationships among all ages, abilities, religions, races, ethnicities, social classes, sexualities, and genders is more crucial than ever to tackle the current injustices these members face; simply put, we should do this because it is the right thing to do.
Social justice moves us toward supporting autonomy and allows people to one day live in a world that provides unique spaces for minority groups to flourish. Understanding how Deaf individuals view social justice issues allows for majority members to begin looking at the unique needs of individuals, rather than viewing the whole community as another alternative group based on memorized knowledge about minorities in general (although important parallels between minority groups do exist).
The Prism of Social Justice
The concept of social justice wills interpreters to address current social challenges posed by policy, growing inequality, and social exclusion. Many sign language interpreters strive for social justice because of our unique position to witness injustices experienced by Deaf individuals. Examples of how unfair and avoidable differences lead to disparities in the lives of those we serve include how insufficient support and education in our country affects those who use sign language. I sometimes feel we fail to truly recognize and account for how Deaf people experience the world.
Delivering actions through a prism of social justice creates opportunities for positive change. When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities. To avoid this, a framework of social justice minimizes disconnects between communities and positively influences the relationships between Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters.
If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves. This brings the need for individuals in the interpreting field, and its organizations, to advocate for the equal treatment of Deaf Community members, and recognize their impact on the lives of Deaf Community members: civic, academic, and otherwise.
Continue the Discussion
Social justice is a part of on-going discussions about shifts in our work as scholars, practitioners, teachers, and policy makers. These shifts, in turn, will improve the lives of oppressed people—in this case the Deaf Community. Scholar Rabbi Tarfon perhaps best articulates the nature of this call to action, our task to join Deaf people in a wider battle toward equality for all communities, “you are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”.
Let’s work together to get rid of structures of hearing supremacy (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination) by ensuring professionals in our field uphold Deaf Community members’ beliefs and thoughts surrounding their own self-empowerment.
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Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power. Harlow, Eng: Longman.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.
Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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 Leadership
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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In the afterglow of StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta the words of Seth Godin resonate strongly, “The art of moving forward lies in understanding what to leave behind.” As I have contemplated the myriad of questions asked and the rich diversity of perspectives shared, it occurs to me that there was consensus around one singular idea—to leave behind the current definition of what it means to be a successful sign language interpreter.
This was repeatedly evidenced in the many sentiments shared urging one another, and every practitioner in the field, to return to the artistry of our craft and refocus on the fundamentals that the profession was founded upon—permission, trust, humility, and level of connectedness to the Deaf Community.
Simply, the only sustainable determination of success for a sign language interpreter is intrinsically tied to the real world experience they have both with and within the Deaf Community.
The ‘I am Change’ Manifesto
If positioned to do so, I believe those who attended StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta would collectively invite every sign language interpreter to be the change they want to see in the profession.
To dare to stand in contrast to the iterative adjustments to the meaning of success that have replaced the permission, humanity, and applause of the community we serve with a preoccupation with proscribed practices, specialization, and financial reciprocity.
Will you stand with them?
StreetLeverage – Live, and streetleverage.com for that matter, would not be possible without the daring contributions of people willing to make a difference in the field by contributing their time, resources, perspectives, and ideas.
I would like to extend my appreciation to each of the inspiring speakers at StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta for their thought provoking talks and calls to action.
Talk | Marginalization Within the Sign Language Interpreting Profession: Where is the Deaf Perspective?
We will be releasing videos of these talks here on streetleverage.com in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned. The first release is next week!
It is difficult to express the profound sense of gratitude I have for the many people who volunteered their time to ensure our time in Atlanta was enjoyable and productive. I would like to thank the following people for their immeasurable contribution to the success of StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta.
You are the reason StreetLeverage is possible. Thank you for allowing me to chase big dreams. Words cannot capture the gratitude I have for your encouraging smile and unwavering support. Thank you for coordinating the hospitality efforts at the event. Mwah!
Your command of registration was impressive, appreciated and noted by all in attendance. Thank you. Also, thanks for supporting the social web coverage of the event.
You are a social web giant! Thank you for leading the social media coverage of the event and for lending your incredible talent to the StreetLeverage effort.
