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Not Your Ordinary Translation and Interpretation Service

By Hana Tauber

A Unique Cooperative

The Connections Cooperative is a worker-owned translation and interpretation services cooperative which began in April, 2004. We are activists, organizers, and other community members from the diverse neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island .

Our mission is two-fold: to create sustainable, enriching, high-quality cooperative employment and business ownership opportunities for minority women committed to the development of each other and our community, and to bridge the communication and cultural divides within our community in order to facilitate open access to needed services; a meaningful voice in determining community direction; and full and fair participation in community systems and affairs.

Connections Co-op stands out as the only work cooperative at this time that has open membership and interpretation and translation training for community members. We encourage people to join who not only want to learn to provide translation and interpretation services, but also want to be a part of a collective group of people working for change in our neighborhoods.

All of our members have a long history of community-oriented work within Providence and have used their language skills in many capacities to better the lives of Providence residents. The experience of working within Providence communities provides our interpreters with a deeper knowledge of the context of community issues and enables them to facilitate language understanding in a committed and responsive way. The cooperative is now made up of six women committed to providing both quality services and quality employment opportunities. Currently, the core member-owners of the Co-op who work as interpreters are bilingual in Spanish and English. The Co-op also has consultants that provide Portuguese and Kmher services. The current members were recruited through the outreach of community organizers who recognized their strong bilingual capabilities and their powerful commitment to community organizing and activism.

Based on Community Needs, Not a Business Plan

In far too many areas of the social, political and economic life of Providence and its surrounding communities, language barriers prevent non-English speaking people from accessing needed services, navigating government systems and participating fully in the decision-making processes determining their communityís future. Connections Co-op believes that the role of interpretation and translation can be one that seeks to equalize power dynamics, positively confronts language discrimination, and provides necessary tools for self-determination of immigrant communities. From the beginning, the cooperative has believed that it should operate based on the needs of the community and not on a business plan, which has marked the cooperative as different from other standard translation and interpreting agencies.

Although many community agencies have a responsibility to provide translation and interpreting services, many lack consistent and high quality interpretation and translation services; this presents a serious impediment for a large minority of the community. Many non-English speakers do not feel comfortable in demanding their rights to interpretation and thus remain marginalized. In addition, within the past few years, there have been drastic interpreter cutbacks in the courts, hospitals and schools of Rhode Island. This has created an even more severe language marginalization for non-English speaking communities. The increasing demand for interpretation and translation services due to cutbacks is matched by traditional interpretation providersí inability to fulfill the community demand for quality, accessible services provided in an equitable way.

Origins and Principles

The Connections Co-op structure came about because community members hoped to create a more stable and dignified work situation, increase their interpretation and translation skills, and become stronger leaders in advocating for communities with language barriers. In order to stay true to these principles, we believe that the community should take ownership of the decisions that are made, and that we function in a non-hierarchical fashion.

The Co-opís ownership structure, democratic principles, and commitment to community involvement set it apart from traditional translation and interpretation service providers. Each of the Co-opís core members is responsible for a different area of coordination for the cooperative: administration of interpreters and translations; treasury; invoices; projects; and community outreach. The Co-opís active members are the board, and there is no head administrator or employed workers. In Connections Co-op, we are all cooperative members. Any decision pertaining to the co-op is made through weekly meetings of the core members. At this time the cooperative is working to stabilize its funds for education in order to create a development plan that could provide for various work benefits and compensation for its members.

Co-op interpreters have worked for three other interpretation agencies and in hospitals in Providence. These agencies impose high charges on their clients and only pay 15-30% of these charges to the interpreter for their services. Each worker was required to provide their own transportation and received no benefits. In addition, they found that the agencies did not have high standards for interpretation quality and were not supportive of the educational and professional development of each interpreter. The Co-op interpreters left these agencies feeling undervalued, underpaid, and as though they had no potential for job advancement.

From the very beginning, our founders believed that interpretation and translation services could be provided with a different model. In our co-op, eighty percent of client fees go to the interpreter and translator and twenty percent stays within the cooperative for overhead costs. The fee structure also allows Connections to offer sliding scale rates to non-profits and pro-bono services to those in need. When working for this rate, the interpreter receives the full payment from the organization.

In addition to assuring a respectable living wage, the Co-op also continually concerns itself with the personal and professional development of each of its member-owners. The Co-op has given scholarships to its members to study to become certified interpreters and funds to be able to go to cooperative conferences. Currently, the Co-op is part of a coalition of cooperatives designing a curriculum for workshops on the principles and strategies of cooperative enterprise development. These workshops will be open to all member-owners. The Co-op holds worker-owner education and training as a key element in maintaining best practices and quality services.

Meeting Our Challenges

The main challenge facing Connections Co-op is how to grow in a community that does not always have ready access to models that can support an alternative work and educational structure. We are addressing this difficulty by leveraging education and resources for our members and the community at large that can help explain how cooperatives work differently. By drawing on regional, national and international networks of cooperatives, the Co-op hopes to strengthen connections with other groups that are going through similar challenges and processes. The best advice that Connections Co-op can offer for other groups working towards a cooperative structure is this: work from the needs of the community and not from the needs of a business, and constantly educate one another about the challenges of being a cooperative.

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