my coworker treats our Spanish-speaking clients more poorly than other clients

A reader writes:

I work in a church where we have an externally-facing social services office. Clients can get walk-in pantry food, but are required to make appointments for rent, utility, or clothing assistance. I work in internally-facing ministries, but am frequently called in to assist with our social worker with Spanish language clients.

I have reason to believe, through observations and conversations, that our social worker is actively harsher with Hispanic clients than anybody else. But today, I had a complaint directly given to me by a client that he suspects he’s being ignored based on the color of his skin. He tried to make an appointment in person, which my social worker said she would not accept before shutting her door on him and ignoring him. Upset, he asked for a Spanish speaker and I was called up, where he made his complaint. I asked her for more information about what was going on and she said simply “until he learns how to follow directions, I can’t help him.” There is no way to learn this rule of our scheduling system in Spanish, and I asked if there was some sort of workaround. She refused.

I have had other clients tell me that “the other guy worked better with us” (meaning the previous social worker) and that they only want to come into the building when I’m here, because they know they’ll be listened to. In times where I have worked side by side with this coworker, I’ve heard tones of exasperation with Spanish speaking clients and comments of “they just need to learn English, it’s the only way they’re going to get by.” I have offered to provide translations of important documents and she does not use them. Our separate transitional housing director has confided in me that city agencies regard our services office as particularly harsh and withholding.

What I’m struggling with is this: I feel like I need to do something, but I don’t know how or what. While theological issues might not exactly be the wheelhouse of AAM, company branding and image is, and I feel that at a minimum she is beginning to create a bad reputation for us in the community. More than that, I feel this attitude is directly contrary to our mission, theologically and ethically – definitely not WWJD. But as somebody who is her junior, works typically in a separate position, and somebody who is not a racial minority (the social worker is a minority), I am incredibly nervous about raising this as a concern. I don’t want to step into a messy issue about race. I also believe that our office is small enough that if this concern gets back to her, she will know it is me who started it, and she can be a little vindictive. We don’t have any sort of HR department. My supervisor that I would bring this to would be the (white) church pastor.

Any help?

Oh my goodness, please speak up. What’s she’s doing is awful and may be directly responsible for people not getting services that they really need. And aside from that, it’s just horrid.

This is serious enough that you shouldn’t try to address it with her yourself. You should go straight to your boss or her boss and tell them exactly what you’ve said here. Don’t pull any punches — clearly state that you have observed over time that she is significantly harsher and more rigid with Spanish-speaking clients than with other people, and that (a) you’ve seen her shut her door on Spanish speakers and ignore them, (b) she refuses to use the translated documents you’ve provided and has told you people just need to learn English, (c) clients have told you they don’t want to see her unless you’re there, and (d) you’ve been told other agencies regard your office as harsh and withholding.

Will there be blowback for you? Maybe. There might be. But you’re in a far better position to deal with that than the clients who are suffering from her mistreatment right now. You can also explicitly tell your boss that you’re concerned about that, and ask for her help in minimizing any vindictive response from your coworker. That is a normal thing for managers to have to handle. Different managers have different degrees of skill at doing it, of course, but it’s a reasonable thing to ask for.

And of course, if your coworker does handle it poorly, you can go back to your boss to talk about that.

This is all stuff your boss should be fielding — and that you absolutely 100% should not be fielding alone. But she needs to know about it in order to address it. Please speak up!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 275 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Oh, LW, I feel so awful for the people you serve and I am very glad they have you to speak up for them.

    1. Hills to die on*

      Please do speak up for them! You are their only voice. I’m so pissed for them right now. >:(

  2. Emi.*

    Oh my, this is terrible! Please do speak up–I’ll pray for grace and strength for you :)

  3. Marillenbaum*

    Oh ,dear. LW, Alison is right–you absolutely need to say something. Not only is this behavior morally objectionable, it means that your office is not effective, and working at a place that has this reputation could end up hurting you if you move into a different position within the same field. Best of luck.

  4. Sunshine Brite*

    Social workers have a Code of Ethics if they are licensed and a state board oversees their work. I guarantee that professional conduct is included in their by-laws as well as any oversight committees such as county contracts or human services that oversee the agency. Especially since she is commenting on them needing to learn English in such a way I would consider making a complaint to her licensing board to maintain the integrity of the profession.

    1. Hills to Die on*

      That would be a completely reasonable thing to do, IMO. She’s totally out of line.

    2. fidgetfingers*

      YESYESYES this is definitely violating all sorts of code of ethics principles. You know, respect, dignity for all persons, etc etc.

      Another thought that I know might be hard to pull off is to suggest that she sign up for a Spanish class (possibly the whole office should if there’s a large enough ELL population that this is a consistent issue). The point of this suggestion is not that she should try to learn Spanish (which wouldn’t hurt) but to show her how hard it is to learn a second language while also working and meeting other responsibilities. A couple years ago I was part of an academic group that taught elementary Spanish to head start teachers in a very rural area, and the main thing people learned was that it’s really hard to learn a new language, and we did actually hear from participants that they were a lot more empathetic and cooperative going forward!

      1. always in email jail*

        Wow, that’s a very interesting perspective that I would not have thought of- the fact that a language class can be used to remind people just how hard it is to learn a new language.

        1. LSP*

          Not to mention, a lot of these people may be trying to learn English, and she is just unaware of that.

        2. The Rat-Catcher*

          And English, I’m told, is significantly harder to learn than many other languages.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            English grammar is actually fairly simple, but it’s also significantly different than Latin languages. But English spelling, pronunciation and idioms are awful, just awful. I base this on my experience as one of the moderators on an English language forum.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              English grammar is simple right up until it massively, massively isn’t.

              1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                I used to love conjugating verbs in French class because the majority of them followed the same rules! English, on the other hand… OY

              2. Jayn*

                “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. It follows them into dark alleys, knocks them unconscious, and rifles through their pockets for loose grammar.”

              3. Mookie*

                Sometimes I’ll decline a noun or conjugate a verb in English for fun, and results just end up being a table reading “lol, nope.”

                So far as I can tell, the only advantage of English being the prevailing lingua franca is that Anglophones the world over are loud and numerous and English-language media is plentiful enough that the average non-speaker can immerse themselves in it almost anywhere.

              4. Kate H*

                I think what a lot of English-speaking adults don’t realize is how much of English grammar becomes entirely instinctive to us. Part of my job involves teaching kids to improve their reading and writing skills. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a kid ask me something and I *know* the answer but I don’t know *why.*

          2. Turtledove*

            A lot of this is because 1) English has a *lot* of loanwords, and 2) English, as a language, isn’t very closely related to most other languages that are in common use. (It’s sorta close to German and the Romance languages, but not as close as you’d think.) So there’s a lot of very non-intuitive parts to it, which makes it easy for someone who’s still learning it and is coming from French or Spanish to trip over bits that seem “obvious” to a native speaker.

          3. Jennifer Thneed*

            Wife of linguist here: every language is hard to learn, every language is equally complicated, but they put the complications in different areas. English has a LOT of vocabulary, but not much grammar. Other languages might use fewer separate words but distinguish them with tones. Or use very complicated grammar where word order is vastly important and types of words that aren’t verbs get “conjugated”.

            (Source: linguistics is fascinating, and I suggest books and podcasts by John McWhorter. He’ll explain my comment about ‘not much grammar’ – it has to do with England’s history of invasion and conquest in the centuries before the French even got there.)

            But any language is hard to learn as an adult. Non-related languages are probably trickier but the major thing is that children’s brains are built to learn languages and adults’ brains are not.

      2. I'd Rather not Say*

        The Continuing Education Division (non-credit classes) of our local Community College offers Spanish language classes for businesses, and will even do them on site if there’s a large enough group. This might be a resource if you decided to go in this direction.

      3. Not That Jane*

        Something I always try to remember, too, is that I’m a college-educated person who has successfully learned several languages, whereas many new immigrants I’ve worked with (mainly parents of my students) do not have a similar level of education and practice with learning a second language. Helps me stay compassionate when I’m frustrated with language barriers.

        1. Annonymouse*

          Also when you were learning those languages you had time and energy/mental space to devote to it.

          Now try doing that in a new country while trying to find a job, a place to live, figure out the rules and customs and possibly with a family to raise and provide for in that mix.

          Not gonna be easy.

          1. Cordelia Vorkosigan*

            This times a million. Day-to-day life is SO MUCH MORE TIRING when you’re living in a country where you are not a fluent speaker of the language. Even if you’re just sitting there listening, you’re working twice as hard mentally than anyone else involved in the conversation because of the language issue. It’s exhausting.

    3. she was a fast machine*

      Sadly, if this situation is anything like those I’m familiar with, the person in question might not actually be a licensed social worker, they might just have that unofficial title/job duties.

      1. A Social Worker*

        I was thinking the exact same thing…unfortunately, we social workers do not have title protection in many states and anyone can call themselves a social worker without having the appropriate education and license. Regardless, this is abhorrent behavior and needs to be addressed. I agree with contacting the licensing board if she is in fact a social worker, as this behavior goes directly against several principles in our Code of Ethics.

        1. The Rat-Catcher*

          It surprises me to hear that social workers don’t have title protections in many states! They do in mine, and I’m in a state that’s notoriously lax about things like that.

          1. A Social Worker*

            It’s something that our professional organization, NASW, has been lobbying for. It’s a huge issue not only for clients who may not know whether or not someone is licensed (non-licensed folks cannot go into private practice and accept insurance, but can work in agencies under the title “social worker”) but also for public perception of our profession. It’s very frustrating to read a headline that reads, “Social Worker Does Incredibly Unethical and Awful Thing to Client” and find out that the person is not, in fact, a social worker.

        2. Indoor Cat*

          Wait, seriously? That’s…that’s pretty messed up. I mean, I’ve had to work with social workers before when I was in a bad spot; if anyone can call themselves a social worker, how does a person who needs help know if they’re working with a legit pro or not?

          I mean, anyone who seeks the help of a social worker is in a vulnerable position; it’s easier to end up mistreated or manipulated when you have fewer options and are feeling desperate. Having to factor in, “Welp, this person could be legit, or she could be a total rando with no training or experience” is an unnecessary frustration.

          1. lazuli*

            At least in California, anyone can call themselves a “social worker” or “therapist” or “counselor,” but they need a license to call themselves “LCSW” or “Licensed Clinical Social Worker” or “Marriage and Family Therapist” or “Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor.” The term “social worker” would be considered a generic, if that makes sense.

          2. Matthew*

            Right! When a vulnerable person comes in for services, there’s a power dynamic that exist. The vulnerable person needs something that YOU have, as the “social worker” … I would encourage folks to be very clear about their roles and capabilities if they are not a licensed social worker.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Even if this is not a social worker ethics violation/situation, it is very likely a civil rights violation under federal law. And in most states, it would be a violation of their civil rights laws as well. Churches that provide social services or hold themselves out as social services agencies do not receive an exemption for failure to accommodate or appropriately serve individuals with limited English proficiency.

      Frankly, I am very close to shaking with rage, and I’m trying very hard to reign in my feelings about your coworker’s conduct. What she’s doing is so profoundly wrong, full stop. From the legal perspective (which is a very narrow framing of how horrid she’s behaving), she’s opening the Church up to the loss of state/federal grants, any license it may hold to act as a social service provider, and money damages. But regardless of the legal liability, this is such a vile and dehumanizing way to behave toward any human being, and it’s even more cruel when we’re talking about people in need of access to services. She is literally playing with their lives, and that behavior is unacceptable and contemptible.

