Multiple voices in an advocacy interview

An amalgam of notes written by Dr James Simpson and Jolana Hanusova from the University of Leeds.

Our Leeds-based Key Participant (KP) Z. works as a freelance community interpreter and translator. This blog post is about differing accounts of an observation that Jolana and I made of her workplace interaction on 20 October 2014.

Some of Z.’s interpreting work takes place at AT, in Harehills, Leeds. AT provides advice and advocacy for Harehills residents, mainly migrants, who are increasingly Slovak and Czech Roma. KP Z. acts as an interpreter for the advisors. They provide advice mainly about benefits, e.g. tax credits and child benefit; they also assist people in their efforts at getting their children into school. It’s very difficult for new arrivals to find a school place locally for their children and Z. knows of some families who have been waiting over six months for a school place.

Appointments at AT are timed at an hour each. At the beginning of the day, those in the queue are given a time for an appointment later in the day, and then sent away. When I arrived at the AT offices at around 9.30, at least 10 people were waiting in the reception area, mostly Roma. When Jolana arrived soon after, she was greeted warmly in Czech by many of them.

Because both Jolana and I were observing Z. at work, we had the opportunity to compare our written-up field notes. Our notes differ not so much in the detail of what happened, but in the level of insight that we each gained. Some of this can be attributed to our differing styles as observers and field-note writers; Jolana seems to put more of herself into her notes than I do of myself. But Jolana’s insights are deeper than mine, surely attributable in part to her being able to understand more completely than I can what is going on in the interaction, and also because of her prior knowledge of the participants.

Here is my account of the beginning of the consultation:

‘The first client arrives, and there is some confusion because she comes in with V, another interpreter who I later find out also works as an advisor for AT. It’s not clear why he needs to be there, but he stays in the room. The client, M, asks Jolana not to record the interaction, though she seems completely unconcerned by our presence. She has brought her 2-year-old son with her. She wants the advisor to phone the Tax Credit office: her letter is about an appeal against a decision of some kind, and she wants the office to know she won’t be attending the hearing because she needs to look after an ill child. While the advisor is phoning the tax credit office, M produces a second letter which she hands to Z. – she says ‘Child Benefit’ in English.’

We can juxtapose this with Jolana’s account of the same phase:

’10:10 The advisor came upstairs, and shortly after arrived the first client, Ms M, accompanied by a young guy. It took us a while to us to establish who he was – he was V, one of the volunteer advocates from the A.T.. I think both myself and Z thought he was just a friend of Ms M who came to interpret for her. It really took us a while to establish why he was there, as myself and Z. know that last week he was normally attending clients. We got no clear answer, really, it was miscommunication. But I think the problem was there was no free spare room.

It was obvious that Ms M and V know each other and get on well – she called him ‘zlatíčko’ (darling), but then, Ms M is very warm-hearted and also calls Z. ‘Z-ka’or ‘Z-anka’.

V’s presence made the sessions more informal. When the advisor wasn’t speaking, he would involve in a chat with the clients – so would I and Z., but you could tell V’s relationship is different, much closer, as he is Roma too. He said ‘I know the all’, speaking about Czechs and Slovaks from Harehills.

I had seen Ms M about 3 times before. On 2 of these occasions, I asked her if I could record her, she always said no. I tried today, she still refused, but was ok with our presence there. She had brought a letter from a tribunal and wanted to ring there to say that she wouldn’t attend. Z: ‘are you sure you don’t want to go? It might be better for you.’ Still, Ms M didn’t want to go, as she and her son had both an operation planned and she was afraid the dates could clash. Or there was another reason. But it seems that once Ms M makes up her mind, there’s no swaying her – just like with the recording consent.’

What strikes me about this is the richness of Jolana’s description compared to mine. This is not just because she is able to understand the interaction (at least the parts in Czech if not Roma). She has insights based on her knowledge of Czech Roma culture and also personal knowledge of the participants themselves.