Your work to coordinate the volunteers and continuing education components of the event were masterful. Thank you for engendering a pay-it-forward perspective.
Your utility was amazing. Thanks for being everywhere support was needed. Badging and registration were better because you came. You are wise beyond your years. Thank you.
Special thanks to Jarvis Avery, Henry Bruce, Brittany Gailey, Julie Garbison, Desiree Hines, Brandi Meriwether, Venise Nichole Niles, Erin Powell, Emma Jane Rozenzweig, and Jillian Wright for your support of the event and reminding us of the importance of the coming generation of industry stewards.
Your AV muscle and vision for room set-up were incredible. Thank you for leading the thankless work that is facility and technology management. Your comedic tendencies are only surpassed by your abundant generosity.
Events like StreetLeverage – Live would not be possible except for the generous and progressive support of our partners. I would like to thank each of them for their contribution and support of the effort to create change in the sign language interpreting industry.
As we work to leave behind the current definition of what it means to be a successful sign language interpreter, let us continue to be inspired by the importance of leaving a legacy of generosity for those who follow. It is only our generous contribution to the betterment and advancement of the field that will endure. Lets be the change we want to see in the profession.
Thanks again to everyone who participated. See closing comments here.
We have already begun preparing for next year. Mark your calendars! We will be holding next year’s StreetLeverage – Live May 1 – 4, 2014.
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Since I gained professional status as a sign language interpreter, I have witnessed oppression of various types, more than I would like, such as disenfranchisement of Deaf community members, abuse of power by interpreters, and discrimination against Deaf individuals. These are alarming and call for changes in how interpreters work.
Incorporating Leadership into our Work
Interpreters are in the trenches in many locations in which Deaf members struggle for equality (e.g., homes, schools, hospitals, and other societal institutions). This situation calls for a specific kind of leadership that personally influences individuals in both top-down and bottom-up approaches, surfacing in interpreters’ roles in day-to-day interactions.
These locations represent where change is most needed, and where sign language interpreters can best work toward reaching the liberative goals put forth by the Deaf community. Merely acting as spectators or watching Deaf members wage the battle alone, is not enough for many interpreters. Passive involvement is not enough because the way in which interpreters perform their jobs in the midst of community members’ daily struggles, and the approaches used to carry out practices can contribute to or hinder purposeful contributions, contributions that can represent momentum by fostering positive changes. These purposeful contributions (e.g., allowing others to lead their actions) can humble interpreters yet foster participants’ advancement in most situations. More importantly, incorporating leadership into interpreting practices can prompt styles that prevent inconsistent approaches.
Leadership has been at the periphery of many conversations, but for sign language interpreter Amy Seiberlich, this topic should be at the forefront. Seiberlich (2012) in her StreetLeverage article, “Leadership in Sign Language Interpreting: Where are We?” highlighted the idea that historical causation created directions in the interpreting field which have led to many of our current problems.
Today’s daily interactions are often devoid of the collective purposes needed to establish meaningful connections with Deaf individuals. For many years, attempts have been made to formulate national collective causations at RID’s biennial conference, hosted by the Deaf Caucus. The Caucus was successful in gathering practices considered important by Deaf members, families of Deaf members, interpreters, and educators. To be used effectively, this information, gathered, analyzed, and shared, requires the support and integration by all stakeholders involved, specifically sign language interpreters. If integration of preferred practices are not carefully monitored, then community-specific information can be utilized only for convenient position-taking.
Transformational Leadership Theory
In viewing interpreters as leaders, stakeholders hold individuals, institutions, and organizations accountable for their actions: there is simply too much at stake not to consider a transformational approach.
Incorporating transformational leadership traits into interpreters’ work is only one way to address the many struggles that sign language interpreters, systems and institutions, and interlocutors deal with. This method encourages progression toward various kinds of emancipation and prompts active support of Deaf community members. This approach can prove useful for discovering how to sort through and piece together the fragmentation between professionals and communities.
Interpreters’ practices and their approaches to interpreting are distinctive. Thus, asking interpreters to identify with social conditions and interactions deemed significant by Deaf members may begin to counterbalance the negative effects coming from interpreters in the field. Specific suggestions provided by Denis Cokely (2011) in “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain” touched on the social influences wielded by interpreters who are either tightly bound or less bound to the Deaf Community. Each of his suggestions carries differing implications and results.