      OP, please say something. I know it’s scary, and there very well may be backlash. But if you have any faith in the pastor, then you should disclose. And if not to him, consider making an anonymous whistleblower complaint using the church’s internal systems/rules, and to your local state/city civil rights agency or the feds. I hope the pastor will recognize that your coworker’s behavior not only jeopardizes the church’s relationship to its local Spanish-speaking community, it jeopardizes its relationship with regulators, other service-providing organizations, and decent people everywhere.


    These are vulnerable members of society being denied service from one of the only places they can look to for hope. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE speak up. ASAP.

    Use AAM’s script, but also add in the things about it being counter to your church’s mission. Make it clear that this isn’t just about the clients being denied service, because that is the main issue, but also how this reflects on the organization as a whole.

    Speak up as soon as possible. Be firm and professional. And please come back and let us know the outcome. We are all rooting for you.

    1. Noobtastic*

      Yes, this is really reflecting badly on your organization as a whole. “By their fruits shall ye know them,” and by THIS fruit, people are coming to know your church as un-Christian.

      SAY SO!

      Even Jesus got down to business when the temple was being defiled by money-lenders, and you can, too.

      1. Emi.*

        Now I’m picturing the LW turning over tables and shouting “MY FATHER’S HOUSE IS A HOUSE OF BILINGUAL DOCUMENTS!”

        1. teclatrans*


          I am feeling pretty upset over this letter, and it was lovely to get to laugh.

  6. LisaLee*

    I think you have two separate problems here actually.

    The first is that you have a coworker who won’t work with Hispanic people. That’s terrible and she should no longer be in her position if she can’t serve the people she was hired to.

    But the second is that your church, in general, hasn’t made itself accessible to Spanish speakers despite them apparently being a large population in your area. Why don’t you already have translated documents, or a scheduling system with a Spanish option? Spanish speakers shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of whatever social worker is working at your church at the moment to be able to access these basics. I know you’re junior and working in a different area, but is this something you can bring up to your pastor? Maybe putting Spanish resources in place would make it so you don’t have to drop your own work to translate as often.

    1. always in email jail*

      ^this. I’m sure, at the very least, there are volunteers out there who would be willing to assist with translating for clients when they’re working with the social worker. I know it’s not your place to fix, but I hope the organization will take a step back and look at this more broadly

      1. Lunch Meat*

        In fact, this is a great opportunity for your clients themselves to get involved and give back, since ideally they should be your partners in the community, not your objects of charity.

        1. my two cents*

          could be wrong here, but it sounds like OP has provided translated docs and the coworker will not use them.

          1. Dinosaur*

            Translation is a very different skill than being bilingual. If the coworker refused to use the translated documents because of worries about accuracy, that would be understandable and she should seek out professionally translated documents. That isn’t the case with this social worker, obviously, but I wanted to point out that there are valid reasons not to use translations from someone who isn’t a professional.

        2. Temperance*

          I realize that this is probably different since LW works at a church, but we generally try NOT to use community or family members as interpreters when working with non-English speakers. It’s more trustworthy to use an employee or professional, as they don’t have connections and aren’t inflicting their personal bias.

          1. VioletEMT*

            Agree. In healthcare, using family members to translate = HUGE no-no for a variety of reasons, not limited to privacy violations, coercion, and abuse.

            1. Noobtastic*

              I once had a “friend” translate for me, and he kept changing all the answers. I found out later, that basically he was holding one conversation with me and another with the other person, only interspersed with a lot of “He says,” and “She says,” that nobody ever actually said, except for him.

        3. BWooster*

          If people feel moved to do that it is a wonderful thing. But poverty can feel so overwhelming that honestly the only “should” these clients should be focusing on is getting themselves out of it. Society doles out much more to many more and the expectations should be placed there. It 8snt charity if the is an expectation that one should be expected to offer services for it. That is a job.

          1. "It's not FOR us if it's not WITH us"*

            I believe Lunch Meat is suggesting the ministry invite this participation, not require it.

            A nonprofit I’m involved in is actively working on the transition between “we do X work for Y people” and “our volunteer pool reflects the diversity and experiences of our participants, and our program is directed by their needs and their vision.” Explicitly inviting current and former participants to help shape our work is a crucial part of that.

    2. L.*

      I agree – unless OP was hired specifically to do Spanish translations and the like, the offending colleague is effectively pushing off a big chunk of her work onto OP at the expense of OP’s other duties, which is NOT COOL even without the ugly discriminatory side of it.

    3. Liane*

      It reads like OP has provided documents in Spanish, but they aren’t getting used.

      1. LisaLee*

        That’s true, but I don’t think that it should be up to the social worker to use them. They should be on the website/in the folder/wherever the English-language ones are and it should be institutional policy to offer them.

    4. Junior Dev*

      Yes. Frankly if this co-worker’s attitude is affecting the experience of clients in this way–they are discriminated against, they don’t get services they need–the organization is failing to do its job, both as a nonprofit and as a church. And if the organization is set up in such a way that a single individual can cause such a failure and keep her job, the dysfunction goes to the deepest level of the organization.

      I left non-profits for a number of reasons but one was that I was sick of other non-profit employees being nice to clients’ faces but talking bad about them behind their backs–they’re so lazy, if they’d just not have call phones they wouldn’t be poor, etc. I don’t remember anyone ever acting this cruel to a client directly.

      If I’m reading correctly, your co-worker has decided that people who don’t present themselves to her in in a way she personally approves of *don’t deserve to eat.* Even if she’s not directly denying them food aid (and she may have when you weren’t around to see it), she may be making them feel so unwelcome that they would rather go hungry in the future than be discriminated against again. If, when you escalate this higher in the organization, you’re met with a shrug or a refusal to do anything substantial, think long and hard about the sort of people you work for and if you want to continue working there.

    5. paul*

      yeah, that came out at me too. It sounds like there’s no way for Spanish speakers to schedule appointments over the phone, but they require that for some services?

      Looking at back end issues like that won’t solve bigotry but it’s a good step to streamline things for clients and the person’s replacement.

      1. Noobtastic*

        I read it as appointments have to be scheduled via computer, and thought that was ridiculous, because a lot of people who NEED these services do not have computers or the internet.

    6. Former Retail Manager*

      Came here to make your second point, precisely. And quite frankly, as a non-Spanish speaker who worked with that population for a very long time, translated documents alone aren’t likely to solve the problem. There is likely a great deal of back and forth, conversationally, that needs to occur between the social worker and the Hispanic clients to ensure their needs are fully met. A translated document that may answer basic questions just doesn’t cut it. It sounds to me like the organization needs a dedicated bilingual interpreter or social worker who is always available during set hours.

      And to be quite honest, I can sympathize with the social worker’s frustration. I felt the same on many days as well, but I always made an effort to try and help the person by either finding a Spanish speaker or using broken Spanish as best I could. But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that it got old fast and many times I wanted to do exactly what the co-worker is doing in this situation. The org needs to find a better way to serve this population.

    7. Elizabeth*

      It definitely seems like the next time that job gets posted, it would benefit from having a bilingual English/Spanish requirement included in the job description and duties.

    8. Artemesia*

      Local colleges might well have Spanish teachers who would love to have service projects for students in service-learninng where they might use their language to help translate documents.

      1. kms1025*

        To Artemesia: That is a wonderful idea!!! Also possibly organize a very basic ESL class???

  7. Non-profit manager*

    If you receive any type of Federal or state funding for the assistance you provide this is a Civil Right violation and your organization can and will face repercussions. Typically if you do not file a complaint you are seen as complicit. Please,please take this to your pastor!

    1. Magenta Sky*

      That was my thought, too. I wouldn’t be the rent on it as a religious organization, but whether it’s illegal or not, it could easily destroy the organization’s reputation.

      1. Observer*

        If there is government money, there is no getting around it. And if the org is large enough, then other Federal laws kick in. And, unlike other issues that can come up, there is no way to make this go away with a religious exemption.

      2. paul*

        I don’t know about criminal penalties, but I do know they’ll yank your grants for this sort of crap. We got a summer feeding site shut down after some complaints like this a few years ago; there’s a new partner in that area now that hasn’t had thsoe complaints (there was a few weeks where people in that area would have to go a few blocks further for services but I still think it was the right call)

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Assuming they receive federal financial assistance (which is extremely likely), they are probably not entitled to the religious exemption—that exemption generally does not apply to the non-religious, secular activities of a church or other religious organization. Delivering social services in the manner OP has described is usually considered a “secular purpose” and is covered by the (federal) Civil Rights Act.

    2. LJL*

      Absolutely! Many entities can distribute federal, state, or local funding. The behavior this social worker is showing can endanger that. Please do speak up…I will be praying.

    3. she was a fast machine*

      THIS. If they’re a food pantry then they likely have Civil Rights requirements(I know I took many trainings when I worked with food pantries) that explicitly forbid this kind of thing and can get the church in hot water; be sure to mention that to the pastor.

    4. Katiej*

      Even I feel there’s no federal money, I’m sure (at least, I hope), donors wouldn’t condone this.

      I know it’s been said 100x at this point, but OP, please speak up.

    5. Lalaroo*

      Yes. The specific law that would come into play is Ttle VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires all recipients of federal financial assistance to ensure equal access to services to people with Limited English Proficiency. It could also run afoul of the provisions not to discriminate based on national origin.

      1. Lalaroo*

        I should also mention that, while the government won’t fine you, you are open to complaints to your pass-through agency and/or the funding agency and possibly your state’s human rights commission, and civil lawsuits that can result in penalties.

        If you receive any federal funding, directly or indirectly, this is very, very serious for the organization.

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      It’s a massive civil rights violation, and it can easily get you decertified as a provider or invite federal/state enforcement—this is so egregious that it’s likely illegal under most states’ civil rights laws, even if it does not violate Title VI (e.g., if the church does not receive federal funds).

      1. MK*

        Following up on all of this – if the food pantry is distributing USDA Foods through TEFAP, or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), or helping people access other federal nutrition benefits,
        you or the client can (and should) file a discrimination complaint through the USDA. Here is the link for the complaint form:

        If you are receiving/distributing other forms of federal assistance through other federal agencies other than USDA, I am sure they have a similar complaint process. There is likely a poster in the receiving area that gives the info on how to submit a complaint.

  8. L.*

    Oooof. Kudos to you OP for noticing and resolving to take action. I also wonder if the offending worker’s actions might be illegal — discrimination based on race/national origin seems pretty obvious from OP’s telling. While the Church has latitude on that because they are a private institution, they still are probably subject to those rules if they’re administering public assistance (i.e. from state and federal resources.) I’d suggest researching that and, if it proves out, raising with the pastor that this person’s actions could put the church in legal or financial jeopardy (should the public sources decide to yank funds.)

  9. paul*

    When you say social worker are you using it in the vernacular sense or is she actually a LMSW or LCSW employed by the church? This matters.

    I really don’t see an ethical option except to go to your boss. If she is LCSW or LMSW, find out your state’s regulatory body and file a complaint as well (this stuff varies *hugely* by state, but I’d hope allegations like this could get her in trouble).

    Also, you mentioned that you have a director of transitional housing; does she have *any* influence over that and does it get any sort of HUD funding? Does whatever department she’s with get any state or federal funding at all? If so, this can open up your organization to some pretty real pain (mostly in the form of having their grants yanked). I’m the sort to get angry enough about this to go scorched earth, and I’d consider notifying funding agencies if they won’t address her behavior.

