Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16440 Beyond Bilingual and Bicultural: A Qualitative Analysis of Service Providers Who Work with Latinos In a New Growth Community

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 5:00 PM
Constitution D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Deirdre Lanesskog, MPA, Doctoral Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Lissette Piedra, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Stephanie Maldonado, BSW Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Background: The large influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the past four decades and their unprecedented spread across the United States have generated complex service barriers in communities characterized by recent growth in their Hispanic populations. These “new growth” areas, which attract Latino immigrants seeking low-skill work, also tend to experience an exodus of highly educated Hispanics (Lichter & Johnson, 2009). At a time when bilingual professionals are urgently needed, such a trend reflects a significant loss of human capital. Therefore, how these service providers in these changing communities understand and navigate cultural, linguistic, and institutional limitations can provide critical insights for future service planning.

Purpose: Three questions motivate this study: (1) How do service providers in these new growth areas conceptualize and address services barriers for Latino immigrants? (2) What characteristics do workers identify as critical to providing effective services for Latino immigrants in these communities? (3) What institutional policies and practices are needed to augment a scarce bilingual workforce?

Method: This paper analyzes semi-structured interviews with 24 service providers in a Midwestern county with a rapidly growing Latino population. These Latino and non-Latino participants deliver a broad range of social services to Latinos and were recruited through a snowball sampling technique in which community leaders and service providers recommended peers and colleagues engaged with the Latino community. We employed a Grounded Theory approach to open coding and axial coding to develop themes (Larossa, 2005) and used an anthropological definition of a theme, “…dynamic affirmations…which control behavior or stimulate activities” (Ryan & Bernard, 2003, p. 86). Interviews were analyzed chronologically, using constant comparison to triangulate the data and arrive at an inductive analysis of how services providers manage a difficult service context for Latino immigrants. Results: Our analysis indicates that across service sectors, providers valued bilingual skills and Latino ethnic identity, which often served as a proxy for biculturalism. However, these characteristics often proved insufficient in the absence of empathy for Latino clients or a willingness to act on their behalf. Rather, our data indicate that the ability to empathize and the possession of effective agency reflect a skill set distinct from linguistic and cultural skills. Further, the delivery of high quality services hinged on the convergence of all four qualities—language, culture, empathy, and agency—within a particular institutional context. This research also highlights the institutional practices that compound language barriers, such as the pervasive lack of planning in the recruitment, retention, and support of bilingual workers. The absence of such planning coupled with a scare bilingual workforce creates a fragile service infrastructure for Latino clients.

Conclusions and Implications: The challenges posed by those who need linguistically accessible services in communities unaccustomed to immigrants create a unique set of service complexities for service providers who work in these regions. Our findings suggest that these complexities are not insurmountable. By identifying characteristics of effective service providers and devising institutional strategies to reduce worker burnout and turnover, the cultivation of a linguistically responsive workforce remains within reach.