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June 4, 2013

Maile Broccoli-Hickey: What’s Gained in Translation

Bold Idea: When it comes to language, context is everything. While ENGLISH @ WORK trains immigrant employees in the language of their workplace, the organization itself is learning to speak the language that communicates its value to a range of its own supporters.

When 2007 Fellow Maile Broccoli-Hickey describes herself as a “language person,” she means more than simply earning her double major in French and English at University of Texas, Austin, while getting her secondary teaching certificate and volunteering as an ESL instructor. She’s also thinking about context and outcomes. Her passion for social change through language means something closer to a Spanish word—ganas—which doesn't translate easily into English. Ganas means eagerness, motivation, a gut-level desire that drives thought and action.

“The idea of English classes at work isn't new,” Maile hastens to say; it's been around since the time of Henry Ford. But her spin on the idea was novel, both for its time and for the city of Austin. ENGLISH @ WORK customizes its instruction to students within a specific workplace, enlisting the business to pay instructors to teach the classes. This part, says Maile, makes a huge difference in the success of the program. Besides ensuring best quality instruction by a paid staff, it also fosters a commitment from the businesses to their employees. This translates over time to an upwardly mobile workforce that improves not only the viability of a business, but also the well-being of a community.Maile put herself through grad school by waiting tables. During this time, she noted that each plate of food depended on an intricate chain of communication to get from the kitchen to a table. She also noted that her Mexican and Guatemalan co-workers were confined to one end of that chain by having only a limited English vocabulary. If they wanted to explore new opportunities in their industry, they needed to master its particular language. Maile, for whom ESL and restaurant work were the constants of her adult life, had the intimate knowledge and the irrepressible ganas to answer that need.

As the organization grows, she has encountered her own challenges in adapting to the communication needs of potential investors. In a tech-dominant milieu like Austin, Maile says, “funders expect to see revenue march along at a certain pace, as if you were creating computers.” And while many businesses see the moral value of investing in their coworkers, proving the long-term financial value the program offers requires Maile to identify metrics that speak effectively to businesses and investors alike.

Likewise, Maile regularly fields calls from all over the country to bring the program outside Austin. “We have businesses asking us to bring ENGLISH @ WORK to California, DC, Oklahoma,” she says. The program staff initially resisted these opportunities, however, hoping that they could find partner providers that could help the program translate smoothly into new environments.

But in fact, these outside cities are calling precisely because no providers like ENGLISH @ WORK exist in their community. “So,” Maile concludes, “we're going to go ahead, and try. I'm really excited about bringing the model and ethos to other communities who need someone like us. We have the potential...and I totally thank Echoing Green for this...to be a real solution for immigrants and refugees who get stuck in multigenerational poverty.”

Maile has depended on Echoing Green and the network of fellows to provide insight for responding to these challenges. "I don't think I've met a single Echoing Green person who doesn't immediately feel like they're part of my family,” Maile says. “Being change-makers, understanding the roller coaster that is starting and launching a new idea...we speak the same language.”

Think Big: To maximize impact, our Fellows have had to translate their ideas to the people who support it, and to the people who benefit from it. Imagine how differently an entrepreneur like 2006 Fellow Andrew Youn must be able to communicate the benefits of One Acre Fund to his constituents and to his investors. What about Khalil Fuller, 2012 Black Male Achievement Fellow, working in the language of his students, co-educators, and grant applications? Effective communication means entering the world of your audience and learning what they hear and see in the words and gestures you take for granted.