Census 2020: Groups working to get accurate count of people of color

LANGLEY PARK, Md. — Jonathan Hernandez stood in the doorway one recent evening gripping his tablet and chatting with the woman in apartment 101. Maria Delmi Galdamez took a break from cooking dinner to hear this stranger out.


She crossed her arms – and waited.


The 22-year-old college student took his cue and quickly explained in Spanish that the federal government plans to count everyone in the country and it’s important she’s not left out.


Galdamez promised to respond to the 2020 census, so Hernandez slid his finger across the tablet and filled in her contact information.


“This is what we are doing everywhere,’’ said Hernandez as he headed to the next apartment. “It’s to make sure that we relay the message to each and every person ... It's to make sure they’re accounted for.”


What is the census and how is it used?:Here's what you need to know about the 2020 census


Hernandez was part of a team from CASA, an advocacy group, knocking on doors in this mostly Latino neighborhood in Maryland.


Across the country, college students, community groups, mayors, county officials and others are working to get more people, particularly those who have historically been undercounted, to participate in the census. They're hosting block parties, speaking at churches, handing out pledge cards and even enticing people to respond for raffle tickets.


“We’re doubling down on our efforts. People are much more engaged than they’ve ever been,” said Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League and former chairman of the Census Advisory Council. "We won’t allow communities of color to be cheated of their fair share of representation and resources.”


Much is at stake. The count is used to distribute more than $800 billion a year in federal funds for schools, roads, bridges and lunch programs. Some estimate it's more than a trillion dollars. The count also helps determine the number of House seats a state has in Congress.


The Census Bureau said reaching "hard-to-count" communities, mostly people of color and children, is its highest priority.


“We are pulling out all the stops,’’ Steven Dillingham, the Census director, told lawmakers at a congressional hearing earlier this month.


The agency has come under fire from lawmakers, civil rights groups and advocates who question if it's really ready for the massive count and if it has partnered with enough local groups to reach hard-to-count communitieswho may have limited access to the internet, or may be leery of sharing their information.


By mid-February, the census had 280,000 community partners, more than this time last count, Dillingham said. While there was concern the agency would fall short of 300,000 groups by March, the Census Bureau announced Feb. 25 it had met its goal.


Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., head of the Congressional Black Caucus Census Task Force, had his second meeting with Dillingham Thursday.


"There is too much on the line to leave the Census Bureau unchecked,” he said in a statement.


Census outreach


In a packed room at CASA, Luis Gutierrez, a former Democratic congressman, urged the crowd to participate in the census. Most like Hernandez were already sold and would soon fan out to nearby apartment buildings to try and convince others.


Gutierrez said the ask is simple.


“Oh, you want new schools? Fill out the census forms,'' he said. "Roads got a lot of holes in them and you want some more mass transit, fill out the census forms."


Advocates say it's important the message comes from trusted leaders and community groups like CASA.


So as Gutierrez made his pitch in front of cameras for Spanish language news programs, dozens of canvassers knocked on doors.


“People are going to remember and they’re going to feel more relaxed” when the questionnaire arrives, Gutierrez said.


At the Yakama Nation in Washington state, participants in the local Women’s March and at a Martin Luther King Jr., program last month couldn’t miss the census banner and information table.


“We’re hitting the communities on the reservation and the communities off the reservation,’’ said Mathew K.M. Tomaskin, a member of the Yakama Nation and a Census outreach committee. “We weren’t doing this in 2010. We weren’t getting people ready like we are today.”


On April 1 the group will also host an event at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center’s library where everyone who responded to the survey will get a raffle ticket for gifts like gas cards and perks from local businesses.


Meanwhile, the group plans tochange a promotional video featuring an older white man encouraging people to fill out the Census.


“Rather than this old white guy we’ll have somebody who looks like me, talks like me and is recognizable on the reservation,” said Tomaskin, adding that the group is also designing material with the tribal logo.


21 Savage, raffles a lure


Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms likened her city's outreach to a political campaign. Start early. Deliver the message. Knock on doors.


