Language warning

When a severe weather outbreak trampled across Oklahoma in late May, officials in Tulsa held regular briefings to share up-to-date information with the public about the evolving situation. 

While Mayor G.T. Bynum and others shared the updates in English—with an American Sign Language interpreter for live television broadcasts—there was something new on the city’s Facebook page: a reading of the severe weather in several different languages. The briefings were translated and read throughout the on-going situation by volunteers into Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Zomi/Burmese. 

"We were trying to reach as many people in the community as possible—especially during severe, life-threatening weather," said Michelle Brooks, a spokesperson for the City of Tulsa. "It’s just as important to reach everybody in our community as soon as possible."

She said officials were thankful there were volunteers available to translate the updates into other languages and share it with those communities across Tulsa. "It’s really important to have individuals who can create those translations for the community," she said.

The volunteers provided translations free of charge and were connected to the city through the New Tulsans Initiative, which helps immigrants integrate into the city, according to Brooks. 

The updates came in the form of voice recordings, Facebook posts and Facebook live videos. "They really went above and beyond in our community," Brooks added. 

Piang Thang provided the Zomi/Burmese language service. The Zomi population come from Myanmar and Malaysia and have sought asylum in the U.S. because of their Christian beliefs. 

Some of the community members don’t know English, Thang noted, and they were receiving updates from a variety of sources. Having the information come from the official City of Tulsa Facebook page gave the warning an air of authority.

"Everybody was paying attention to what I shared through Facebook and Facebook Live. They were like, ‘This is official,’ and [were] very happy," he said. "They listened to it."

Many of the parishioners at Thang’s church don’t speak English, as his pastor noted, and the value of having these warnings translated for them is hard to overstate.  

These inclusive services, paired with the interactive nature of social media, brought warnings deeper into communities not usually reached in emergency situations. A local Zomi organization also shared the translated Facebook video, bringing vital information to even more people in the community.  

Thang said he would like to continue to help with the updates or in other capacities. He noted that he was even able to conduct the service during his work hours. 

The City’s official website includes a feature to translate written text into a variety of languages, from Yiddish to Yoruba, with the hope of making vital information more accessible to non-English speakers—a small step toward making Tulsa more inclusive of the variety of communities who call it home. 

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