It’s without irony that the neighborhoods of Sioux City built by and for working immigrants were called “The Bottoms.” Our present-future was built upon the bottom lands–flooding, muddy, bug infested, and hard–and the people who lived there. We could expect that as COVID-19 began to sweep across America, those who have inherited these positions would absorb the headwaters and swell of the disaster. And, it came to pass. Iowa’s governor declared meat-packing and other ag-manufacturing industries essential and compelled workers to report to the line as outbreaks bloomed in packing houses. We carried and discussed the pressers where the governor stated these policies and where resources for our citizenry were discussed. But for those compelled to work, to face contracting a deadly virus or losing work, those who would most need such resources, they were denied even knowing of such resources simply by not speaking the language. They were denied access to the democratic process by not being given an opportunity to participate in the discussion. Language carrying vital information filled the air, but many could not capture it, could not penetrate its sounds and structure. Siouxland has a relatively healthy media landscape, but to non-English speakers the fertile Midwest is a desert, a landscape where the levers of democracy are beyond reach.
Employers recruit workforces from around the world, creating a population in flux, multicultural, and disconnected. In Sioux City, 18.8% of the population speaks non-English languages at home. As the pandemic struck, we recognized that these populations, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people in Sioux City alone, would be left without information or a source committed to serving them. To try to bring a little light into the world, we partnered with another non-profit, the Mary J Treglia Community House, that could provide translations and voices for us. We established a regular delivery and production schedule. Our reporters email news scripts to MJTCH. They translate and, using phones, record the scripts and deliver the files. From there, we edit and post. We now digitally distribute daily news in Spanish, Oromo, Amharic, Vietnamese, and Somali.
While we hoped that this would help to keep our fellow community members safe, what we have found is that it has acted as a sort of welcoming, an embrace, that had never been extended or felt before. Beyond the pandemic, far out into the future, we see this project as an opportunity to break the cultural segregation within which we all live. We see it as one way to expand the reach of public media beyond its traditional audience. And we have discovered in this project a true sense of our mission and the mission of public media: providing access to good, trustworthy information, a most basic and necessary part of any life that may be called free and any democracy that seeks to serve its people.