  10. Green*

    Please speak up. I doubt the consequences will be awful for you (other than maybe she being rude). But even if there are, there are times where it’s worth it to do the right thing.

    You are the only path for the victims of her discrimination to make your organization better.

  11. Chickia*

    I agree with the advice that you do need to say something, but please be prepared for the possibility of blowback. In my experience, church offices can be very . . . unprofessional places to work. Meaning that, there’s often no HR in place, often a loose chain of command, and usually you have to be a church member to work there so your “standing” in the church community, or relationship with church elders & deacons can give a certain person more authority in a job situation then you’d think. And the people who end up as “managers” don’t usually have any actual management training so they don’t do the normal procedures when brought an issue (they might not document & council, they might take it personally, etc)

    So, yes, please bring this up! But be careful about how you do it, and proceed carefully if you think you will get fired over it (and especially if you can’t afford to get fired over it). Good luck, because that behavior is absolutely terrible and I hope your whole church community is horrified over it and takes action!

    1. Clumsy Clara*

      I thought this as well. In my experience, some pastors/ministers have poor management skills, and are conflict-averse when it comes to staff. I hope OP’s pastor will handle this appropriately!

    2. KWu*

      I agree with this. Speaking up is the right thing to do, and I really really hope you don’t have to personally suffer for doing the right thing, but it’s probably smart to consider and prepare for that possibility.

    3. NoMoreMrFixit*

      Sad but true. If your church is part of a larger group such as Catholic or Anglican you might have to escalate matters to the bishop/regional dean or other appropriate authority if your minister fails to act on this.

      Sorry you’re having to deal with this but even churches are not immune to human failings.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If this is the case for OP’s workplace, then I think she should consider submitting a private complaint to a regulatory body (i.e., either HHS for the feds, or whatever the analogous civil rights agency is for her state/city). This kind of complaint would fall within the scope of most whistleblower reporting laws.

  12. Chickia*

    Another option for taking action might be to help facilitate an actual complaint (or several) by the people you are helping when you find out about it? You could offer to help them make a complaint to the pastor, (translating it or offering to set up a meeting) and then you would have cover for reporting it, since it’s not coming from you directly.

  13. Letter writer*

    Hello all – I am the letter writer and I did want to provide an update that literally happened this morning. I first want to say a huge thank you for taking on this question and lighting a fire under my feet about it.

    After writing this letter I kept mulling it over (I sat in my office too upset to focus) and talking with a mentor, I did what felt like a middle ground option I could take in that moment – I wrote an anonymous email. I didn’t want to let it just fade away, but I didn’t want to risk outing myself in anyway at that time – and my boss was out, so I just did it. I presented myself as somebody who works with some clients who was getting remarks about harshness towards Spanish speakers, and specifically the one that prompted this letter. I laid out my concerns. Was it my most courageous moment? Not at all.

    But it did get to my boss, who came to speak with me this morning about my interactions with social worker as a translator. I told them specifically about this incident, and the other issues I laid out above, as well as some suggestions about how to improve our phone tree and outreach systems in Spanish as well as the other languages spoken around here. My boss was very concerned about it as well, and promised to not associate me with the complaint – which was a great relief. This coworker definitely scares me off.

    Their follow-up can be not so great, so your answer and the kind comments I’ve seen here are a good reminder that I need to keep them on it. I don’t want my faith and my place of work misrepresented in this way, and I don’t want any people turned away from what they need and came to find.

    1. paul*

      You mentioned you’re getting comments from clients; if your agency has a documented complaint process, try to start having them use that as well. it’ll keep the issue from fading.

      Hell, you said your city’s transitional housing office doesn’t like your organization and told you so; when something like that happens, let them know the complaint process for your agency.

      Keep some coals smouldering under their asses basically.

      And I wasn’t kidding about funding agencies; if they’re getting any HUD money, any partnerships with your states Health and Human Services agency or it’s equivalent, participating with the USDA’s summer food program, whatever…*anything* that your clients get that she’s involved with…learn their complaint process for partner agencies, they’ll all have one. If this situation isn’t addressed it is *very* appropriate to escalate. When you do that though, I’d start looking at new employment. Whistleblower protections are….less than stellar in a lot of cases.

      1. Green*

        Absolutely, but I’d be aware that people who are vulnerable are likely to be wary of drawing attention to themselves or using “official” processes. This may be a situation where OP has to speak for others.

        1. paul*

          Oh, I know, but complaints coming in from multiple sources is going to have a better chance of success. It also helps divert some/most of the focus off the letter writer (particularly when you’re getting other agencies complaining). Then it’s not “Oh, the admin is complaining about the LSMW” it’s “We’ve got 3 client complaints and the city’s mad at us because of her, and holy crap HUD’s notifying us of problems”.

          *If* it’s doable it’s worth doing.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          In that case, it may be worth referring them to Legal Aid to prepare the complaints on their behalf. This doesn’t solve the fear of institutions that can come from populations that are particularly vulnerable (esp. if they are undocumented), but it may make the process less scary for them if they have an attorney backing them up or taking the brunt of the bureaucratic frustration of “official” complaint processes.

      2. Willis*

        If they’re getting HUD money from the city and there’s someone at the transitional housing office who’s already aware of the issue, the city really wouldn’t need to go through the agency’s complaint process. Whoever is managing grant compliance at the City should address this directly and immediately with the church! (Really, the transitional housing office probably should either way, no need to wait for a complaint process.)

    2. Typhoid Mary*

      LW, I’m a Spanish-speaking LCSW-A who has worked at a couple different non-profits. I just wanted to say that I am so glad your leadership is being responsible, and I am glad you are moderating your expectations.

      I hope you know that in the event that your boss and the organization let you down–it’s happened to me more often than not–that you are still providing a valuable service, and I hope you continue to speak out when you see this kind of thing happening.

      Thanks for fighting the good fight!

    3. Liane*

      I think you have done good so far. You’re on the right path, just keep going. I am pulling for you, in prayer too.

    4. Hills to Die on*

      Hey, it got the job done so good for you! Please give us another update.

    5. AnotherHRPro*

      Letter Writer – I am so glad that you made a complaint (even autonomously) and that your boss is taking it seriously. You observed behavior that is potentially discriminatory and you received a compliant from a client. Either of these are enough to warrant you raising this issue. I know it can be scary to do something like this, but it is needed as without people like you speaking up, change won’t happen. Thank you for doing something. And if your co-worker retaliates against you in anyway (as she may figure out you talked to your boss about this) please follow up with your boss about that behavior as well. Good luck.

    6. The Supreme Troll*

      Please do not worry about possibly giving an appearance of stirring racial issues, since I noticed that was one of your concerns in the letter above to Alison. The social worker could be displaying signs of racism (or classicism), but, nonetheless, it is irrelevant, because what she is showing is a complete lack of ethics and human decency. And that would apply if it was directed to Caucasians, African-Americans, Asian Americans, or Native Americans. It is unacceptable and needs to be stopped immediately.

      I appreciate your courage and thoughtfulness, though. Your care and concern will guide you, even if you might encounter tension with your co-worker. Please pay no attention to it, because that church needs more people like you.

    7. Important Moi*

      “Was it my most courageous moment? Not at all.” Yes it was.

      Everyone doesn’t have to courageous in exactly the same way. You let your superior know what was happening and something is being done to address the situation.

        1. HRJeanne*

          And when he did come to you, you were honest and explained all that you had experienced. You are brave!

        2. SebbyGrrl*

          You had to take a second step (step 1, writing AAM), and you did the safest way you could = totally brave!

      1. Noobtastic*

        Yes. Courageous doesn’t have to mean foolhardy, too. You saw a need, and you stepped up to deal with it. You also saw a risk, and did something to mitigate that risk.

        If you had been a coward, you would not have done anything.

        No, you’re good here, LW.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes. Isn’t there a saying about doing something because it is right, even in the face of danger or fear? Whether that is anonymous or not, OP got the process rolling by doing the right thing (albeit a very difficult thing) and then speaking honestly about her observations face-to-face with the pastor. That’s pretty brave/courageous.

    8. hayling*

      I think this was a great middle ground! And the result was that it opened a conversation between you and your boss. I wouldn’t classify this as being not courageous—you were protecting yourself.

    9. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      You’re doing the absolute best you can while looking out for others and keeping their best interests in mind. You’re a truly good and decent person. I don’t have any advice but am cheering you on!

      (Just want to also say that your post and update are a reminder that there are so many good people everywhere. We only see the bad sometimes, so your letter is also lifting people’s spirits and reminding others that is still a lot of compassion and decency in this world. So, thank you for that!)

      1. LJL*

        I normally abhor anonymous letters/complaints, but in this case I think it was the wisest choice for both your employment and your service to the Spanish speakers. Nicely done. Continued prayers for the situations.

    10. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      I disagree. You were courageous in that moment. To quote FDR: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

    11. Colorado*

      I wonder if he did know it was you. You did good OP. Keep up the good work and give us an update.

    12. Bess*

      Great job for speaking up (even anonymously is scary!)–this was upsetting to read and I’m so glad there are other people at your church who take it seriously!

      In terms of general education at your church–not sure what denomination you are, but are you familiar with the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators? I explored working for them YEARS ago as a translator, and while I have some issues with some of their stances & how they operate as an organization, they have done amazing work preserving and documenting languages that would otherwise have gone extinct, and translating materials into those languages. They might be useful to contact if you want to educate your church more generally on why people’s first languages are important, how hard it is to acquire a second or third language later in life, and how you just understand things differently in your first language. It is absolutely a gesture of love and grace to speak to someone in their own language, but at least in the US we have this weird narrative where someone who is 65 and only speaks their first language isn’t working “hard enough” or whatever.

      This might go a long way toward building understanding and creating real change, even if not specifically for the social worker you wrote in about.

  14. Willis*

    A little off topic but something stuck out about the headline and some wording in the letter…The coworker treats Spanish-speaking clients “more poorly” and is “actively harsher” with them. It kinda sounds like at best she is treating clients poorly and speaking to them harshly, even in English! Hopefully OP will say something, because she’s exactly right that this kind of attitude is likely not what the church would want for outreach to the community.

  15. Anonymous Prime*

    As a white church pastor, I’m going to say please please speak up! I would absolutely want to know about this.

    It is common for folks serving really, really needy people day in and day out to begin to experience compassion fatigue. It is exhausting to keep applying band-aid after band-aid to hemorrhaging legs that are starting to look gangrenous. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. One of the symptoms of this is to develop a weird rigidity around rules, as though following the rules were more important than carrying out the mission, and treating clients who require more than minimal effort as a bother. It’s not okay, for anyone, particularly when it leads to a racially biased result.

    By alerting her boss to these symptoms, you are not only helping your clients and protecting the reputation of your church (and the Church universal, and Jesus), you are also helping your co-worker recognize that now is a time when she needs help managing that fatigue in such a way that does not harm your clients.

    1. paul*

      Compassion fatigue is one thing, racial biases like this are a whole separate ball of wax.

      1. Stephanie the Great*

        I really don’t think this is what A Prime was trying to say. I think his point was more like it’s probably a crappy combination of the two — being racist and compassion-fatigued results in even worse service for the group the individual is targeting.

    2. Junior Dev*

      I’m a white person who has worked in non-profits and while it’s great you’re being compassionate, I think she’s just a bigot. When normal people experience compassionate fatigue, they may express it in weird ways, but regardless of what she’s personally experiencing, she’s choosing to express it by treating people differently based on their race and/or perceived national origin. That’s not a reaction to stress I think we should be normalizing or making excuses for.

