Yajaira Bess remembers when she joined the staff of
Berkeley Electric Cooperative in 2005, members who preferred to communicate in Spanish would often bring their young, English-speaking children to the co-op to translate.
“[They] would come into our lobbies with 10- and 12-year-old kids,” she says. “It was obvious they’d been pulled out of school to help address family needs and what really amounted to adult business.”
Bess, a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York state, started as a member services rep and was one of two bilingual employees at the Moncks Corner, South Carolina-based co-op. Now a public relations and grassroots specialist, she says Berkeley EC has become a leader in addressing the needs of the Charleston area’s growing Hispanic population, now around 7%.
Initial steps taken with the support of the co-op’s board included recruitment and training of more bilingual member services representatives for lobbies and the call center. As the co-op’s website and social media presence evolved, Spanish preference options were included.
“We started translating our bylaws, brochures, applications, some of the programs and services, and our annual meeting letter in Spanish,” Bess says. “Our website and Facebook page were adapted so our LEP [limited English proficiency] members could translate the information and post in their language. And beginning in 2016, we began promoting prepaid metering to our members, and translating the messaging into Spanish generated a great response.”
The co-op even launched a weekly radio program, hosted by Bess, called “Conversaciones Electricantes”—or Electrifying Conversations. The half-hour show not only covers co-op issues but also community services and events of interest to the local Hispanic community.
Dr. Lorna Manglona-Alexander, a high school career specialist with the Berkeley County School District, says efforts like Berkeley EC’s to remove language barriers in the community can have a broader impact.
“When we can expose them to a few of the opportunities available, it opens the door for them to learn more,” she says.
“It was the best experience ever,” Bess says. “We’ll be partnering with several more community organizations that work with the Latinx community, and we are sponsoring a Junior Achievement program in Spanish for multiple language high school students. We’re also launching a Spanish-language video podcast that we’ll produce in the co-op’s new recording studio.”
President and CEO Mike Fuller says the outreach is all part of a continual effort to ensure all members have equal access to the co-op’s wealth of services.
“We strive to meet each member where they are, no matter their circumstances,” he says. “Because we’re in a high-growth area, we regularly encounter members who are new to the area and don’t know how co-ops are different from other utilities. For our Spanish-speaking members, we want to remove any obstacles to them seeing us as a trusted resource—and that we’re here to serve them.”