In addition to job fairs and community meetings, the city hosted a Census Block Party last summer featuring 21 Savage and other hip hop artists.


“All names that my kids know,’’ Bottoms said with a chuckle. “But what’s important about that is we’re speaking to a very important community. We’re speaking to a younger community who may not even know or understand what census means.”


Bottoms said it hasn’t been a hard sell to residents.


"We’ve been speaking with them multiple times, multiple ways, educating them, making them comfortable with the idea of being counted,” she said.


It also helps that civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis is co-chair of the census effort.


Also in Georgia, Fair Count, a civic engagement group, is hiring organizers particularly in rural areas. The group is founded by Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018.


Earlier this month, the group installed internet service in 85 locations, including churches, barbershops and community centers,so residents could respond to the census online.


Jeanine Abrams McLean, vice president of Fair Count and Abrams' sister, said nationally 3.7 million African Americans were missed last census.


“That money doesn’t disappear,’’ she said. “It is shifted over to the communities that took the time to be counted.


Census and citizenship


Advocates said they face a host of challenges from a lack of resources to a lack of trust. They said the Trump administration’s push to add a question about citizenship to the census alarmed immigrant communities.


The administration argued it would help get an accurate count of who is in the country.


The effort failed, but advocates worry it will still scare off people.


“It achieved what it was intended to do. It has muddied the waters,'' said Bottoms, adding that some have been "bullied into hiding."


More than half the respondents in a poll released by the Pew Research Center last week  mistakenly believe a question about citizenship is on the census.


Census officials said they constantly remind people it won't be included and information won't be shared.


Still that fear has made outreach more challenging than in previous counts, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project. “We’re going to have to alleviate those fears and tell people the important part of this,'' she said.


Hernandez said it makes outreach in immigrant neighborhoods even harder. Many come from countries where the government is not trusted.


“But I tell folks that we talk to behind these doors is that all of this is strictly confidential. Nothing is going to happen,” he said.


Census and the language barrier


Arturo Perez stood in front of a wall covered with Census material last month explaining how it was tailored for Puerto Ricans. "You want to make sure that you’re speaking to all of the populations in a way that relates to them,” he said.


The material is part of the agency's multicultural campaign. It includes 13 languages in its paid ad campaign on television, online and radio. There's Haitian-Creole, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, among others. There are also guides in 59 languages.


Some groups said that's not enough.


Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of the Census and Voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said Asians are one of the fastest growing populations, but the Census is only offering materials in five languages. The group will provide material in 18 additional languages, including Punjabi.


Minnis said research shows Asian Americans don’t know much about the census and are the least likely to participate so it's critical material is culturally and linguistically appropriate.


Language is just one challenge. There’s also distrust of government and lack of access to internet services, advocates said.


"The digital divide still, to a large degree, impacts communities of color,’’ said Minnis. “We’re fighting on all different fronts.”


Increasing census, voter turnout


In southwest Kansas, volunteers set up workshops in English and Spanish at local libraries and show up at schools during parent-teacher conferences. They also plan to set up mobile clinics in hard-to-count neighborhoods so residents can fill out the census.


The local task force is targeting residents in Garden City and Dodge City where Latinos make up the majority of the population.


"The census itself is not part of the culture so we have to work from basics on what the census is and really start building up from there," said Blanca Soto, campaign director for Kansas Appleseed and a member of the Kansas Complete Count Committee. "Once the community starts to understand the impact, they're more willing to participate."


Soto said residents don't always connect the census to funds for farm subsidies or expanding U.S. 50 highway.


Last week, a coalition of groups launched “NCBCP Unity 2020 Vote and Be Counted,'' urging people to participate in the census and register to vote. It's holding Black Census Week starting March 23.


“If I’m knocking on doors asking you to get counted in the census, I can (also) give you the information’’ about voter registration, said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “If we vote and be counted, we can shift power in this country.''


Contributing: Nicquel Terry Ellis of USA TODAY