Examples of how these three areas of knowledge help Jolana gain her insights are evident in the extract above. She mentions that Ms M calls V zlatíčko (darling), and refers to Z. as Z-ka or Z-anka (the diminutive and affectionate forms of the names). She maintains that V, a Roma like Ms M, has a closer relationship with them than Z. can expect, because he is Roma. And when Ms M was adamant that she would not be able to attend the Tax Credit appeal hearing, Jolana suggests that this could be because of the child’s illness and her own. She understands Ms M’s motives slightly differently, though. Previously Ms M has refused permission to audio-record, and she does so again today. Jolana puts down to this stubborn-ness: once Ms M makes up her mind, there’s no swaying her. This last point is crucial from a research process perspective: the type of research we are doing involves a commitment to prolonged engagement with the research site. We can see from Jolana’s comment how this level of engagement is already paying dividends.

The next two extracts (the first from my notes and the second from Jolana’s) enable us to consider further Jolana’s insights into the cultural life of our research participants. Towards the end of Z.’s session with the first client, Ms M, I make the following notes:

‘Z. asks (Jolana translates for me) – does M have a partner? The answer makes the Czech-speaking participants laugh. Z. (to me): ‘M’s hair goes all the way to her knees.’ M stands up and lets her hair down – it does indeed fall to her knees. She says to me (JH translating) that she’s not allowed to cut it unless a member of her family dies.’

Jolana’s fieldnotes of the same event in the interaction read as follow:

‘The question ‘do you have a partner?’ came up, and Ms M said: No, nobody wants me! Everyone started laughing, and Z. saved the situation: ‘But you are pretty! You have beautiful hair!’ Ms M actually has hair that goes down to her knees. ‘But what’s the use of my hair if no one wants me!’ After a little persuasion she let her hair down for us to admire. ‘I have not cut it since I was a girl. In our belief you can’t just cut your hair when you want – only if someone dies or also if a woman is unfaithful, her husband can cut her hair’. She was telling V, who despite being Roma and speaking some Romani, did not know this. An indicator of different ‘levels’ of awareness of the ‘Roma belief’ in the community.’

Quite apart from the fact that Jolana didn’t tell me until later about the second reason a woman might have her hair cut, she is also able to comment on the use of the term our belief (note the plural pronoun). Ms M uses this term in preference to ‘our tradition’ or ‘our culture’, suggesting that we have to consider this something more deeply ingrained with identity, and perhaps more personal (and yet still associated with a group culture) even that either of these alternativesː a deep-seated cultural and personal belief.

There are other notable features of this interaction. In the advisory consultation itself many people are present: eight including the person from the Tax Credit office who the advisor phones during the course of the event. The overall purpose of the interaction was for the advocates to support and enable Ms M’s voice to be heard. But to what extent was her voice actually listened to, taken up, and acted upon? During the event itself Ms M clearly felt it was. As Ms M left the office, the advisor asked whether she could give some feedback on the AS service. Z. interpreted, and Ms M said (in English): everything here advocacy very super. As she went down the stairs she said (again in English): OK thank you very much. It is less certain that the advice she received will have helped her in her negotiations with the Tax Credit office. These concerned some kind of tribunal, which she was adamant that she would not attend (despite Z.’s suggestion that it would be in her interests to do so). The outcome of the session with AS was for her to successfully lose an opportunity to be heard in a more public sphere.

Finally, since the end of the interaction the contrasting and complementary voices of the observers have become louder. I at least was more or less silent during the interaction itself. Now, my own voice becomes more prominent as I remediate the experience of an oral, if textually-saturated (and at one point telephone-mediated) interaction first into fieldnotes written in a notepad, then in revised form onto a Word document, and then – a third time, and with commentary and bringing in Jolana’s voice – into this blog post.

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One thought on “Multiple voices in an advocacy interview

  1. How interesting! It’s really fascinating to see how you’re finding the multilingual research environment. I also found it valuable to see how James came to Jolana’s notes. I wonder whether Ms M lost her opportunity to be heard at the tribunal or whether it was merely deferred…

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