Language Advocate Cheryl Keshner Says Progress Can Come Even In Difficult Times

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(Photo courtesy/Cheryl Keshner)

Cheryl Keshner has become one of Long Island’s leading language access advocates, and I wanted to find out why. She has worked for a decade to make sure that government agencies comply with state and federal laws requiring language access for those who don’t speak English.

For many years, governments in both Nassau and Suffolk ignored laws mandating that their services be offered in the languages the people using them speak. Cheryl organized other advocates to challenge the English-only orientation of many government agencies and her work has contributed to making Long Island a more welcoming place for immigrants.

Originally from New Jersey, Cheryl moved to Long Island in 1991. Before that she had worked as a tenant organizer in New York City. In that role, she saw the importance of using the law to secure the rights of low-income people. On Long Island, she worked as a social worker at Nassau/Suffolk Law Services assisting poor people to ensure that they received the benefits that they were entitled to.

In 2008, she went on to work at the Empire Justice Center, where she currently serves as a senior paralegal and community advocate. Cheryl said that she appreciates the opportunity to “address inequities systemically” in her work there.

It was through her work on the ground helping economically disadvantaged people that Cheryl Keshner discovered that one of the biggest barriers to them getting help is language. Most Long Island government agencies only distributed literature in English, their web sites were only in English, they did not use phone interpretation, and they had little or no Spanish-speaking staff or staff that spoke other languages.

If an immigrant tried to report a crime in Nassau or Suffolk County, they might be hung up on if they did not speak English, something which advocates have addressed with the police, but which but still sometimes happens. The Department of Social Services did not always use qualified interpreters to interview women who were the victims of domestic violence, and would sometimes rely on strangers in the waiting room, she recalled of a time just a few years ago.

The use of strangers found on the street as interpreters by the police was one of the worst abuses. No one knew if the interpretation was accurate, and the crime victims could not trust strangers keep their disclosures confidential.

Keeping services in English-only allowed county government to keep “immigrants shut out from the service,” Keshner said.

“I think that everybody should be treated with dignity,” Keshner said, emphasizing that that can’t be done if the counties turn away those who don’t speak English.

Keshner helped to found the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC) which fought successfully for language access executive orders in both Nassau and Suffolk. Although those orders have not been fully implemented, both county governments have become more accessible for people who don’t speak English. She has also played an important role in monitoring the Suffolk County Police Department’s compliance with an agreement with the United States Department of Justice that stipulates that the police department must end long-standing abusive practices towards immigrants. Cheryl has seen improvements in language access by the police, but there is still a long way to go.

While there have been setbacks for immigrants in the last year, Cheryl said “we still have to keep fighting.”

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