      If this comes off as harsh it’s because I’ve had some very bad experiences with compassion being the framework under which evil acts are excused. I’ve experienced it personally as a white woman who has been harassed and abused and had people put “compassion” for my abusers at a higher priority level than my safety. And I know people of color experience this a lot when people make excuses for racism by sympathizing more with the perpetrator of the racist act than with the victims.

      I mean, on a certain level it is great to have compassion for all people, but I have seen far too many examples of that translating to “compassion for the perpetrator of evil at the expense of holding them accountable or protecting vulnerable people from harm.”

      1. strawberries and raspberries*

        I’m a recently-graduated license-pending white social worker, and I was going to say something very similar- what this social worker needs is anti-oppression based professional development that will get to her examine why she has so much hostility and resentment towards Spanish speakers such that she openly treats them differently than English speakers. Compassion fatigue is real, but someone who’s slamming her door in peoples’ faces for not speaking the way she feels comfortable and openly complaining about how they should just learn English doesn’t need to be coddled and cooed at and encouraged to practice self-care.

        And maybe this is my own bias, because I’m not a Christian, but the idea that we should eschew difficult conversations about discrimination and internalized oppression in favor of being “compassionate” strikes me as foolish and dangerous.

        1. Alex the Alchemist*

          I agree completely. Avoiding difficult conversations isn’t being “compassionate.” You’re right, it’s foolish and dangerous. From my own Christian perspective, I think it’s much more compassionate to have those conversations and I find it appalling that more churches aren’t willing to do that. To me, not holding people accountable for their words and actions that actively harm people is one of the least compassionate things you can do. It allows them to continue hurting people, and it also means that your opinion of them is such that you think they are incapable of being a good person.

        2. Stephanie the Great*

          Generally speaking I agree with the potential need to have an anti-oppression development opportunity for this social worker, but I would say that LW’s organization would want to tread carefully here to avoid “whitesplaining” racism to the social worker, who is also a minority. Inter-POC racism and classism is a super complicated subject, and it’s not really one where white people are super-welcome (for a number of good reasons). Like I said, I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that it’s a delicate subject when you get into one race being discriminatory towards another race, especially when class and citizenship are also in play.

          1. Vin Packer*

            Yeah, this. It’s a good idea for white people in general to do more listening than talking when it comes to racially charged interactions among non-white people; the LW’s instincts in this regard were good.

            Whether the SW is experiencing compassion fatigue or is a bigot doesn’t really matter in terms of what needs to happen (the SW removed, really, but at the very least reprimanded/put on notice), but it makes a difference in terms of helping the LW consider that advocacy/activism doesn’t always have to look like “calling out” to be meaningful, and that her speaking up doesn’t necessarily pit anybody against anybody else, but rather opens up the possibility of a better future for everyone involved, including the SW who has likely been on the receiving end of racism herself.

          2. paul*

            The fact that she’s a minority isn’t really relevant here, frankly. She’s being discriminatory, and it needs to stop. The employer doesn’t have to unpack untold amounts of cultural baggage; it does have to protect their clients.

            1. Stephanie the Great*

              Nope. Noooo. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, sir. It’s entirely relevant. Discrimination does not happen in a vacuum, and the way you approach someone who is white engaging in racism is definitely not the same way you approach someone who is of a minority group and is engaging in discrimination against someone of another minority group — of their own race or another, ESPECIALLY as a white person.

              1. paul*

                Have fun explaining that to whatever federal or state agencies are funding your grants if/when they get wind of this.

                If you don’t want to terminate for cause, approach them with specific examples, tell them those aren’t OK, explain why, and tell her that she needs to stop. If she doesn’t, terminate her.

                The whys of her actions aren’t particularly relevant from an outcomes standpoint, and the outcome the clients and the agency both need is for this person not to discriminate against a section of the client base.

                You can’t, ethically or legally, allow a social worker to discriminate against her clients like this, and the fact that she’s *also* a POC doesn’t change that.

              2. Emi.*

                I don’t think it’s relevant to what her boss should do, though. Her boss needs to say “Cut this out, right now, or you’re fired.” The complexities of inter-minority prejudice don’t enter into her performance management.

              3. Turtle Candle*

                I am… a little confused by this. I am white. I am shortly going to have my first direct reports; of them, a couple are not white, and are not of the same ethnicity as one another. One is from a country that historically oppressed the other. (I am deliberately not spelling out the countries/ethnicities in an attempt to not derail spectacularly or get into specific arguments about the nations involved, but suffice to say that I am white, neither of them are white, and they come from countries with fraught histories with each other.)

                Based on what I know of them, I suspect that this is not going to be an issue with these people, who get along very well. But if one of them was mistreating another along clearly ethnic lines, would it be wrong for me to intervene? If one of my white colleagues noticed one of them mistreating the other along clearly ethnic lines, would that be wrong for them to bring to me?

                And, I suppose, getting down to the issue, if I should address one of my nonwhite colleagues mistreating another differently than I would a white colleague mistreating a nonwhite person, how would you suggest I do it? What is the script there? Or do I just let them do it?

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  (By “a couple” I meant “two,” not “a romantic couple,” since I realize that that can be unclear.)

                2. paul*

                  Yeah, that’s kind of where I fall on this.

                  In a broader cultural context I’m really not going to disagree, but when it comes to handling workplace issues like this, managers need to step up and manage, regardless of what race they are. And this goes doubly true when it’s demonstrably impacting a vulnerable population.

                  I’ve been the victim of violent crimes; some of our clients have committed violent crimes. If I can’t handle them professionally I can’t do my job. My issues there are mine to work through. My employer wouldn’t be under an obligation to keep me on if I was screwing with them. Same goes here.

                3. paul*

                  and I feel like the side track about POC vs POC racism not being an area where white voices are welcome is kind of a side track and irrelevant here tbh. She’s engaging in plainly and clearly discriminatory behaviors; address those.

                  That doesn’t involve solving all racial inequality or a heart to hear about why she feels the way she does because those just aren’t really relevant here. The behavior’s not acceptable regardless of the reason.

          3. Free Meerkats (formerly Gene)*

            It may be delicate, but this isn’t explaining racism/classism to the SW, this is “you are treating people of a certain race/class differently than other races/classes, and that needs to stop now.”

            And in my mind, saying a white person can’t bring up something like this is just another way of saying POC can’t be racist because, reasons.

            A racist is a racist, no matter what their race, creed, religion, or culture. And they need to be called out every time possible.

            1. Yogi Josephina*

              “because, reasons.”

              Those “reasons” are actually extremely relevant. No, POC cannot be racist. They can be prejudiced, they can be discriminatory (and quite frankly, when directed at white people, it’s justified – it’s perfectly fine to be wary of a certain group in power that’s systemically greatly harmed you throughout the centuries), but they can’t be racist. You need institutionalized power for that, and POC just don’t have it.

              The truth is, she can have whatever personal prejudices she wants, but at work, she needs to leave them at the door. That’s true no matter WHAT race she’s dealing with. It’s just basic professionalism. That’s the angle LW needs to approach this from; the SW is not behaving professionally.

              I agree that she can say, “your behavior is not acceptable for our organization and must change,” but as a white person, she REALLY should avoid getting into the nitty gritty details of it. If the SW tries to fight or engage, she just keeps repeating, “treating someone differently because of their race/ethnicity/language is not tolerated in this workplace. We will need you to stop, or let you go. Can you do that?”

              1. Turtle Candle*

                Although it can be considerably more complicated than that. I have had two very complex and interesting conversations with people who are not from the United States that influenced my feeling on this. One was from a visitor from our Chinese office, who pointed out that his potential discrimination (as a member of the Han Chinese ethnic group) against other Chinese people (members of other ethnic groups) was very real and very much racism even if white people saw them all as “Asian,” because in the country where they both live, he is the one with extremely potent systemic power and they are not; their conceptions of race are not the same as ours; he said that saying that he couldn’t be racist was essentially an act of American imperialism in and of itself. He was very clear on this point.

                And on the flip side, a coworker of mine from Eastern Europe who noted that the “white” vs. “POC” thing is also very American, because in Europe it’s extremely common for there to be racism of the prejudice+power nature by Germanic peoples against Slavic peoples.

                As I mentioned elsewhere, I will soon have a few nonwhite direct reports, and at least one of them is a Han Chinese man from China. And so I am extremely aware of the conversations I’ve had, and the problems of viewing all interracial/inter-ethnic disputes through a purely American lens.

                1. Bryce*

                  I had one Facebook thread a while back where someone from Turkey was confused why everyone here seemed to shy away from calling themselves white, and he was proud to be white. That one had a lot of cultural unpacking.

              2. Gaia*

                It is really, really not this simple and trying to simplify it in this manner is part of the problem we have. POC can be racist, it really depends on specific contexts. There is such a thing as inter-minority racism due to the institutionalized “class” system which ranks minorities. And that doesn’t even get into countries where white people are not in the majority and not in a position of power.

              3. Anon For This*

                I’m not trying to be awful here, but I want to unpick your comment, especially the two points I disagree with. Namely:
                -a POC cannot be racist, because they are not the ones with the power – this woman is in a position of power compared to the people who seek out these services. Ergo, she *is* being racist. It’s like the kid who’s bullied at school, and goes home to bully their younger sibling.
                -it’s perfectly fine to discriminate against white people, because they’ve done this to POC over centuries – well, I’m white, and I am starting to understand the priviledge I have that others don’t, but I sure as hell don’t discriminate or oppress anyone, and I do resent being made to feel bad because I share a skin colour with some people who are jerks. I feel that society as a whole is getting more divisive with the internet, not less, and comments like this make me uneasy in a way I can’t clearly articulate or explain.

                1. Oranges*

                  I think it’s because white idiots are shouting about “reverse discrimination”. Really we need a different words for the two (plus) flavors of racism.

                  1) The personal racism. The belief that PoC’s are somehow less than people who have less melanin. Or not magically learning a new language overnight.

                  2) The inherited racism. The sea of racism that we don’t notice because it’s “normal”.

                  3) Institutionalized racism. How society is set up to continue to keep PoCs down.

                  So co-worker IS showing #1 which some people call “discrimination” and only crosses into “racism” when the the discrimination follows along #2 or #3.

                  Also, since I am white I do expect that I am viewed as a person-to-fear by people who have had bad experiences with other white people. I do wish to point out in my society that’s going to be a giant sliding scale from Uber-traumatized to lightly-traumatized. I am saddened by this but my sadness in no way shape or form trumps their need to feel safe.

                  I think the internet is just giving voices to frightened people. They’re trying to explain their world to me. Using the words they have. I try to listen. I’m not perfect. I will eff up but, people usually know when you’re trying and will 99.99999% of the time cut you slack.

                  The ones that don’t, well, they’re either assholes or uber-taumatized (or both) and my need to not feel bad about my privileges (white-guilt) is always always always secondary to their need to be heard, or to ignore me, or to correct me when it comes to their lived experiences in a racist society.

        3. TootsNYC*

          I *am* a Christian, and I believe that it IS compassionate to have those difficult conversations.

          There’s a false narrative that one is only compassionate when one doesn’t criticize people. I reject that–Christianity rejects that, if one actually reads the Bible.

          It is true that one should take care of the log in one’s own eye first, but there is a strong call to influence one another to be better.

          In other words, “What Alex the Alchemist said.”

          Add to it–it is not good for the heart and soul of the person who is behaving badly; acting in mean ways damages them. They know they’re wrong, and they keep doing it, which twists them. And it eats away at the core of their faith, and helps it to become some meaningless club membership instead of a living, muscular service to the Lord.

