Lessons learned: the challenges of moderating non-English-speaking focus groups

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Last Thursday I had the opportunity to moderate my first ever Spanish-language focus group as part of a current project on community revitalization in three Memphis neighborhoods. For this project, my partner and I are conducting two to three informal focus groups (we are calling them “discussion circles” so as to make them less threatening when working with marginalized communities/populations) as well as individual interviews in each of three target areas that are considered to be economically disadvantaged or poor. We are basically collecting information, including people’s perspectives and perceptions of their neighborhoods and where they feel resources should be directed to, to supplement a new mayoral anti-poverty initiative as well as the efforts a grassroots program called Community LIFT. It has been our goal since the outset to make this a more participatory project in that the neighborhood-based groups will eventually become connected to Community LIFT, which will focus on leveraging resources within those communities, as well as on the issues identified by residents and on bridging neighborhood networks of active, action-oriented stakeholders to build neighborhood capacity.

This particular focus group consisted of 13 participants (and their children) who are originally from Mexico and who all live in the area. It was convened at a popular grassroots community center, which many view as the center of this culturally diverse neighborhood. Participants were each paid $20 in cash for their participation. (We have realized that people are much happier when you can pay them for their time right away, rather than making them wait a week or two for a check from the University).

Moderating the discussion was an intense and difficult yet useful experience in many ways. First let me say that my many years of studying Spanish (from 6th grade through my third year of undergrad, including study/travel abroad, for a total of 10 years) really came in handy. I consider my speaking and comprehension skills to be at a proficient enough level for normal conversations, presentations, and speaking with individuals and groups, but I am definitely not completely fluent, or as I told the participants, “no soy completamente fluida”. Hence, the challenges of this language barrier would make themselves apparent throughout our discussion.

Even though we did get some good input from participants on their concerns as well as improvements they would like to see in the area, and even though it wasn’t a total flop, I don’t feel it turned out as well as it could have. This is because I really couldn’t get as in-depth as I wanted to with most of the topics. Language was really the crux of why the focus group was only moderately successful (perhaps a 6 out of 10, if I were to rate it on a scale). The quality and quantity of the information collected was greatly affected by the language barrier, which sometimes made it difficult for me to keep the discussion going smoothly, probe for details/solicit further responses, and to completely understand people who spoke rapidly or quietly, or who used slang. I translated the questions into Spanish ahead of time (this really saved me, and made it so that the translator didn’t have to moderate the entire thing), but the difficulties I encountered were mostly with follow-up questions and probes as well as establishing a true connection to the participants. I was able to get people to speak who weren’t actively participating, and was able to probe for more information using words like “why?,” “how many?,” “when?,” and other phrases, as in a normal conversation, but it didn’t work out so well when I did not completely understand what was being said or when multiple people were talking at once. There were a couple moments at which I had very to little sense of what was being said, but for the most part I kept up with the discussion and could ask appropriate follow-ups. Again, the translator came in handy for clarifying both my questions and participants’ responses.

Another thing about barriers. I am about 98% sure that the participants were all undocumented immigrants, which also presented a few obstacles in terms of establishing the rapport that is so crucial when speaking with people who don’t know you, let alone people who speak another language. When we began, most of the participants were hesitant about signing the consent form, especially because it was not in Spanish (this was a big mistake on our part and something I felt extremely embarrassed about not having planned for ahead of time). Even though our assistant was able to verbally translate the consent form, and although I explained the project thoroughly before we began (I also prepared a Spanish version of this to read to them), I firmly believe that it’s just wrong to ask people to sign something that they cannot actually read. Period. One woman really illustrated the issue at hand when she half-jokingly asked if signing this would make her go back to Mexico. Others shared her sentiment. On a related note, those who are undocumented may also not want to sign their full name, put down their (non-existent) Social Security numbers (this was required for the University’s files but there was obviously no way we could collect this information), or their addresses. These are important factors that moderators should expect with this type of group.

The very understandable lack of trust also reared itself in other forms. For instance, here I am, a middle-class, white, American, college-educated woman who works for the University and who doesn’t fluently speak the language. Yes, I explained the project, who I am, who my partner is, what we are hoping to do with the information, that names and information are confidential, etc., etc., but this didn’t matter. They had never seen me before, so I was asking a lot. I could still sense a level of mistrust and misunderstanding about what we were up to; my positionality as researcher and the positionalities of the participants in terms of the obvious power dynamic played a big role in this. Toward the end of the discussion, the same woman who made the comment about the consent form also remarked that she was basically tired of people (outsiders, researchers, government officials) coming into the community and asking people for their opinions but not actually doing anything with the information they collect (or worse, making and breaking promises). This too was not surprising, and I have come to expect comments like these from groups who have been misused and abused by researchers in the past. In turn, I told her we respect and agree with her opinion and can understand her frustration. I also tried to reassure her that we were here to try and help but that the ultimate use of the information would be out of our control and up to the City and Community LIFT. By this time I was so overwhelmed with the challenges of moderating this group that I probably didn’t do such a good job explaining these details.

This experience has further solidified my opinion that non-English-language focus groups really necessitate having a fluent (preferably native) speaker as moderator so the linguistic connection is not an issue. This is crucial if you want to work with marginalized or vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants, who live in constant fear of deportation and who rightfully mistrust those in power. If you don’t have someone on staff who speaks Spanish (or whatever language is needed), then you need to hire one as a consultant, because it is absolutely essential if you want a successful session. It is even better if the moderator is familiar to the community or to the specific group of participants, or has some sort of cultural connection (such as being from the same country or region of a country). This way, you can ensure even stronger rapport between moderator and participants, and therefore a higher quality and quantity of information shared. Second, it is extremely important that every aspect of the research project is explained to the participants so they are fully aware of what they are participating in, if there are any risks involved, if their names and information will remain confidential or anonymous, etc. (this last point is especially important for undocumented populations). On this note, if you are going to ask people to sign a consent form or any other sort of paperwork, it must be translated into their native language (not to mention read/explained to individuals who may be illiterate).

It was my fear initially that having the translator moderate the focus group would be a bad idea because she had no training or experience in this area. Now I realize that meeting up for a couple hours beforehand to discuss how to moderate groups with her would have been a great way to avoid most of the problems I encountered. That way, I would still have been able to ask follow-up questions and be a part of the conversation, but as a secondary participant. Perhaps the participants would have opened up more to her because she spoke their language and was familiar to the community. It would also have been a chance for her (a senior undergrad in criminal justice) to gain experience in focus group moderation, and for me to aid in the democratization of research by sharing/relinquishing the power inherent in such a role.

One last thing. I mentioned above that many of the participants’ children were around while we conducted the discussion. My suggestion is to be flexible and tolerant of noise, talking, playing, etc. that can be loud enough to be disruptive and distracting. It’s just one of those things you can’t really avoid unless you have arranged for childcare in another area of the facility, and even then some parents may prefer to have their children nearby. Also be prepared for late-comers and people who might have to leave early. If you are providing cash incentives, make it clear at the beginning that the individual must stay for all or most of the discussion if they want to get paid. I cannot emphasize it enough: clarify, clarify, clarify!

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