Photo of Leah Whitney Chavez from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Leah Whitney Chavez

A Language and Culture Connection

By Sarah Wengert
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography

At age 7, Leah (pronounced Lay-ah) Whitney Chavez moved from her hometown of Bellevue, Washington to her new home in Bellevue, Nebraska. Despite the communities’ identical names, she found a big difference in the cities’ diversity and cultural complexity. As the fifth-largest city in Washington and a part of the Seattle metropolitan area, her hometown exposed her early on to various cultures and languages. In contrast, even as a child, she immediately noticed the overwhelming whiteness and homogeneity of her new home in Bellevue, Nebraska. “In [Washington] I was really embedded in and very used to being surrounded by different cultures,” Chavez says, noting that her friends, neighbors and school bus chums there included Chinese, Latino, Indian, Black and white children.

As she grew up and grew to appreciate and invest in her new community and the greater Omaha area, Chavez came to conjure a brilliant, cross-cultural way to be the change she wished to see in the Cornhusker State. The evolution of that idea is World Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing “socioeconomic gaps and injustices through cultural education, inclusion initiatives and advocacy stories.” The organization offers popular community language classes, translation and interpretation services, tutoring, advocacy services, business language services and business and school workshops and services.

Chavez, founder and executive director at World Speaks, formally launched the nonprofit in 2016 after hosting its first classes in 2015. In her World Speaks bio, she states her belief that our nation’s diversity is our “superpower” and something to be celebrated. Chavez says she faced racism and questioned her identity at times in her Bellevue, Nebraska public school setting. These experiences planted powerful seeds. “I was inspired to create a space where people felt like they could be themselves, and where folks could learn truly who other people were—and not based off of a stereotype they saw on TV or were already holding people to,” she says.

That’s why it’s so important to Chavez that World Speaks isn’t just about language classes, but rather functions as a cultural hub, learning center and fulcrum for community connection. As its vision states: “World Speaks envisions a world where the voiceless are heard, the marginalized are included, and the vulnerable are safe.”

Chavez earned her Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Language and Literature with a concentration in Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But she began her Spanish education in a junior high foreign language exploratory program that offered a quarter-by-quarter survey of several languages. Spanish resonated and Chavez stuck with it.

“That was my first time taking a formal language class, and I stuck with it all the way through college,” she says.

English is Chavez’s first language, and she now also speaks Spanish, “rusty” American Sign Language (ASL) and enough Japanese to introduce herself and understand basic pronunciations. She’d like to become ASL fluent and improve her Japanese in the future. While she’s not sure why she initially gravitated towards Spanish, or learning languages in general, she shares a vivid memory of a kindergarten friend back in Washington.

“She was a really shy person and I always wished she would talk more,” Chavez says. “Now, looking back, I believe Spanish was her first language. Maybe something connected there. Also, I always just thought it would be so cool to understand what folks are saying.”

According to Omaha Public Schools, approximately 107 languages are spoken by OPS students and families—a stat that highlights the need for World Speaks programs. While the greater Omaha community is the organization’s current focus, Chavez feels their model is something needed in every community. “I’ve talked to people in California, and they have the same challenges, just on a bigger scale. So, one day, I would like to see World Speaks in a lot of communities,” she says.

World Speaks prioritizes using native talent from a language’s corresponding community. “Our contractor team looks like the community we serve,” Chavez says. “For example, if someone’s bilingual, they could receive training, then [potentially work as] an interpreter or translator and earn money doing it. We never ask anyone to do those services for free at our organization, and we educate the community on the importance of that.” Chavez says interpretation and translation are skills each person develops, on top of being bilingual or multilingual. Yet many bilingual individuals are often asked to perform such services within their workplaces—in addition to their roles but without additional compensation.

“I like to describe it like this: If you knew how to knit sweaters, and your boss asked you to knit several sweaters each week for every department, how fair would that be to you? Not very, right? It would seem strange to ask that of an employee. But bilingual folks are asked to fill this kind of role all the time. We must remember it’s a valuable, in-demand skill that contributes to business, so people should be compensated. Otherwise, that person can become overwhelmed by the demand, and it could take away from the job they were hired for.” World Speaks students are absorbing cultural lessons alongside their language lessons, and Chavez says that’s by design. While learning a new language from and with native speakers, Omahans can connect on a deeper level that pushes well beyond traditional language comprehension.

“You cannot understand a language without understanding the culture, and vice versa,” Chavez says. “Though I’m fluent in Spanish, I’m not Latina. So, I always like to have people from [cultural] communities come talk to students. They can share about their culture and self-advocate, meanwhile folks in our community are able to connect with groups they may not have met on their own. Omaha’s a pretty segregated city, people stay in their own pockets, so it’s important that folks understand the culture behind each group of people. That creates better understanding and empathy. Knowing a culture is very important for doing community engagement, so you’re not imposing on folks and you’re working alongside them.” World Speaks programs also go well beyond its language classes. They also partner with organizations serving non-native English speakers and those who don’t speak English. They’ve worked with Inclusive Communities, the City of Omaha, and Early Childhood Collaborative, just to name a few.

“If you don’t speak English in [the U.S.], most likely, you’re going to be a part of a pretty vulnerable population,” Chavez says. “Making sure folks at nonprofits or businesses are able to make information available to all community members is a top priority in our partnerships. It ranges from education to training to job training to housing to diversity and inclusion training, it just depends on what people need.”

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