      2. Anonymous Prime*

        To be clear: I completely agree. The co-worker’s treatment of these clients is 100% unacceptable. My comment was an attempt to help the OP understand that by alerting her boss, she is also helping her co-worker, even though the co-worker may not feel as though that’s the case. I’m not suggesting that compassion for this co-worker should come before taking care of clients; I’m saying that alerting the OP’s boss to the problems is both best for clients (the most important goal) but will also, in the long run, help the co-worker (a less important, but still present, goal). Since she expressed hesitance in the letter, I thought this might help. I see from her update above it’s not needed.

      3. Artemesia*

        This happens in schools a lot with abusive bullies getting a lot more understanding than their victors.

    3. Tuckerman*

      This is a good p0int. The compassion fatigue sounds similar to general customer service fatigue. It’s easy to handle transactions with people who speak English well, and who are pleasant, sharp, and prepared. It can be exhausting to work with people who have trouble understanding or processing information due to a variety of factors (cognitive decline, disability, limited English skills), who may need things repeated or restated several times. Furthermore, because of their difficulty communicating, some of these customers/clients may be frustrated and rude as well.
      People who may be patient and compassionate in other circumstances might resort to rigidity to justify not dealing with these more difficult transactions (“I didn’t turn her away because she’s Hispanic, I turned her away because she didn’t fill out the necessary forms.”) I agree the co-worker needs additional support, and it needs to be pointed out to her that her behavior is disproportionately affecting marginalized groups. Who knows, maybe she won’t care and needs to be fired. But it’s possible she’ll be horrified and motivated to manage that fatigue to improve her customer service.

    4. Nisie*

      I’m fixing to move to another state with my family and I realized something wonderful- I can afford to have a broken heart again. I’ll take a break from social services and seeing kids who were rejected by parents won’t happen on a day to day basis.

      And when I’ve recovered from burn out,

    5. Jesmlet*

      It could be that she’s taking her compassion fatigue and letting loose on the people who frustrate her the most as their communication issues probably are very difficult for her, or it could be that she’s letting her political views overtake her code of ethics. Unfortunately as someone who volunteers in a Catholic church, I do regularly hear parishioners express anti-immigrant views (illegal or otherwise).

      Either way, her actions are unacceptable. She needs to either address this or find a new field to work in.

    6. TootsNYC*

      Whether it’s bigotry or compassion fatigue, what’s happening in the coworker’s heart and soul is not good for her, spiritually.

      Letting her get away with this is very, very bad for her, spiritually. And bringing it to light, reaching out, making sure it stops, is important for HER sake.

      Being an asshole to people is damaging to your own psyche–she’s living with that. And living with nastiness instead of love toward others has to be eating away at the foundation of her faith.

      Our OP doesn’t do this woman any favors by not speaking up. And now that the OP has gotten things started, making sure they keep going is an important service of love to this woman as well.

      The well-being of her victims is most important, but fortunately it’s not that difficult to serve her as a side-effect of helping her victims.

      (I always shake my head at the simple reassignment of pedophile priests, and the accompanying claim that the church has an obligation to serve those men. If the church were truly concerned about those men, it would move heaven and earth to prevent them from being placed in temptation’s way, in order to protect them from their own weakness. You don’t stand by and watch a fellow believer place his or her immortal soul in jeopardy.)

    7. Temperance*

      I think that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with rules enforcing, especially if you run a charity or org that provides free services. I do think that it’s a problem if you serve Spanish-speakers and don’t make materials available to them that explain how to access the services.

      Not following proper protocol can put a charity’s tax-exempt status at risk. Of course the risk isn’t the same for churches, who are under a different piece of the tax code and basically have carte blanche on many things that charities do not.

      I don’t know whether this person is going through compassion fatigue or not, but it frankly doesn’t matter. I totally get that working with people who speak languages other than English can be difficult when you don’t speak them yourself and you’re resource limited so Language Line is out of the budget. That doesn’t make it okay to treat people badly.

      1. paul*

        The last paragraph leads to an interesting question Iv’e thankfully never had to actually handle (since we have language line services):

        What do you do witha total language barrier? It’s easy to say get someone that speaks X language on staff, but we have (and I’m just pulling the biggest few populations here) Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarian Chinese, Tagalog, German, French, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Arabic, Pashtun, Cantonese, Russian, Swahili…and god knows how many other languages among our client base and in our community (and we’re not a really major metro!).

        A small agency that’s resource limited isn’t going to have all those languages on staff, so what do they do?

        1. Anna*

          They find a company or organization that provides interpretation services, either over the phone (less expensive) or in person and look at how much it is to hire them on an as-needed basis compared to a contract to provide those services regularly.

          I would hazard that even if there isn’t a company in your city precisely, there’s a company in the US you can hire for video conference meetings or conference calls to translate.

          1. paul*

            My question is about smaller organizations where that may not be financially viable; these services are *expensive*; we annually spend in the high 4 to mid 5 figures range on our language line, but I don’t the CPM rate.

          1. SarahTheEntwife*

            If it’s something very simple and very straightforward, yes, but if it’s something like explaining tenant’s rights, that can go downhill very quickly.

          2. TootsNYC*

            I’ve also realized, they need to be literate in their OWN language.

            If they’ve never learned to read in their own language (as someone downstream mentioned), then that won’t help.

            Maybe you can find a computer program that will pronounce the words in addition to displaying them on the screen, but as was pointed out, there will be drawbacks. Better than absolutely nothing, of course, but not ideal.

        2. Parenthetically*

          In a library setting, I’ve had good results occasionally using google translate. I can muddle my way through simple Spanish but it helped with Russian and Chinese. I think once there was a language we couldn’t find – something African – and sometimes if I was unsure of the language I would show the patron the list so they could pick the correct one. (This only works with people who are literate in their language, but it could work if you recognize the language even with someone who couldn’t read.)

        3. Sal*

          I used to be a public defender. Formally, we had a telephone-based interpreting service. I would use that with clients on the phone and occasionally in the office (via speakerphone). On at least one occasion, I used it via my cell and speakerphone in a courthouse hallway. (Took forever, ye gods.) Usually, in the courthouse we had access to live interpreters, but if the language was unusual, you could be in for a wait (especially if the interpeter on duty was at a different courthouse). Other times you’d call for a language, figure it would take a long time, and then boom, Fuzhou or Urdu or Polish interpreter comes in 5 minutes later. (Then you got to skip ahead in the line to get your case called. Fist-pump.)
          Informally, and for quick stuff, Google Translate on my phone. Thanks, Google.
          For my deaf client, it was often faster just to write stuff down rather than calling for the ASL interpreter, who would sometimes be in another part of the city and would take several hours to arrive to our court.
          I tried not to use family members but sometimes needed to. Same for coworkers who were fluent or near-fluent.
          There was one case I can think of where everyone was totally flummoxed. The prospective client, who came in as a John Doe, appeared to be deaf and not literate in English or possibly any other language. The ASL interpreter got nowhere. She thought he might know sign language based on another language, but not ASL, and she couldn’t tell what language it might have been. The assigned public defender couldn’t figure out how to interview him; when she showed him a cell phone to see if he knew a phone number to call, he just kept pointing at the star key. IIRC, that guy stayed in lock-up perhaps twice as long (if not longer) than was usual, just because no one could figure out how to explain the charges to him and get him arraigned–not our office, not the prosecutor, not the judge or the clerk or the interpreters’ office. I think there was some speculation that he had recently been released from a hospital. It was a MESS and I have no idea what eventually happened.

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            Writing when you’re face to face with a Deaf person is horrible.

            It’s also an ADA violation not to provide qualified interpreters.

            1. Gaia*

              I think it really depends. The client may prefer to have the information quickly rather than wait for the interpreter to arrive.

              Some Deaf people may not like someone writing to them. My family member wouldn’t mind so long as it was occasional and made sense in the moment.

          2. Broke Law Student*

            I did some public defense work in school, and we almost had a client forced to spend the night in jail because of a lack of a competent interpreter. We were arguing that he shouldn’t even be arraigned based on the facts, but the judge basically said that he could either be arraigned and released on personal recog, or spend the night in jail–but we had no interpreter to explain that to him. Our supervisor actually had to get involved and explain that she wasn’t going to waive our client’s right to understand the consequences of either refusing to be arraigned or getting arraigned (he otherwise had no criminal record).

            Lack of actual access to translation services is just awful, and I’m not really sure how low-budget organizations can fix it.

        4. zora*

          I think the org would have to collaborate with other local organizations that do serve those languages and have documentation on hand in those languages that directs the client to locations where they can be helped.

          I’m not an expert, but I have seen that be sufficient for some services (i.e. voting) and it seems like it would be a reasonable solution that should satisfy any civil rights access requirements.

        5. Turtle Candle*

          Yes, this is a very real problem. I volunteer for a food delivery service for poor, ill, and housebound people. We have staff and volunteers to cover the most common languages in our area (English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog… we also have Japanese, but that’s coincidental because a volunteer happens to be Japanese and bilingual, not because we recruited for that), but there are significant populations that we don’t cover (census data has “other African languages” as between Korean and Tagalog, and “other Slavic languages” and “other Indic languages” immediately after Tagalog–and those inherently could cover dozens of languages each to themselves. And as you say, the language translation services run into the tens of thousands of dollars; hundreds of thousands if you’re trying to cover dozens and dozens of languages. Those services are ridiculously expensive, and many nonprofits simply do not have room in the budget to cover the potentially dozens or hundreds of languages that may have thriving local communities associated with them. It would end up costing more than the food itself.

          None of this excuses the LW’s colleague, who is dealing with one particular language and isn’t even trying to help. There’s zero excuse for that. At this volunteer organization, if someone showed up speaking Somali or Punjabi or–for that matter–German, and no staff/volunteer could translate, we’d do our very best with Google Translate and pantomime, and would never shut the door in someone’s face. But it is a real challenge.

        6. Temperance*

          Honestly, I work at a large for-profit managing our volunteer work, and even I don’t have a significant budget for interpreters. They’re so expensive. It’s frustrating because the communities who have the highest needs for legal services also tend to speak minority languages, so I couldn’t even use a staff member to help.

        7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It’s difficult, but being small (unless you’re too small for Title VI) does not exempt you from providing language translation services. Most folks contract out for the “languages that exist but are less common,” while ensuring they hire staff who have multilingual fluency in their core service languages. Different localities have different tipping points for when a language is so common that it requires in-house, on-the-spot translation capacity. HHS offers pretty robust guidance on how to adopt best practices regarding language access, as does the National Association of Social Workers.

          I used to work in a region where about 10-20% of my service population was Hmong, depending on the neighborhood. As is often the case with semi-insular communities, not only did we need language fluency to ensure proper interpretation, but cultural competency, as well. I don’t speak any Hmong, but my employer prioritized (a) hiring Hmong speakers, or (b) partnering with Hmong-serving or Hmong-led community organizations for the interpretation part of our work, and (c) requiring employees to attend (usually state- or federally sponsored) trainings regarding language access and best practices. We also attended trainings hosted by Hmong-serving community organizations to train specifically on best practices for that community, and those trainings were paired with a follow-up program that allowed participants to call the community organization for guidance/advice before moving forward with a specific plan/program/event.

          It wasn’t ideal, but it was much better than failing to deliver services to an already vulnerable community.

