Q&A With Our New Executive Director: Stephanie Witkowski
7000 Languages is pleased to announce the addition of Stephanie Witkowski to our team. Stephanie has been hired as the new Executive Director, and we are thrilled to have her vivacious personality, passion for language reclamation, and valuable non-profit experience. We sat down with Stephanie to ask her some questions as she starts her journey with us.
Q: Where does your passion for language reclamation come from? When did it start?
A: From a really young age I had an interest in languages and travel. I grew up in a very small town on the Oregon Coast, and was always eager to see more of the world. When I was in high school I had the opportunity to spend a year as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Slovakia. I distinctly remember speaking my very limited, mistake-ridden Slovak, and then everyone responding to me in excellent English. That was my first ‘a-ha’ moment of recognizing the spread of dominant languages throughout the world. And it became obvious to me that something is lost when another language takes over. I began to get curious about the spread of English, which led to a greater understanding of language endangerment in general. While in college, I took some linguistic courses and researched organizations working to preserve Indigenous languages. It was then that I dreamt about becoming a career linguist and working for an organization like 7000 Languages.
Once I was in graduate school, focusing my studies on language documentation and conservation, I turned my attention and research to language reclamation efforts around the world, being led by speakers themselves. I became deeply passionate about supporting communities in their efforts to teach their languages. With a background in teaching, I appreciated the intersection of education practices and advocacy within language reclamation.
Q: What was your first language-related job/internship?
A: When I was a graduate student, studying linguistics at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, I started working for a student-run organization called the Language Documentation Training Center. The mission of the organization is to train and empower speakers of underdocumented languages in their efforts to preserve and share their languages. As the director, I was responsible for leading the group of graduate student mentors, organizing and refining the curriculum, spreading awareness about the organization, and fundraising. I absolutely loved the position, and felt it was my calling. I would have done that job forever! Alas, it was only available to current students, and I graduated.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced while working with Indigenous languages?
A: That’s a great question! I think it’s the challenges faced while working with Indigenous languages that make this work so crucial and incredibly rewarding. Working with Indigenous languages often feels like a race against time. Especially when many Indigenous communities only have a few remaining speakers, and they are elders. Because of this reality, it feels critical for me to give speakers all the tools available, especially access to language learning technologies, so they can teach and learn their language as fast as possible.
Another “challenge” is that languages do not exist in isolation. They live in stories, songs, traditions, and often in very personal ways. That’s what makes language reclamation vital, but it can present painful challenges for many speakers. For many years Indigenous languages were forbidden from being spoken and marked with shame. Children were punished for speaking their languages in schools. Language reclamation can trigger trauma and pain or a sense of guilt and loss. And it can also provide healing and connection with ancestors and one another, which is incredibly powerful.
It is precisely because of these challenges that I find working with Indigenous languages so important.
Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment thus far?
A: One accomplishment that I am especially proud of is helping a community build their Early Childhood Education program. I worked for many years with an American Indian Tribe in Southern California assisting with their language revitalization. One of their initiatives during my time was to start teaching their language to students at the preschool age. It was a privilege to assist them in the early stages of creating a program that incorporated Early Childhood Education best practices and the Native Language. To be able to hear a three-year-old child using their Native Language, even preferring that language to English while playing, was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career.
Lately, my biggest accomplishment has been raising my infant daughter. Being a mom is a job like no other!
Q: As the new Executive Director for 7000 Languages, what are you most excited about?
A: I am so excited to connect with our community partners and work closely with them to meet their language goals. Working with people has always been my favorite part of any job. I love listening to stories and getting to know community members who are working to reclaim their language. It is inspiring!
Additionally, I am excited to create some new ways for language supporters to become connected with our organization and the work we are doing.
Q: What kind of advice would you offer someone looking to help with Indigenous language reclamation?
A: Reach out to us! I remember being young and interested in Indigenous language reclamation but not knowing where to start. Do not be afraid to reach out to organizations doing work that inspires you. I’d love to connect with anyone who has a passion for this work or is interested in learning more.
Also, share what you learn! Awareness is a really important part of creating change and opportunities for Indigenous peoples.
Finally, if you can, consider donating to our organization. This work is not possible without financial support from individuals.