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Nam honored as activist scholar for language access work

Yunju Nam.

UB social work researcher Yunju Nam works with community partners to improve language access in Erie County for members of refugee and immigrant communities.


Published December 15, 2023

“Everyone has the right to access information and services, regardless of their ability to speak English. ”
Yunju Nam, associate professor
School of Social Work

Yunju Nam, associate professor in the School of Social Work, has been lauded as an “activist scholar” by the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), a community-based think tank.

She received PPG’s first-ever Activist Scholar award, at a celebration on Dec. 1, in recognition of her commitment to improving the Western New York community through research and advocacy.

“Yunju uses her academic skills to support refugee and migrant communities. This makes her, in our opinion, the very model of what a scholar should be: thorough and compassionate, rigorous and thoughtful, intellectual and loving,” Regine Ndanga, MSW ’21, a public health specialist at PPG, said in her speech introducing Nam’s award. “She has made an enduring impact on the community through her dedication to promoting inclusivity and effecting positive change.”

As a policy fellow at PPG, Nam has served on the Language Access Group since 2018, contributing extensive research to provide evidence supporting the need for language access in Erie County. Among other projects, she analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources to identify the top languages used locally by those with limited English proficiency and show how limited language access can affect immigrants and refugees as they use key services, like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Thanks to the work of Nam and her partners across the community, the Language Access Act is now before the Erie County Legislature. The proposed law would provide equitable language access for county residents by requiring all county departments to adopt a plan to translate critical documents and provide live interpretation services, among other provisions.

“Everyone has the right to access information and services, regardless of their ability to speak English,” Nam says.

“Language access can be a life-and-death issue,” she continues. “For example, many refugee and immigrant workers and small-business owners could not access unemployment benefits and other government assistance programs during the COVID-19 pandemic because information was available only in English and applicants were required to fill out applications in English.”

More broadly, Nam’s scholarly work focuses on poverty and economic inequality, particularly how policies and programs can help disadvantaged populations build assets. In one project, she collaborated with Journey’s End Refugee Services to study barriers and facilitators to economic success for local immigrants and refugees. She also recently co-authored a chapter in the book “Social Work and the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism: Concepts, Theory and Evidence-Based Approaches,” describing how to overcome structural racism and other barriers in the financial sector.

“This award means a lot to me because it demonstrates that I can make a difference through my research and that my research can be a useful tool for social and economic justice for immigrant and refugee communities,” Nam says.