Sophie Bolich
City Hall

License Division Embraces Power of Babel

Babel Blocks will deliver key information about licensing process in other languages.

By - Jun 11th, 2024 12:47 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new initiative from the City of Milwaukee License Division aims to address language barriers and engage more residents in deciding whether a business can open near their homes.

The project, called Babel Blocks, will provide key information about the licensing process to individuals with limited English proficiency.

And it won’t be difficult to find. For those in need, the resource will be waiting in their mailbox.

Babel Blocks in Spanish and Hmong are now printed on the backside of public hearing notices, which are distributed to residents living within 250 feet of a business that is scheduled to appear before the Licenses Committee. The program is poised to expand with additional languages in the coming weeks.

“The idea here is that these are brief blocks of language — in a language other than English — that would point an individual with limited English proficiency to information in a language that is relevant for them,” said Sam Dawson, business systems specialist for the city, who is leading the effort in partnership with Alderwoman and Committee Chair JoCasta Zamarripa.

The notices also include QR codes that direct recipients to an online version of the letter in their preferred language, as well as translated instructions for those interested in providing testimony to the Milwaukee Licenses Committee.

Some languages — especially those that are commonly spoken instead of written — could soon become available in video form; the visual aid would be particularly helpful for individuals with limited literacy or vision impairments.

Dawson, who also serves as an interpreter at City Hall, witnesses firsthand the challenges that language barriers pose to both entrepreneurs and residents who are seeking to participate in the licensing process.

Because the meetings are conducted in English, non-English speaking applicants are frequently tasked with providing their own interpreter. The process can result in confusion or miscommunication between the committee, neighbors and applicants.

Due to limited capacity, City Hall is partnering with an outside organization to create the language resources for Babel Blocks.

Dawson said that increasing language accessibility is a “high priority” for the Licenses Committee, particularly for Zamarripa, who is bilingual in English and Spanish.

“This is very much just the beginning of this type of effort,” Dawson said, noting he hopes to add Blocks in Arabic, Burmese, Hindi, Karen and Rohingya in the near future.

“I want to thank the License Division for taking up this initiative and I look forward to growing the Babel Blocks so we can continue to provide this information in multiple languages here in Milwaukee.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article noted that public hearing notices are distributed to neighbors within 600 feet of a business. 

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One thought on “City Hall: License Division Embraces Power of Babel”

  1. Colin says:

    Accessibility is huge, hope to see this continued to be rolled out / expanded.

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