Carrboro Town Council votes to bust language barriers


By Fraser Sherman

CARRBORO – “I face people who do not speak my language every single day,” Huda Muhnaia says.

At April 9’s council meeting Muhnaia, a Carrboro resident who works for the Refugee Community Partnership, expressed her support for the town’s proposed Language Access Plan. “Communicating with other human beings is the most essential need we have. When I am able to communicate with someone else, I feel this is my home, that this is my country.” As she’s still learning English, she spoke in Arabic with Lema interpreting.

The plan’s text, which is part of the agenda package available on the council meeting website, says 15.6% of Carrboro residents have a primary language other than English and 6.5% of residents have limited English proficiency. Spanish speakers are the largest category, followed by Chinese (including dialects such as Mandarin and Cantonese) and Korean. Karen, Burmese, and Arabic are also common in the community and the school system.

Town staff told the council it’s city policy that residents who don’t speak English well still need to access government information, services, meetings, and leadership opportunities. The plan establishes procedures and policies to help achieve that goal.

Among the policies laid down in the plan, the town commits to:

  • Offer translators and interpreters for its policies free of charge. Interpreters handle spoken communication while translators work on written material.
  • Survey city staff to find employees who are multilingual and willing to work as translators or interpreters.
  • Notify residents of their options for language services.
  • Update the plan periodically as new languages enter the Carrboro community.

Latino Town Council member Eliazar Posada said updating would be important because the plan could only work if it was a living document changing with circumstances. He said he was proud that Carrboro is “doing the best they can to put their money where their mouth is and be truly inclusive.”

Council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell asked how staff would keep the plan flexible. If, say, Carrboro saw an influx of Ukrainian refugees as some communities have, how would staff deal with it?

Communications Director Catherine Lazorko said the plan requires re-evaluating the community’s language needs every year by looking at new immigrant communities and getting information from schools and Orange County.

Following the adoption of the Carrboro Language Access Plan, members of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Building Integrated Communities (BIC) team gathered in the Town Hall lobby (back row l-r) Catherine Lazorko, Madison Hayes, Emily Spangenberg, Brianna Gilmore and Hannah Gill; (front row l-r) Lema, Huda Muhnaia and Eve Greene. BIC was one of the partners working with Carrboro to develop the plan. Photo by Catherine Lazoro.

The council approved the plan unanimously. Appropriately this was also the first night the town offered residents attending the meeting headphones that would provide a Spanish translation of the English discussions.

In another unanimous vote, the council changed town policy for erecting memorials on town property: for example, a bench or a tree with an “in memory of” plaque.

Previous town policy was that a council member, an advisory board or a Carrboro citizen could request a memorial to honor someone deceased. The town would evaluate the request based on factors such as the deceased’s significance, the cost to the town, and whether the deceased person had “negatively affected the liberties, livelihoods, and/or civil or human rights of any person, intentionally or unintentionally.”

Public Works Director Kevin Belanger said while much of the policy stays the same, the revisions will let the town figure out answers to key questions. One is branding: How can the city make it visible which benches are memorials, which are business property, and which are provided by the city government? And what should the town do if a memorial has to be relocated or removed? Belanger said this isn’t covered under current policy, according to Belanger.

Mayor Barbara Foushee said city staff had proposed a $4,000 budget entry for future years that would help finance memorials if the applicant can’t afford them. Belanger said a bench could cost $3,000, a tree significantly less. The number of people the town could help would be limited, depending on what requests they received.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
This reporter can be reached at

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