Individuals who mistakenly believe they can separate language and culture and do not share Deaf community members’ goals and views can be no more than bilingual-monocultural rather than bilingual-bicultural interpreters. On the other hand, those who form strong bonds with the Deaf community can potentially achieve bicultural status (sharing goals, views, and norms), utilizing full bilingual skill sets. Interpreters who work as biculturals are able to co-create relational-based encounters to effect change.
Monocultural individuals who see their work strictly as commerce-based agreements (transactional) for interpreting services, too often fail to consider the additional collaborative components of their work (e.g., discussing strategies for participants’ success, listening to concerns and experiences, and participating in ways that further the greater good) as part of their professional duties. These critical reviews of interpreter practices are needed to detail purposeful behaviors that are crucial to supporting participants’ needs, values, and expectations.
Burns (1978) defined leadership thus:
“the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political, and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by the leaders and followers” (p. 425).
This quote placed shared goals as a pivotal component in different leadership styles. Due to the very nature of interpreting, interpreters are special kinds of power-holders. Their collective motives and values can be used to satisfy, or not satisfy others’ individual and shared goals. The process of reaching these goals may cause internal struggles in interpreters who do not fully understand the motives and values of the individuals they work with. For others, conversations about leadership theories give rise to the vocabulary needed to address the concerns, needs, and expectations of those working with interpreters. According to Burns (1978), leadership is specifically targeted to everyone involved in interactions (but especially the power-holders). If all are fully engaging in and discovering the center of leadership itself, they will find that leaders and participants have intertwined practices, perceptions, values, and motivations.
Today’s interpreter leaders are not only in managerial and other upper level positions, but are also interpreters themselves, involved in daily interactions where common goals are supported. More than ever, we must continue to discover more about the individuals who hold power, those who wield sole power, and the powerless. Discussions surrounding power have surfaced in national conferences and daily conversations: Deaf members and interpreters convene to raise awareness of the effects of power. In doing so, they draw back from full power, sharing it instead: thereby contribute to closing the disconnect that exists between some interpreters and Deaf members. Any conflicts or coalitions that come up have the potential to shape popular opinion and forever change interpreters’ future business.
Transactional leadership emphasizes an exchange between those involved to satisfy solely independent objectives. The interpreting field, which has boomed into a million dollar industry in a short period of time, has too many individuals who facilitate communication with an “in and out” or “I do this and you give me that” approach. Transactional leaders’ foci lie in satisfying agreed-upon objectives, regardless of what interlocutors need out from the encounter. They do not seek mutual support or understanding (in other words, ‘I am here to interpret this information to the best of my abilities for compensation, but not to discuss anyone’s overall well-being because that is outside my professional boundaries’).
This type of ‘service’ carries consequences (e.g., Deaf and hearing individuals are groomed to merely accept interpreters’ practices ‘as is’ to ensure future opportunities take place). Simply put, when approached as mere contractual obligations, these practices (known or unknown) obligate participants to comply with requests through a transactional leadership exchange process. This “I interpret, and then I get compensated” approach does not further meaningful dialogue or deepen relationships. The reality of this mindset between interpreters and Deaf individuals has been shown to foster the negative effects on Deaf individuals, described as ‘ripples’ of disempowerment by Trudy Suggs (2012) in “Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter.” Transactional-based encounters can potentially cause negative effects which indeed transcend interpreting spaces. These ripples that remain after interpreters leave, can potentially bring about more pernicious forms of oppression (even if unintentional) than overt discrimination or retaliation.
Transformational leadership is predominantly displayed inside rather than outside educational spheres. However, some studies (Burns, 1978) have confirmed that even outside educational spheres, transformational leadership can positively affect one’s ability to create environments incorporating individual participants’ and groups’ desired needs, values, and goals while engaging them. Transformational leadership has been applied most often during crises: “…in those conditions, a leader can seize the opportunity to identify the deficiencies of the status quo, and promote a future state that will appeal to followers” (In Antonakis & House, 2002, p. 13). Interpreters, as potential transformational leaders working closely alongside with Deaf members, put forth issues that can directly enhance the quality of lives. In incorporating these transformational leadership skill sets, interpreters alter spaces to achieve participants’ ends.
