Census counts on partnerships to find hard-to-reach groups

Census materials are on display at the Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique in Southeast Washington.
Census materials are on display at the Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique in Southeast Washington. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

George Duangmanee is a financial adviser in the District, an immigrant and an officer in a scholarship program for Asian tennis players. It is the latter role that has made him a catch for the Census Bureau.

Although he did not bother to mail back his questionnaire for the 2000 Census, he has been sending e-mails touting the 2010 count to 15,000 people involved in the Thai Tennis Organization. He has enlisted other Thai organizations to help translate census posters into the Thai language and promote the tally at thaicensus.org. He is also passing out water bottles labeled with the 2010 Census logo at Asian festivals in the Washington region.

"At first, I had no idea what the census is," said Duangmanee, 38, who was recruited by a census employee hired to approach leaders in communities that are considered hard to count. "Nobody had ever explained to us how important it is. I tell people, if you have a kid who goes to school here, it's important to be counted. Now they understand."

As they prepare for this spring's national count, census officials are determined to leave no niche behind.

Locally, for example, recruiters have landed representatives of a gay basketball team, immigrants from a chiefdom in Sierra Leone and a Chinese acupuncturist. They have appealed to liquor stores and hardware stores, pizzerias and patisseries, the Nationals and the Mystics, Shakespearean scholars, the Woodrow Wilson House and even the CIA, asking each to display posters or a stack of brochures.

"My sense was they were talking to everyone, no matter how remote the connection to the census," said Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, where visitors can pick up a census flier.

This is not the first time the Census Bureau has reached out to groups considered hard to count: the poor, minorities and recent immigrants. But for 2010, the bureau has 3,000 employees, five times as many as 10 years ago, assigned to find "partners" to champion census participation. They have formed alliances with 136,000 groups, houses of worship and businesses. States, counties and municipalities eager to secure a share of almost $480 billion in federal funds allotted on census statistics are linking up with thousands more.

"We're becoming even more diverse than we were 10 years ago," said Wayne Hatcher, director of the regional census office in Charlotte, which is responsible for five states, including Virginia. "I have to make a more concerted effort to find bilingual people and break down the barriers with a new immigrant population that might not understand the census, that might even be afraid of the census."

The road tour

For most of the United States, the count will begin April 1. But there will be a symbolic kickoff in late January when Census Bureau Director Robert Groves travels to the Alaskan Inupiat village of Noorvik to count the approximately 600 residents. This week, the bureau will launch 13 vans and recreational vehicles on a road tour, stopping at parades, festivals and the Super Bowl to promote the census. It also will unveil a $300 million advertising campaign this month, momentarily making it one of the biggest advertisers in the country. And it is preparing to hire 1.2 million people for temporary jobs that pay $10 to $25 an hour, mostly to knock on doors in spring and summer and follow up with people who do not mail in their forms.

In the censuses of 1990 and 2000, two of three people responded to the initial mailing. Urban areas, in particular, have many residents who do not respond without prodding. In the District, for example, 55 percent of the residents are considered hard to count. In the 2000 Census, the area with the lowest response rate of 45 percent was the heavily African American Ward 8, east of the river, while 77 percent responded in affluent Ward 3, in upper Northwest. That dynamic is replicated across the country. Hoping to boost participation, the city has compiled a list of almost 400 groups that have agreed to promote the census.

Many people need little convincing of the importance of the census for their communities.

"It's a passion of mine," said Juanita Britton, who 10 years ago worked as a marketer for the Census Bureau and now runs the Anacostia Art Gallery and Boutique in Southeast. "As a community organizer, I know the value of the census. I'm in an at-risk community. It's important to educate people that if we're not counted, the money doesn't come in."

Britton has a sign near the cash register inviting her customers to "Ask us about the census." She passes out trinkets such as key chains and squeeze balls that have the census logo.

The Serbian Unity Congress was eager to do its share, if only to get a better handle on how many Serbs are in the United States. Many Serbs who fled the former Yugoslavia when it was a communist satellite of the Soviet Union were reluctant to cooperate with the government-run census, said Ivana Cerovic, a program director with the group. About 200,000 Serbs were counted in the 2000 Census; the organization said it thinks there are closer to 1 million.

Today, it has a message about the census on its Web site. It has printed bilingual brochures with instructions on filling out the questionnaire for distribution in 140 Serbian Orthodox churches across the United States.

"This is something we've wanted to do for a long time," said Cerovic, who called the Census Bureau and offered to help.

Diverse constituency

More typically, though, census officials have reached out to groups that have never been approached.

This summer, a census partnership specialist attended the first national conference of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, said Ben de Guzman, a Washington-based program director in the group. The group is distributing census brochures in several Asian languages.

"To the Census Bureau's credit, they have been committed to reach out to as diverse a constituency as possible," he said. "Ten years ago, there was no outreach at all to the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community."

Mohamed Bangura was drawn into census promotion when he met a bureau employee at an event at the embassy of Sierra Leone. Bangura, who heads the Koya Progressive Association, a philanthropy made up primarily of people from the Koya chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone, said he and other groups intend to lease a hall in March to urge immigrants to be counted.

"We're really trying to motivate people," said Bangura, a science teacher in the District. "We educate them that it's important to participate because otherwise, your area may be underfunded."

Census officials, who spend as much as $3,000 to supply each group with trinkets and banners, are pleased with the program.

"When the ad campaign starts in January, that will be the last push to get on board and start talking about the census," said Fernando Armstrong, regional census director in Philadelphia, which covers Maryland and the District. "In reality, anyone can be a good ambassador, talking about the census at the grocery store or in church."


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