  16. MacAilbert*

    Is this a Catholic establishment? It sounds like it might be, and if so, I’d keep in mind that the Church, at least in terms of doctrine, doesn’t much like this kind of bullshit. Not to say that the Church necessarily follows its own doctrine all the time, but in an organization as large and bureaucratic as the Catholic Church, you do have options. There’s a chain of command above the pastor, and there are Church officials responsible for allocating the money for these programs, either of which has some degree of authority over this matter.

    1. Liane*

      Most churches in the major denominations have levels above the pastor, although not independent churches.

    2. Courtney W*

      Bases on her use of pastor rather than priest, probably safe to say it’s not Catholic.

      1. MacAilbert*

        American Catholics refer to priests as pastors all the time, so not necessarily.

        1. Lynxa*

          I’m a born and raised (lapsed) Catholic living in a VERY Catholic American town and I’ve never seen Catholics refer to a Catholic priest as pastor.

          1. Stephanie the Great*

            Same here. It would be very odd to hear someone refer to a priest as a pastor. We have priests, friars, deacons, fathers, sisters, rectors… but no pastors.

          2. Jesmlet*

            Verbally we never really do in my experience but on our churches website, the primary priest is referred to as pastor and the assistant is called the parochial vicar so it is a term that’s used.

          3. AMPG*

            It’s a matter of job description – a pastor (the person in charge of a particular parish) is always a priest, but a priest isn’t always a pastor.

          4. bookartist*

            Then what do you call the head priest at the parish? I have only ever heard that person referred to as the pastor (not as a title to be called but like a job title).

            1. Stephanie the Great*

              I’ve always heard them called rectors, but I was raised in Baltimore and went to a Franciscan parish, so maybe other churches/regions are different?

          5. Rat in the Sugar*

            Maybe it’s a regional thing? In my parish we call the head priest the pastor.

        2. Emi.*

          Only if he’s actually the pastor! If you call the assistant pastor the “pastor,” you might start some drama. ;)

        3. Courtney W*

          I’m American, was raised Catholic, and have attended many churches. Not once have I heard a priest referred to as a pastor. They’re just “Father insertnamehere.”

          1. doreen*

            They aren’t referred to or addressed as “Pastor insertnamehere” – but the priest in charge of a parish is referred to as the “pastor” all the time when the fact that he is the pastor is relevant. My parish’s website has a section called “From the Pastor’s desk” , at meetings of various organizations you frequently hear ” The pastor won’t let us…” or “The pastor wants us to..”, and certain arrangements (such as getting married at a parish other than the bride’s or groom’s) require the pastor’s permission.

        4. Lori*

          Born and raised Catholic. Catholic elementary, high school and college. Our parish always had a pastor.

          1. ReadItWithSpanishAccent*

            But I haven’t heard the “WWJD” thing in the Catholic church (at least not in Europe). Again, if you say “pastor” in Europe everybody will think of a protestant Church. We have priests, diacons, bishops, blah blah blah. But I guess that in countries with a bigger protestant population, denominations such as pastor become the common name to refer to the leader of a religious community.

    3. Green*

      Actually, a good point! Hierarchical churches may have other resources or policies about whistleblower protections, etc., even if the individual parish/organization does not.

  17. bridget (better screen name to follow)*

    I like AAM’s advice, which sticks closely to the facts of what is happening without any additional commentary on motivations or background. It does seem like she is acting with some sort of animus, but I get that it can be messy to call something racially motivated if you are not a minority and the person you are calling out is. Luckily, I don’t think it’s necessary to even touch that subject. Her actions, as factually described, are unacceptable and bad for both the community you serve and the reputation of your employer, and need to stop.

  18. Employment Lawyer*

    Yes: However, you should also read your employee handbook and probably document the fact that you reported; reporting discrimination may be required and/or protected.

  19. Mina*

    Church office employee here – when dealing with needy people, we are spiritually and morally obliged to work harder to treat them with respect and dignity. We can’t get just flip them off because they aren’t doing things “our” way.

  20. Sparklypants*

    Im a social worker ( woop woop) and it might also be a need for her to get some cultural competency classes. She likely has to do CEU’s to maintain her license. You could suggest she look for one about Hispanic culture. It might also help to get a contract with a “language line” or other translation services. I have someone on my caseload who is deaf and only speaks Thai sign language ( did you know ASL isn’t universal? I didn’t until I was like ” How in the EFF am I going to work with this woman? I can’t mime through every visit!!) . We had to scramble to find someone who is able to do verbal English ->Thai-> thai sign language and back again…

    1. curmudgeon*

      lol – American no, not universal!
      I attended a church that did services in a two-hand sign (was Eastern Europe based) but that’s another story..

      1. Sparklypants*

        I realize now how dumb it was :) It just never connected in my brain that ASL was American Sign Language.. . it was just one of those things that it was always just “sign language” in my mind that I didn’t ever put two and two together.

        1. curmudgeon*

          yup. I actually manage to stutter when I sign. Arthritis & a brain that goes faster than my hands are to blame

          1. whomever*

            Totally off topic, but what was explained to me when I took my ASL classes is that ASL is actually based on French Sign Language (because, supposedly, the UK Sign Community blew off the American delegation so they studied in France instead). BTW sign language is really it’s own language with grammar, etc.

            1. Natalie*

              It did indeed evolve from French sign language plus various American home signs (mainly, but not exclusively, Martha’s Vineyard).

              There is a sign language that directly translates spoken English (Signed Exact English) but IIRC it isn’t terribly popular.

          2. Tau*

            Honestly, one of the more frivolous reasons I’ve wanted to try learning a sign language for ages is because I stutter in speech and I’m really curious whether that will transfer to sign.

    2. paul*

      we use language line services and I frigging hate them (the quality of services isn’t that great) but if you serve a diverse population there’s no getting around it. I can’t have 20+ languages represented on a team of <10 people.

        1. paul*

          we eat the cost. It’s contractually required for some of the grants and contracts we get.

          1. paul*

            edit: It’s also why we can’t just let small agencies or programs piggyback on our subscription; we simply can’t afford to. I forget the exact cost–my boss and our bookeeper probably know the cost per minute–but it’s really absurd, I do remember that.

            1. Temperance*

              I honestly was asking for my own purposes. It’s like $3/minute for one service, and it takes hours for what we need to do.

              1. paul*

                Yeah, we spend in the ~10k a year range on them total but I don’t know the CPM. And I year you on the time. Even doing a basic follow up contact with a client using those services you’re easily tripling the time spent while providing, IMO, worse service :/ I hate it.

                1. Temperance*

                  To be brutally honest, the cost of interpreters is why we can’t do more immigration work on a pro bono basis. I can’t justify spending 10k on interpreters to do these projects when I could do other work that incurs no costs for my org. It’s so difficult (and finding interpreters who will volunteer is nearly impossible, as I’m sure you know).

      1. Maya Elena*

        Heh, I used to work for such a service some years ago. Hopefully we were not all THAT terrible….

        1. Been There, Done That*

          I used a phone language translation service for at a financial services job many times and you’re anything but terrible. I appreciated you so much!!

          Note the comments that it’s difficult for newcomers to learn English. It can also be difficult for native English speakers to learn Tagalog, Spanish, Mandarin, or Martian well enough to translate/interpret. These are high-level skills and should be compensated for what they’re worth (just like those valuable STEM skills).

  21. Observer*

    Letter writer, if you are part of a larger organization, you should definitely go up the chain if you need to. Also, in that case, the church is almost certainly required to comply with a lot of anti-discrimination laws, even if they don’t get government money. In this context, that means that racial discrimination, which is what is happening here, is absolutely illegal. So, this could seriously hurt the church. And if your department already has a reputation, then it’s highly likely that something could set a fire going.

  22. the other side of the story*

    hm.. interesting that this comes in now, a week after a lunch & learn Spanish class at my food bank.
    The Teacher/Translator is a Hispanic Social Worker, an adult immigrant herself, and while she understands our desire to be able to better help our non-English speaking clients, she also is an advocate of NOT translating everything & making it so easy for people to not have to learn English. She sees clients live here for years (decades even) and never learn how to speak/read English, putting themselves into a “lower class” situation and making it harder on themselves to get a better job. It is very frustrating for us as volunteers to see the same people month after month, never even trying to learn English & demanding that we speak in Spanish or get a translator for them and then have to hear them complain they cannot get an office job.

    I had a funny moment with a client where I was trying to practice my Spanish but she wanted to practice her English so we kept repeating things back and forth to each other …still can’t pronounce the Spanish word for carrots…

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      People using food banks do not deserve to be treated like this. It is not her or your job to decide who should learn what language.

    2. strawberries and raspberries*

      I mean, that’s true to an extent, if you’re talking about someone who wants a specific kind of job or education and can’t get it without mastering English, or at least have a strong enough grasp to use it in daily life. But like, they’re coming to a food bank, which is already carrying enough stigma, and then to be treated like you’re stupid or being deliberately uncooperative just makes it worse. There has to be a more strengths-based way of making language acquisition less intimidating.

    3. AnonAcademic*

      I don’t see how this devil’s advocate position is relevant to the OP because preparing clients for the job market is very different from providing them with food from a food bank. I don’t think language should be a barrier to survival. Whether someone is non-verbal due to a disability, or ESL, or deaf and uses sign language, it is unethical and possibly illegal to mistreat them because of their language.

      Also, I have a doctorate and took Spanish up to the advanced level in college (2 courses short of a minor), and I am nowhere near fluent. I can read better than I can talk but even then it’s maybe 6th -8th grade level. English is even harder to learn than Spanish. I had every advantage and opportunity to learn and I’m still not bilingual so I really can’t judge adults who struggle to learn English.

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        I minored in Spanish and am not even close to being fluent. However, I also was a literacy volunteer. I worked with a lot of people who grew up speaking English but couldn’t read it. SO MANY dropped out because English is freaking hard to learn. I can’t imagine trying to learn it from another language.

        For that matter, we actually had a few who were illiterate in their native language trying to learn English – they have more guts than I ever will.

        1. Jaydee*

          The literacy side of it is a big deal. I have worked with ESL clients who could barely read and write in their native language, let alone in English. They may not have had much or any formal schooling, or they may have undiagnosed learning disabilities, etc. Even if they learn to speak and understand quite a bit of English, they would then not only have to learn to read and write English, they would have to learn to read and write period.

      2. paul*

        Yeah, if they’re asking about employment it’s very appropriate to direct them to ESL type classes; it opens a *lot* of options if you can at least get by in English vs not speaking it at all. But for getting food? FFS….

      3. Natalie*

        It’s so exhausting, too. I’ve only ever used foreign language in the lowest stakes circumstances – vacation in another country – and even that tired me out. If I were living there I’d probably be hoarding my precious language use energy bars whenever possible.

        1. Emi.*

          It is! It’s so much work! I lived abroad as a child, and by the time I got home from school all I wanted to do was collapse and eat everything in sight.

          1. the_scientist*

            My sister in law speaks English as her second language but happens to be fluent enough to work in a white collar industry in an English speaking country. However, she’ll sometimes get home from work and say “I’m tired; I did so much thinking in English today.” I had never really thought about it much before she said that, but like, duh……obviously having to mentally translate everything is going to be exhausting.

          1. ReadItWithSpanishAccent*

            I am fluent in three languages (Spanish, Norwegian and English) and work everyday in all of them, plus Danish and Swedish ( close enough to Norwegian to understand IF you are a native speaker, I am not). I come home every day with “my ass twisted” as we say in my country. It is tiresome, and I make A LOT of mistakes, like answering in a language different of the one I was talked in, mixing words and grammar, starting a sentence in one language and finishing in another… People just assume that, because you are fluent, it simply comes naturally to you. I don’t really “translate” anything in my head, but the mental workload is exhausting. You need YEARS to master a language, yet many people seem to assume that you should be fluent after leaving in the country for 2 years.

