San Jose Public Library: Navigating a Community Conversation with Language Barriers

People participate in a community conversation at San Jose Public Library

San José Public Library is part of the Libraries Transforming Communities Public Innovators Cohort, a group of 10 public libraries chosen to undergo an extensive 18-month training in the “turning outward” approach. Here, librarian Randall Studstill describes his team’s experience hosting a community conversation with non-native English speakers. (For tools and webinars about hosting community conversations, visit Resources for Libraries.)


As one of the libraries in the Libraries Transforming Communities Public Innovators Cohort, we have begun a series of community conversations aimed at gaining a better understanding of the community served by the Seven Trees Branch Library. Ultimately, our goal is to use Harwood tools to make a difference for all Seven Trees residents. However, considering the value of these tools, we decided to extend our Harwood practice and host a conversation with a specific community served by the library: recent immigrants.

San Jose is home to large immigrant populations from Mexico, Vietnam, China, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The San Jose Public Library serves these populations through seven Family Learning Centers (FLCs), centers that provide information, resources and programs for residents who want to learn or improve their English skills and/or become U.S. citizens. In order to improve our FLC services, we want a better understanding of immigrant communities. What better way to gain that understanding than a community conversation with our FLC users?

Planning our FLC community conversation involved some special considerations. Ordinarily, community conversations focus on issues that the participants themselves raise; this ensures that the facilitators are tackling the issues that are most important to the community. The conversation starts off in a completely open-ended manner, with participants talking about their aspirations for the community. The conversation leader then focuses the group on a specific issue based on the participants’ concerns.

We weren’t sure if this was the best approach for our FLC conversation. Our FLCs are primarily focused on educational issues: adults and families learning English and adults preparing to take the citizenship exam. We were concerned that if our approach was open-ended, the information we gathered might not be relevant to that mission. We asked ourselves: should we let the focus of the community conversation be determined by the participants, or should we as the conversation leaders narrow the focus?

After considering the pros and cons, our Harwood coach Jan Elliott suggested we start the conversation as we would any community conversation (i.e., open-ended), and then focus on education. However, she expressed reservations; the purpose of a community conversation, she noted, is to learn from the community. To some degree, imposing a focus on the conversation undermines that purpose. Still, we moved forward with the plan.

We planned to start with the two open-ended questions that begin any Harwood community conversation:

  • What kind of community do you want?
  • Given what we just said, what are the two or three most important issues when it comes to the community?

Then we would turn to educational concerns with question 3:

  • What concerns do have about achieving your educational goals, either for yourself or your family?

Education would then remain the conversation topic for questions 4-10:

  • How do issues we’re talking about affect you personally?
  • When you think about these things, how do you feel about what’s going on?
  • What do you think is keeping us from making the progress we want?
  • When you think about what we’ve talked about, what are the kinds of things that could be done that would make a difference?
  • Thinking back over the conversation, what groups or individuals would you trust to take action on these things?
  • If we came back together in six months or a year, what might you see that would tell you that the things we talked about were starting to happen?
  • Now that we’ve talked about this issue a bit, what questions do you have about it?

Next we had to decide on a time and place. Our other community conversations for Seven Trees residents were planned several weeks or months in advance, and we are inviting participants through flyers, notifying partners and talking to patrons in the library. For our FLC community conversation, this process wasn’t necessary. We already had groups of FLC users meeting regularly in the library for ESL classes; all we had to do was arrange a Community Conversation during a class. We selected a class at the Tully Community Branch Library (which has a very active FLC) and communicated with the instructor to confirm the date. The class we selected had about 20 students ranging in age from early 20s to 60s. Most were Vietnamese, with four or five Hispanic students. There were about the same number of men and women.

Because many of the students spoke only a little English, we realized we needed to translate the questions for them. Before the meeting, we worked with Tully librarian Chieu Nguyen to translate the questions into Vietnamese. Chieu also agreed to attend the conversation as note-taker and translator for the Vietnamese speaking students. Our plan was for me to lead the conversation in English, with Chieu translating as needed. However, translating some of the questions into Vietnamese was a challenge as some of the concepts did not seem to have clear equivalents in Vietnamese. We used Google Translate to translate the questions into Spanish and printed them out to distribute to the Spanish-speakers. (We did not print out the questions in Vietnamese since Chieu would be on hand to translate.) As it turned out, one of the Spanish speakers was able to help us with Spanish-English translation during the conversation.

During the conversation itself, we started out with the open-ended questions, and many of the students were willing to participate. The students expressed a variety of aspirations (a cleaner community, a safer community, etc.), but two seemed most important to them: a healthy community and a community without discrimination and prejudice.

With question 3, we shifted the conversation to educational concerns. At this point, the students became much less willing to participate. We’re not sure why. We suspect that the students had difficulty understanding the questions or perhaps had less to say on the topic. It’s also possible that they were uncomfortable speaking in English (though we encouraged participants to speak in their native language if they wanted to) or were reluctant to speak in general. (Chieu told me that many of the students resist speaking during ESL classes as well).

Still, a few students were willing to talk about education. Learning English was their major concern — not surprising since these were students in an ESL class — and the reason, they said, was a desire for better employment opportunities. One of the participants described his situation like this (I am paraphrasing): “I need to go to school to learn English so I can be more successful. I need to work to support my family. Because I need to work, I can’t go to school to learn English.”

As the gentleman said this, many of the other participants nodded their heads in sympathetic agreement. The participants appeared to feel stuck in a vicious cycle that prevents them from learning the skills they need to find better jobs. Unfortunately, we ran out of time before we could talk about solutions to this problem.

Participants also said they wanted to learn English to improve communication in their family — for example, parents and grandparents talking to children who are not fluent in the family’s native language — and also to improve communication between individuals from different cultures and ethnicities. One participant wished for more opportunities for vocational training. Another participant talked about the problem of going to school to get certified for a certain type of job and then discovering, after getting certified, that there are very few jobs available in the field.

We learned a great deal from this experience. As we plan FLC community conversations in the future, it may be beneficial to have separate gatherings for Vietnamese and Spanish speakers, rather than attempt a conversation with all ESL students at once. Participants would probably have a better understanding of the questions and be more likely to contribute. This would also allow us to schedule the conversation to meet for an hour and a half. The ESL class met for an hour, which we found was not enough time.

For future FLC community conversations, we also wonder if it might not be better to use the standard community conversation questions and let participant ideas determine the focus of the conversation. Our participants responded more strongly to the first two, open-ended questions; when we switched the conversation to focus on education, the conversation faltered. If we decide we want to continue to focus on education, we may need to spend more time considering how best to phrase those questions. Participants seemed to have a difficult time talking about their “educational concerns,” how educational issues affect them personally, or how they relate to the success of their families. Perhaps if we came up with some simpler, more direct ways to phrase the questions, they would be more likely to respond.

Our community conversation with FLC users certainly presented some challenges. But in spite of those challenges, we gained a better understanding of our users as well as valuable experience to help us plan community conversations with FLC users in the future.