Language justice: an invitation to get out of our comfort zones and build together


Prachi Patankar and Phoebe De Padua


‘Language justice’ is a concept that holds that people have a right to express themselves in the language they choose and in which they feel most powerfully and authentically themselves. The concept also recognizes that language is a carrier of culture. Just as being able to communicate in one’s chosen language is liberatory, the imposition of one language as the ‘standard’ is oppressive and limiting.

Foundation for a Just Society (FJS) believes that bringing a language justice lens to our work as funders is essential to advancing social justice. In two earlier articles, we wrote about centering the leadership and priorities of caste-oppressed and Indigenous feminist activists in our grantmaking in South and Southeast Asia. Engaging with respect, recognizing what we have to learn from these activists, and following their leadership calls on us to break with practices that privilege English and dominant local languages and exclude those who do not speak them. Integrating interpretation into our work with partners facilitates grassroots activists’ participation and brings their voices into the conversation.

This article shares recommendations to support funders to strengthen their engagement with language justice. In developing these recommendations, we spoke with peer funders about how they are approaching this work. FJS recently conducted a series of convenings with language workers, which also contributed to developing these seven recommendations for funders.

  1. Allocate time to plan and prepare

Practicing language justice is complex work that demands planning and time. Have work plans and budgets anticipated translation and interpretation? Do documents or presentations need to be translated and shared before a meeting? Have interpreters been identified for a meeting or convening? Who have we included – and excluded – by the languages we are working in? Can we address funder-grantee power dynamics by making a local language, rather than English, a meeting’s working language? These are questions that cannot be treated as afterthoughts. We must integrate into our work new practices that require thought, time, and planning.

  1. Build knowledge and capacity

Building internal capacities for language justice may include developing policies and protocols to systematize language practices, conducting internal audits on language and accessibility practices, assessing language needs of current and potential grantees and staff, creating systems to receive proposals and reports in local languages, and researching technological tools to support language justice practices.

Being attentive to the intersection between language and disability justice and ensuring that sign languages and Braille are built into language justice practice is also important. Finally, documenting your organization’s intentions to develop language justice practices may be helpful to staying on track.

  1. Commit to language justice throughout the organization

In developing a language justice practice, organizations often move from reacting ad hoc to language needs, to formalizing policies and protocols, to internalizing a commitment to language justice. In embracing a commitment, it is important that staff at all levels implement language policies, and that responsibility does not fall disproportionately to bi- and multilingual staff (who may be more sensitive to the need).

Language justice is relevant not only for programs staff, but also finance, legal, grants administration, and communications teams. Finally, (native) speakers of dominant languages should develop awareness of how they experience – and can mitigate – language privilege.


  1. Support the skills development of language workers, particularly those with movement and/or lived experience

Developing and strengthening language workers’ interpretation, translation, and proofreading skills is work that is important to resource. Funders also need to invest in language workers’ ability to work with a lens that includes historically marginalized and gender-oppressed communities. Developing a database of translators and interpreters will support foundation staff to identify skilled language workers when they are needed.

Additionally, interpreters with lived and/or social movement experience bring awareness of relevant issues and dynamics, enabling them to provide sensitive and accurate interpretation. At the recent Black Feminisms Forum in Barbados, for example, it was important that interpreters in a space designed exclusively for Black women and non-binary people were also members of the community, according to Alyxandra Gomes, the Black Feminist Fund’s Language Justice Coordinator.

  1. Embrace the learning journey with humility

Implementing language justice practices requires a step into the unknown – and that takes patience, humility, and an acceptance that mistakes are unavoidable. Like all equity issues, language justice is not a matter of quick fixes, but, rather, is a learning journey. Kristen Kendrick, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Racial Justice at American Jewish World Service, put it this way: ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience is important because building takes time.’

  1. Resource language justice

Generous resourcing – with funding, time, and capacity strengthening – is a condition for success. Practicing language justice requires investments in translation, interpretation, technology, and staff capacity. Funders must budget for these costs and encourage their grantees to do the same. Accompaniment or capacity-building grants may be another resourcing strategy. Other opportunities to advance language justice include funding existing language justice collectives, worker cooperatives, and networks, along with developing a dedicated language justice fund that is committed to challenging language hierarchies.

  1. Invest in language justice to build movements

In an interconnected world facing urgent cross-border issues – climate change, environmental degradation, labor rights, migration – communicating across borders and across languages to build and connect movements is critical. Funders can support excluded communities and contribute to movement building by investing in strategies and practices to achieve language justice.


Language justice is complex, long-term, and essential work that invites us to get out of our comfort zones and to build together. At FJS, using language justice practices is enabling us to inhabit more fully our commitment to funding feminist organizations and movements led by those most impacted by systemic and historic injustices. Practicing language justice is making us a better funder, and we invite our peers in the field to join us.


Prachi Patankar is a feminist activist, writer, and the Senior Program Officer, South and Southeast Asia at Foundation for a Just Society.

Phoebe De Padua is a Filipina community organizer and the Senior Program Associate, South and Southeast Asia at Foundation for a Just Society.


Acknowledgements: FJS thanks American Jewish World Service, the Black Feminist Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Porticus’ learning partner Lighthouse Partnerships Ltd., and Wellspring Philanthropic Fund for thoughtful conversations and generosity with their time.

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candy clicker

What a nice post! Thank you so much and I am really looking forward to reading more and more articles from you.

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