        2. Ann O.*

          I’ve lived in an Arabic-speaking country for a year and several summers, and I think extended immersion is not comparable to anything else. I never attained fluency, but I did attain a lot of comfort with speaking in Arabic. However, while I stopped being tired by the end of my time there, I simply wasn’t as capable in Arabic as in English. I didn’t have the richness of language or ease of expression that I do in English.

          I get very angry when I read letters to advice columnists complaining about non-native English speakers who are deemed fluent in English speaking their native language with each other. This belief that so many Americans seem to have that it’s an insult for people to have conversations around them that aren’t in English mystifies me.

      4. LizB*

        On top of how difficult English is to learn, operating in a second language — even one you’re fairly good at — is exhausting. It can be such a relief to go home or to a store and just speak and think in the way your brain wants to speak and think for a little while. I really don’t think it’s appropriate for food bank staff/volunteers to be putting up more barriers for clients, even in an attempt to help them integrate. It may have been a long day/week/etc. of trying to get by in limited English, and they don’t have the energy anymore to speak English with someone who could be helping them in Spanish.

        1. Brogrammer*

          It really is exhausting. I’m nowhere near fluent in Spanish, but I took enough classes in high school and college that I reached the point that thinking in Spanish took less time than thinking in English and translating. I ended up functioning as an ad-hoc interpreter on a group trip to Spain (a position I was wildly unqualified for) because I was the only one in the group who spoke any Spanish at all. It was exhausting, and I only had to speak tourist-level Spanish like asking directions, ordering for the group in restaurants, stuff like that. Trying to navigate complicated social services or a workplace? I can’t even imagine.

    4. Justin*

      I mean. I’m an ESL teacher by trade myself. Of course, if able, people should try to learn. And in a class, you can indeed have such rules (I did, sometimes, depending on the group).

      But there’s a big giant gap between a voluntary language class situation and general services.

    5. Cafe au Lait*

      I volunteered with an adult literacy program for a year, and your teacher/translator is exactly on the money. If the scope of your mission is to prepare users for office jobs, or other customer service-based positions, then you need to hold users to the type of behavior expected in those environments. Sometimes looks like you’re choosing not to help the user at all, or being “mean.”

      It was incredibly hard, but I had to “fire” my first learner. (She could apply for another tutor, so help wasn’t inaccessible to her). She had childcare difficulties, so I found a church that would watch her kids while we worked nearby. Then she showed up late consistently (forty-five minutes for an hour and a half tutoring session), so I brainstormed with her on ways to get out the door on time with three kids. One day she cried because she hadn’t improved from when we first started meeting. I had to show her that we were only getting 45 minutes of instruction every four weeks due to her choices (missing sessions, showing up late, etc) and that there was no way that she could improve without making changes.

      1. neverjaunty*

        You’re talking about a completely different situation that has zero to do with what the OP is describing. Zero.

    6. Natalie*

      I doubt that slamming doors in someone’s face helps their language acquisition. Translation aside, the social worker is treating Spanish speaking people badly and that’s not acceptable.

    7. Shadow*

      You’re suggesting the behavior is okay, if watered down. You don’t teach them lessons by withholding help. You tell them the options available and let them guide their own path. If they don’t want to learn-fine, as long as they know what you can and can’t do.


    8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is a really offensive and inapt description compared to what OP wrote about.

      If you are “very frustrated” as a volunteer to see people who are struggling to learn English or who have opted out, then I would encourage you to attempt to learn Arabic, Chinese, Punjabi or even Swahili while trying to make ends meet on an extremely low-wage/”lower class” situation. I can guarantee you that it is much more frustrating to operate in a world where people judge you for failing to acquire English or for feeling self-conscious about speaking in English, and then use that judgment to withhold services, condescend to you, or blame you for your poverty.

      When it comes to the provision of essential social services, like food and not job training services, it is not appropriate or acceptable to refuse to translate documents or information, or to withhold interpretation, simply because you think it makes it “easy for people to not have to learn English.” Is it extremely helpful for people to acquire English in order to access greater professional opportunities? Sure. Is it required or preferable in order to access essential social services? No. It is not appropriate to exploit people’s vulnerability simply because you think it’s better that they adhere to your beliefs about English language fluency. Your social worker is entitled to her beliefs, but I sure as hell hope she’s not trying to implement them with your Spanish-speaking service population.

  23. AnitaJ*

    “I don’t want to step into a messy issue about race.”

    And yet despite this fear, you spoke up, and that’s awesome. Thank you for fighting this fight. I’m proud of you for doing the difficult thing. Your clients will be grateful.

    You did great!

  24. Sibley*

    Please say something. If no one ever says anything, then injustice, prejudice, and all the other nasty things in society don’t get fixed. Every little bit helps.

  25. BMO*

    I didn’t speak up at a previous job when something similar happened. I still think about it 6 years later.
    Please, speak up! I hope you come back and give us a positive update!

  26. Justin*

    Good on you for speaking up (she wrote an update in the comments).

    I used to work in a senior center, and many of the seniors were Chinese (a few were Hispanic but by chance the Hispanic ones spoke enough English to get by). The OTHER seniors would sometimes volunteer to help us, and we had to spend a lot of time explaining to them that they had to treat people who didn’t speak English as a first language with the same kindness as everyone else.

    I remember getting frustrated with a lady who spoke so little English she couldn’t even write her name (she was literate in Mandarin). But it’s always within your power to stop, breathe, and not take it out on someone who is vulnerable. Mostly I worried about that lady being able to take care of herself in Manhattan if anything ever happened to her.

    1. Justin*

      When I say I was frustrated, I mean there was a long line of people waiting and the city required all seniors to sign in, and she couldn’t, nor could she explain this, nor could we explain this to her.

      But being anxious at a stressful situation is far from believing another person should receive such treatment.

  27. MAG*

    All social workers are held to a code of ethics. That is if she has an MSW degree. This should be brought to the attention of the supervisor and addressed immediately. As a social worker and supervisor this is unacceptable according to the guiding ethics outlined for the profession.

  28. Jeanne*

    She is in the wrong job. If you work in an office that provides services, then provide them! She didn’t have to take this job. Run and report this immediately. Please. She is going against everything your church stands for. (And maybe next time they should hire a bilingual worker if you have a good size Spanish speaking population looking for help.

  29. Zephyrine*

    Oooh, if there’s one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s the “they should stop being lazy and just learn English!” attitude. Clearly the OP’s coworker has never tried to learn a foreign language. It’s HARD and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Besides, OP’s clientele is probably already struggling to get by — worrying about where their child’s next meal will come from, working long hours, navigating grocery stores/schools/road signs/the rest of the world in a language they don’t understand… Of course spending tons of time and effort learning English is not their #1 priority (and even if it is, it’s a process, not an instantaneous brain download). The last thing they need is to deal with OP’s asshat coworker. Ugh!

    OP, I’m so glad you spoke up for your clients. They deserve better.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      So true, and being able to navigate life in general in a foreign language is a far cry from feeling competent enough and confident enough to fill out forms. I don’t even like filling out forms in my native tongue because there is almost always at least one thing that is ambiguous. Like I can get through an airport in Mexico but I want someone to hold my hand when I’m filling out the customs form.

    2. a different Vicki*

      Or she has tried, and did well enough in (say) French or German in high school that she assumes it’s easy for everyone. My girlfriend is bright, and has learned a lot of things well, but has a very hard time with languages. On the other hand, my grandparents learned French, fluently, as a second or third language, and then fluent English in middle age. They are unusual in having kept that language-learning ability that late in life.

      1. Zephyrine*

        True! I excelled in Spanish classes in middle and high school. Let’s just say I was in for quite a surprise the first time I went to a Spanish-speaking country and found myself actually communicating with real people about as well as a rather dim two-year-old.

        Even after taking multiple advanced college-level courses, I would have a very very hard time navigating social services in Spanish. My Spanish is decent and I can carry on a mostly-coherent conversation, but dealing with the government is a different story. If I lucked out and got to talk to a patient and understanding person I would maaaaaaybe manage, but someone like the OP’s colleague? Not a chance in hell.

        1. paul*

          Cripes, I do this crap for a living and I hate *our* governments forms, written for/in/by my native language. Trying to navigate a govermental form that’s not in my language or horribly translated…*shudder*

    3. Humble Schoolmarm*

      I’m fluent enough in my second language to teach it and when I have to contact someone about something official or fill out a tax forum I will almost always take the English option because that is not a situation where I want to mishear, misread or misspeak (and tax vocabulary doesn’t come up very often in my day-to-day language use).

  30. TootsNYC*

    Let her be vindictive!

    Even let her be mean. You brought up “What Would Jesus Do”; he laid down his life. You can put up with a certain amount of nastiness to follow His message of love and service.

    In Matthew 5:11, he was pretty clear: “”Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

    And in fact, I think you should get a little righteously mad. Just because she’s more willing to be nasty doesn’t mean you can’t use righteous anger to fuel your resolve or steel your spine.

    There is also a formula for this sort of thing in Paul’s writings. Take this to your pastor, however, and get his guidance as you use it.
    Jesus never promised that following His way would be easy, even if He did call us to love.

    Be fierce. Put on the armor of God. The human emotions of xenophobia and selfishness are at war in your colleague. Time to speak up, for her sake as well. Think of the danger she is in, spiritually, as she gives in to those forces of evil. (Yes, actually, evil.)

    Oh, and pray.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Agree! There’s another part of this too. At some point Jesus is going to look at your works. What would you say to him when he says “why didn’t you speak up for my children?” I’d rather put up with wrath of coworker then have to try to explain that one.
      That thought is often before me when I’m too scared to say something.

  31. Marzipan*

    I mean, at this point it wouldn’t be you raising this issue, anyway. Because you have a direct complaint from a service user regarding discrimination. Something, presumably, has to happen with that complaint, whether it’s through a formal complaints procedure or through addressing it with whoever the appropriate authority figure is in this situation. But something. So, go ahead with that something, and it’s not you starting something, it’s just you following through on a concern raised by a client.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Good point!

      You were given a specific complaint by one of your clients. It’s not appropriate to just sit on it; you’d have an obligation to pass it on. An obligation to the client, and to the organization (this is true in secular office jobs–there’s no way it’s not in play here).

      And, of course, you did find a way to pass the complaint on, so good for you!

  32. Shadow*

    When you do complain make sure you have some names or specific examples. It’s really easy to excuse the behavior as a “misunderstanding” if you don’t come armed with dates/times/names of clients, etc.

    1. Anna*

      I’m on the fence with naming clients. I worry that having that specific information would invite retaliation from the social worker and that would suck.

  33. Noah*

    “What’s she’s doing is awful and may be directly responsible for people not getting services that they really need. And aside from that, it’s just horrid.”

    Also likely illegal.

  34. Eohippus*

    Please, please, please speak up! If the pastor won’t listen then involve the church council. If they won’t do anything then go to your denominational HQ! Matthew 25: 35-40 calls us to stand up for the sake of others, and as both a Christian and a social worker you owe it to your clients.

  35. Susan*

    I’m assuming the services you provide to your clients are at least partially funded by donations from church members. I bet the donors would be outraged if they found out that their donations were being withheld from some clients because of an employee’s racism, and they might even stop donating to your organization because of it. That would greatly damage your ability to provide services to anyone.