Leadership inspires the individuals involved to collaborate in attaining a higher quality of life. Transformational leadership rests on the idea that leaders are guided at all times by participants. The emphasis placed is on participants’ beliefs, needs, and values. Because interpreters manage interpreting spaces, they are central to communication exchanges. It is vital for interpreters to approach situations with sensitivity because Deaf members are already in the minority. Practices of transformational interpreters include checking in with the participants more often, inquiring about the next steps to take, and ensuring (the best they can) no further disempowerment occurs.
Bass and Riggio (2006) noted that transformational leaders typically display four characteristics: individual considerations, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. These traits once learned, promote participants’ visions and goals, bolster intellectual stimulation, hone professional practices and values, promote high performance expectations, and lead to their increased decision-making. In sum, integrating transformational leadership into the field, interpreters take leadership to heart, shifting the emphasis in environments (established by a history of both social and political factors) on Deaf members, away from interpreters.
Next Steps Toward Change
Understanding how interpreters can work effectively with the Deaf community begins by investigating how they currently analyze situations and how they believe they behave as professionals. Interpreters must initiate potentially uncomfortable conversations with stakeholders in order to learn as much as possible about the Deaf community. This information can lend insights into needed changes in both the field, and interpreters’ approaches, and create a common purpose for professional work. Exchanges that merely result in transactional-based encounters can be modified to be more transformational in nature. This crossover between approaches can be achieved through education, dialogue and discussions, all in which involve shared motives and values that are brought to the table to garner purposeful change.
By learning and implementing transformational leadership traits into our work, we as individuals in the field, can devise purposeful actions to address many current concerns about some interpreters. Actions from transformational leaders that spur trust, collaboration, and accountability are needed now more than ever to confront current issues. The individuals who work with interpreters should be at the forefront of any decisions made: it is to be hoped that what results from these purposeful collaborations will contribute to change for the common good.
My ambition has always been to consider a holistic approach to mend real gaps, often unintentional ones, between the interpreting and Deaf communities. I propose, wholeheartedly and assuredly, that interpreters’ practices and approaches to their work be investigated using grassroots and bottom-up methods that progresses beyond the current status quo.
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Antonakis, J., & House, R. J. (2002). An analysis of the full-range leadership theory: The way forward. In B., Avolio, & F., Yammarino (Eds.), Transformational andcharismatic leadership: (pp. 3–33). Amsterdam: JAI Press.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership.New York: Harper & Row
Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?
The presentation covers the roles and values of social justice as key components in the interpreting field. Drawing on a transformational leadership style, sign language interpreters engage participants in new ways. The presentation will highlight issues which result from transactional leadership exchanges with marginalized individuals. The first will be the link between interpreters’ ability to reestablish connections with community members and Deaf individuals’ autonomy. The second will be to explore the roots for social justice as a means to build a community where people are no longer kept quiet.
Please take opportunity to dialogue with Dave on these topics prior to the event by submitting comments below.
Workshop | Transformational Leadership: Working Toward a Social Justice Model for Sign Language Interpreters
All sign language interpreters inhabit leadership positions of some kind in their work, regardless of whether these expressions of leadership readily meet traditional definitions. Interpreters acting on the basis of social justice, actively work on aligning themselves (as part of the interpreting community) with Deaf and hearing participants. Interpreters in this position can positively impact (e.g., bridge gaps, and enhance lives) individuals who possess two very different understandings of the world. Interpreters through a lens of social justice can learn how to become growth-oriented practitioners and leaders. Workshop participants will carry with them new skills. First, they will learn to identify undesirable practices and how to work toward adopting social justice skill sets that will leave them open to creative and courageous solutions. Second, they can inspire others to collaborate, and third, work toward dismantling systems of privilege and oppression while sustaining respect and trust of those they serve. As we move forward by positively impacting lives, let us realign our collective social justice values with Deaf community members and bring back interlocutors’ autonomy.