Daisy Garcia Montoya 
Education Reporter

KC Tenants is joining forces with local government and engaging community members in efforts to create and develop a new language access program in Kansas City.

The organization, composed of Kansas City tenants and homeowners working to ensure the right and access to safe, accessible, and permanently affordable housing for all people, regardless of their background, says language access is a human right and it is necessary to include the people who will use the program throughout the development process. 

Currently there is no comprehensive language access program integrated into the  local government in Kansas City, Missouri, leaving non-English speaking city residents without access to vital municipal services and out of the city’s democratic processes.

In Kansas City, Missouri, more than 57,000 people over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2022 American Community Survey.

During the summer of 2023, Mayor Pro Tem and 5th District Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw sponsored Resolution 235076 which was passed by City Council in July 2023, directing the City Manager to create a language access program for city residents.

It was then on October 17, 2023 that KC Tenants initiated a 6-week community engagement plan to gather data, engage in discourse with community members and consult with public institutions such as the Kansas City and North Kansas City School Districts, Public Library,  Health Department and the Mexican Consulate.

In conjunction with these goals, a survey was created and distributed to determine residents’ priorities for participating in and accessing the processes and services City Hall offers. The survey was distributed in Spanish, Arabic, Burmese, Somali, Bosnian, Swahili and English as they are the most commonly spoken languages in the area based on data from the census and school districts in Kansas City, Missouri, and North Kansas City Public Schools.

In addition to these six languages, KC Tenants received participation from people who speak 14 other different languages including Chinese, Chuukese, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Karen, Kibembe, Kirundi, Mixteco, Portuguese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Hakha Chin, a total of 21 different languages with room for more as the survey continues to receive responses. 

Although the campaign is focused on Kansas City, Missouri, the program will help people who may not live in Kansas City but work within the city limits. In addition, the zip code is being obtained from everyone who completes the survey to geographically map the results once the survey closes.

Aside from the survey, KC Tenants has organized public forums, with live interpretation, childcare and food, the latest having been held on Saturday, December 2 at the Kansas City Public Library – North-East branch, in collaboration with Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRRKC).

Itzel Vargas-Valenzuela, program coordinator with AIRRKC, an organization focused on empowering the immigrant community by providing resources and tools to better protect themselves, says collaborating with KC Tenants has been a topic of discussion since before this campaign began. 

“We always talked about a collaboration to increase outreach between the immigrant community and KC Tenants and grow outreach in the Northeast area and when this topic came up, we started collaborating,” Vargas-Valenzuela said. “We are always looking for new partnerships and it just made sense to collaborate because one of the big issues we face within immigration work is housing, due to their status, especially when we talk about  asylum seekers.”

Mary Allison Joseph, a leader with KC Tenants, said that both housing and language access issues are present among immigrants, but for undocumented individuals who do not speak English, these barriers are more significant and in turn, are the most affected population in the city. 

Because the issues are so intertwined, the AIRRKC team worked with KC Tenants to provide them with Know Your Rights training so that leaders with KC Tenants could learn more about the legal processes involving immigration, the various immigration statuses and issues to keep in mind while interacting with immigrant tenants.

Public Forum 

The public forum was attended by about 30 participants including 6th District Councilman Jonathan Duncan and Robert Sagastume, representative of Sub-district 3 of the Kansas City, Missouri Public School Board.

Information over the campaign was shared with participants as well as an envelope with a red paper they could use to communicate that they disagreed and a green paper to communicate that they agreed with what was being presented. 

Joseph and Vargas-Valenzuela took the lead during the presentation and began by explaining the levels of local government and what it can and cannot control. From there, the public forum became more interactive, encouraging participants to talk to each other regarding their own experiences. As part of the public forum, participants were asked to choose which services were the most important among the following: democratic and civic processes, parks, housing, taxes, labor, public health, water services, garbage collection, and streets. Among these choices, access to democratic and civic processes was the most important, housing second, and public health as the third most important. 

Participants were then asked to vote for their preference between talking on the phone, contacting online, or in person when seeking to interact with the city. Among those present, contacting the city online was the preferred way to engage with city services. Participants also had the opportunity to share their opinions, experiences, and difficulties regarding their interactions with the city. 

At the end of the forum, participants expressed their feelings of pride, hope and happiness for the campaign and for the opportunity to bring change to the city. “I am proud of everyone who is here to improve the community and to know that we have voices,” said one of the participants. 

“What’s next is that we will finish our survey and begin to process all the data from the public forums, surveys, one-on-one conversations, and create a series of policy recommendations to the city of Kansas City, Missouri,” Joseph said. “But before we present the recommendations, we will have another public event in January 2024, so that everyone who has been involved can have a chance to see the data and how the recommendations were made and be able to weigh in and vote on the recommendations.” 

KC Tenants will be working with the city manager and city staff to co-govern the campaign and ensure that the policy reflects the results of community engagement and can be jointly drafted. As part of co-governance, the city promoted the survey in its official communications to increase the number of participants and receive as much data as possible. The policy is expected to be introduced early next year. Vargas-Valenzuela says she hopes this campaign will send a message to the immigrant community to not be afraid to be involved and that the truth is that their voice does have an effect on policy.

“You can give your opinion regardless if you can vote or not. Fill out the survey, express your opinions, we are here. Many of us plan to be here for a while, regardless of our status, it’s our home, our city. It’s our community and we deserve to have access to all the things that everyone else has,” Vargas-Valenzuela said.

The survey closes on Sunday, December 10. To fill out the survey, visit: https://bit.ly/m/KCTLanguageAccess

To keep up with results and upcoming events, follow  KC Tenants and AIRRKC on Instagram by searching for: @KCTenants and airr_kc.