    1. Temperance*

      And sadly, it’s just as likely that there might be some who are outraged that we’re not helping “our own” first. You just can’t assume churchgoers are automatically kind and open.

      1. Susan*

        That’s true that some of the donors could be racist as well, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who donate to this cause just want to help those in need and would not want to donate to an organization that discriminates like this. At least that has been my experience in volunteering with and donating to this type of organization.

  36. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    And honestly, especially concerning church and religious groups and help- make sure you openly state and then actually DO the things you say you can. Like, in this case, state in publicity for the food bank that you can have people who speak Spanish to help, then do it.

    (I would also urge any liberal-to-mainline churches that operate these types of things to, if their theology isn’t anti-LGBT, state in all materials that they will help those people, then train volunteers on how to be more sensitive, like not assuming gender or using heteronormative language. My church states in its creed that people of all orientations and genders can come; they have gay pastors, gender neutral bathrooms, and no sex segregation for activities. That’s both saying and doing, yknow?)

  37. Still haven't created I name I like myself here yet*

    I have some food for thought I wanted to share.

    I’d like to provide some insight as a non Spanish speaker latina. This social workers mentality towards Hispanics doesn’t surprise me, especially if they themselves are a POC or not a Spanish speaking Hispanic. And I wonder if she suffered like I did growing up.

    I’ve had my share of verbal and physical abuse from my own people because it is looked down upon to not speak your native tounge. Oftentimes this abuse can lead people into problematic behavior like this harshness you see from the SW. I was for maybe years a latina that looked down on my own people, speak English or eff off kinda mentality. I was angry… They rejected me so i said screw em…It took me alot of years to forgive my own people for what they did to me, it also took me some time to find myself and embrace what I am. I am unapologetically Latina and proud language or not. I paint Mexican folk art, I make my tamales for Xmas dinner every year.. No one can take my culture from me.

    With other POC groups there can be similar abuse towards one another which also can contribute to this. I think it’s easy to sit there and say SW is a monster and fire her but I think this person needs help with maybe adressing some darker ghosts from the past. She needs a wake up call to remember why she’s a social worker in the first place.

    1. paul*

      I can get that dynamic, but it *really* doesn’t change the response here. Her behavior has to stop; at this point it could warrant firing and at least warrants strong corrective action, regardless of her reasons for the behavior. Accommodation doesn’t mean letting her abuse clients or discriminate in providing services.

      1. Still haven't created I name I like myself here yet*

        I’m feeling like my story may attract whitesplaining so I’m gonna nip that in the bud with further clarification. No I don’t think she shouldn’t get into trouble. I’m all for correcting this.

        Corrective action includes documenting the incidents/complaints, advising the SW on the expectations for the job and letting them know they aren’t a good fit anymore for those reasons. Realistically this SW really can’t be in this line of work anymore as you really need to be able to care for others no matter who they are.

        The SW is an example of this growing population of people who lack empathy and compassion unless a person needs our ideals on who’s “worthy”. They might be in denial that they are bigoted because in their minds they think that they are showing tough love or to them it’s just common sense that if they spoke English these people would magically not need aid! Read facebook comments on any post about someone down on their luck and you’ll see all these people saying how it’s all their fault and they asked for the misfortune.

        Where is the love???

        1. neverjaunty*

          I’m sure the people she’s keeping from basic food and other services are asking that last question, too.

          1. Still haven't created I name I like myself here yet*

            Correct. I don’t recall indicating that that wasn’t taking place either.

            This is why I avoid speaking up on here….

            1. LCL*

              Thanks for sharing your experiences, I thought your writing was really informative. Sometimes humans just suck, and revert to their baser instincts. What that behavior looks like varies by culture, but it’s everywhere.

        2. Observer*

          I’m not sure what you are trying to say here.

          Firstly, no one is saying that the SW is a monster, but her behaviors is awful and racist and really really needs to stop. And, if she does have the attitude that “it’s all their fault that they are too lazy to learn English” then that just makes it worse. And nothing you describe about the dynamic you experienced really changes that.

          If all you want to say it “Hey, she may not be a monster, just someone who is dealing very badly with her own issues” you’ll get no argument. But otherwise, what’s your point?

          1. kms1025*

            I think Still Haven’t makes a good point. I don’t read her as accepting or condoning the bad behavior, just explaining one of many reasons for it, that she herself experienced. Good to keep in mind while absolutely not accepting such gross negligence and outright bad conduct from this so-called SW.

  38. Amy*

    Before you report the social worker, I would first find out what your regulations around the supportive services are. I am a LCSW who now works as a Director of a non profit where I oversee federal dollar. One thing that a lot of front line staff don’t realize is that government funding is dictated by a lot of rules. This is also true with clients/participants/whatever your local terminology is, which means that sometimes they feel discriminated against, but it’s actually not the case at all. For example, in my state utility assistance under A certain federal grant only allows a person to get assistance once per 6 month. If the person has already received the assistance, they are ineligible. Could this be the case? In my state even food boxes funded through Department of Ag. have restrictions such as one household per month.

    Before reporting, please do your do diligence and if the case is true that it is discriminatory the by all means report!

    1. Observer*

      No way. Sure, there are regulations about how often people can get help, what you can do for them, who is eligible etc. But there is NO rule anywhere that precludes people from getting help of this sort because of their language issues. In fact it’s illegal in many cases, because it’s considered “national origin discrimination.”

      In fact, even when the issue is that staff simply don’t know the language, in many locales the organization has an obligation to find some way to provide translation for people who don’t speak English well enough.

  39. babblemouth*

    I’m not a religious person, so take this with a grain of salt:

    Your coworker is definitely not following the general WWJD guidelines. But you can. You started doing so by listening to the complaints and taking them seriously. You can take the next step by speaking up, even if it’s going to be very uncomfortable for you. It will make life easier for many people in distress.

  40. Ali in England*

    CI have to say, this has been one of the most fascinating threads I’ve ever read on AAM. Well done for stepping up, LW.
    All the talk about language learning has reminded me of an incident many years ago, when a neighbor came knocking on my door and asked me could I please help her with this benefits form, because she couldn’t read. She was English as far as I could tell, but illiterate and so very vulnerable in the benefits system. You can’t just dismiss people for their perceived lack of learning. (I helped her regularly for the six months until she moved)

  41. Elfie*

    LW, your co-worker sucks, and you sound awesome. Good for you for speaking up, hopefully some positive changes will come as a result.

  42. PersephoneUnderground*

    How awful this whole situation is has been well covered- what pretty much everyone said X1000.

    I have a side thing- you have to call ahead or go online to make an appointment? And you can’t make an appointment in person? I’d assume I misunderstood that if I hadn’t actually encountered it in college. That should be fixed. **Especially** when you’re dealing with clients who have enough problems already and need another little hurdle to jump to get help like a whole in the head.

    You don’t have to take walk-ins (though if you happen to have a slot open when someone shows up why not?) but you should absolutely be willing to schedule future appointments in person. I was always annoyed when the advising office for instance would tell me when I had stopped by between classes to “go home and email us your appointment request”. Like, dude, I’m standing here already. What’s the difference? If your system won’t accept in-person requests that’s a bad system.

    (Another example- I also called the health office from 5 feet away from the counter, on my cell phone, a couple times to make an appointment for 15 minutes in the future- I could literally see the person talking to me on the phone. They actually told me I had to call them, and to step away and call them on my cell. It was such a farce.)

    1. Been There, Done That*

      I learned long ago that even if I don’t understand a procedure, there’s probably a good reason for it that enables people to do their jobs effectively. For example, I don’t think you’d like it if you had an appointment to get help but your time was taken up by someone coming in and insisting on making their own appointment then and there, instead of emailing or calling/leaving a message, either of which could be followed up after you had been taken care of.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        I learned a long time ago that procedures are ALWAYS worth looking into, because lots of things could have changed since they were first put in place, and/or they were set up by people who weren’t aware of all aspects, or they’re just plain inefficient.

        If someone’s afternoon is set aside to deal with clients, and they have free slots, it doesn’t make sense to leave them empty just because people don’t eg, have mobile phones or access to computers. Someone upthread cited having to step outside of a reception to call the receptionist she’d just been talking to, in order to book an appointment, and I think everyone here has dealt with a system like that that makes NO sense.

        The bottom line is, when dealing with a vulnerable client group, to make things as easy as possible for THEM, not for the workers, as their needs are so much greater. Not set up hoops for them to jump through that means they miss out on support for such essential services.

        1. Been There, Done That*

          Worth looking into and keeping current, yes. But assuming procedures are arbitrary or problematic just because they don’t suit Person X’s convenience is another matter. This can be an issue with our clientele–they want what they want from us, and the outreach people do a HELL of a lot to help them, but they can’t do everything. Some things the clients want, we aren’t permitted to do. Some things have to be done a certain way (those pesky procedures) to enable others to monitor/quantify/quality control the services provided. The clients must do some things for themselves after receiving help. But that doesn’t stop some from telling us we aren’t doing our jobs right just because we’re not open 24/7 or they have to fill out a form or someone else got the appointment time they want.

      2. Persephoneunderground*

        What Sarah said. Also, what I meant was that if someone is physically there and wants to make an appointment for next week, they shouldn’t have to go home and call/email to do that. Not that they should just take walk-ins regardless of schedule. The people they’re serving have enough to handle already.

  43. kms1025*

    If this church is part of a denomination, there may be some help forthcoming from there too…no organization, secular or religious wants bad PR.

  44. Janice in Accounting*

    Your pastor absolutely, 100% wants and needs to know this. Use concrete examples where you can, but please bring this to his attention as soon as humanly possible. In addition to just being gross, this woman is making your whole church look bad and it will undo any good you might be doing elsewhere.

  45. Lady Tech*

    Honestly I have to wonder if their would be specific blowback for the OP considering the number or people who are apparently aware of this person’s reputation with ESL clients. Even if this person is vindictive she may not have a target to go after if she isn’t especially discrete in this behavior.

    At any rate, it seems to defeat the very purpose of social services to cut people off because they are struggling get by for any reason, including language barriers. I doubt very much that anyone she is working with has no interest of learning English, but if they need assistance with rent and utilities they probably don’t have great access to English classes either. It’s hard to thrive in a community you can’t communicate with, I don’t think anyone wants to keep that obstacle up out of disinterest or laziness.

  46. Therapistintraining*

    honestly you should be able to file an ethics complaint against her. If she’s a licensed social worker she has to adhere to certain ethics codes including treating all clients equally and not turning them away based on race, ethnicity, etc. I would document all of these complaints on paper with dates and times, and names (with permission of course) and submit an official complaint. Look up the NASW (national sssociation of social workers) and potential state associations too.

  47. Wholly Babble*

    Am I the only one who stopped reading after the first sentence? The only one totally not fazed that an act of hypocrisy goes on regularly in an organized religious institution? By someone in power?

    1. Antilles*

      That’s completely unfair. This sort of abuse of power happens in *every* form of human institution – governments, businesses, charities, political parties, community volunteering organizations, etc.
      As long as churches and other organizations are run by human beings and not actual angels directly from Heaven, they won’t be immune from having individual human beings go off the deep end. What really matters is how the organization responds. Do they shrug off the issue or do they treat it seriously? Do they take immediate action or do they try to delay and sweep it under the rug?
      The update today (which, based on your post date, I’m assuming you saw) is very promising – the boss came in immediately after receiving the complaint to discuss the issue, how to be more welcoming to non-English speakers, the church reprimanded the co-worker, etc.

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