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SILVER SPRING—Diane Vu of the Office of Community Partnerships (OCP) met with the Silver Spring Advisory Board to hear concerns from the community and talk about what services her office can provide.
The Silver Spring Advisory Board held committee meetings on March 25 for smaller, more specific conversations about issues facing the area. The Neighborhood Committee, led by Aburahman Mohammed, focuses on quality of life issues like public health planning, school-community relations, housing and community redevelopment in the Silver Spring area.
OCP exists to bolster the relationship between the Montgomery County government and residents in the area. Vu, who is the director of OCP, explained that her office is especially focused on reaching and connecting with parts of the community that are underserved or underrepresented in government.
One way that OCP connects with different groups within Montgomery County is through the work of community liaisons. Vu explained that there are six liaison positions within OCP which represent different ethnic and interfaith communities.
“The role of the liaisons is to build trust in the community,” Vu said, “so that when the government has a message, it’s coming from a trusted source.”
There are liaisons for the African, African-American, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American and Middle Eastern American communities. There is also work towards having an LGBTQ liaison as well, although presently not all the positions are filled.
“Being four liaisons down is very challenging,” Vu said.
On the whole, the OCP doesn’t have a large staff but Vu explained that they are actively hiring and looking for candidates to fill the liaison roles. One of the reasons for a push to fill the available positions and better connect with the community, Vu explained, is because of County Executive Marc Elrich’s work towards a more equitable Montgomery County.
“Our office plays a big role in the equity conversation,” Vu said, “and County Executive Elrich wants all three branches of OCP to continue their work but also deepen our roots in the community.”
John Seelke who serves as the vice chair for the Neighborhoods Committee drew OCP’s attention to the lack of counseling resources in local schools, especially for immigrant children.
Silver Spring has a strong population of immigrants, according to the Census Bureau. The area is home to a large number of immigrants from Ethiopia and El Salvador, which means that the area also has a lot on non-native English speakers. In 2017, upwards of 45 percent of Silver Spring residents spoke additional languages other than English. The most common second language in the area was Spanish.
Language and cultural barriers contribute to the difficulty of reaching residents in the community and providing services like school counseling to children.
“Mental health looks different in our different communities,” Vu said. “In some cultural communities, mental health just isn’t talked about. I know (addressing mental health in schools) is a very big hole that we’re trying to address.”
Mohammed also noted that children of immigrant families often come to school bearing extra worries that come along with moving like overheard financial stress, loneliness at school or isolation due to language barriers.
Another issue Vu discussed with the Neighborhood Committee was the upcoming 2020 Census count. Education and outreach efforts are already underway for Montgomery County in the form of education campaigns and an upcoming kickoff event.
Vu explained that in 2010 Montgomery County residents did well responding to and submitting the Census. The OCP is making strides towards a high rate of return for 2020 as well through planning, outreach, and education.
The 2020 Census has drawn considerable controversy already due to a push by the Trump Administration to add a question about a resident’s legal citizenship in the United States.
Advisory Board members highlighted this issue as well. Board members were concerned that if the question is allowed on the 2020 Census residents would not respond to the survey or worse, they would become fearful that answering would land them in legal trouble. Work to reassure residents and encourage them to respond to the census will be a heavy task for the OCP.
“The damage has already been done with the citizenship question,” Mohammed said.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to include the citizenship question at a hearing in April and the 2020 Census is set to go live April 1 of next year.
Ultimately, Vu explained, the OCP’s mission is to gain the trust of the community groups that call Montgomery County home.
“These meetings are incredibly important because we need to hear from the citizens as to what the needs of the community are,” Vu said. “It’s awesome to see these residents who know the county so well, even better than us, to advise us on our policies and services.”
The Silver Spring Advisory Board has committee meetings on the fourth Monday of every month.