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Counting the Ways New York is Getting Creative With Promoting the Census

Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, which serves mostly African and Caribbean communities in Brooklyn, hosted a Zoom party on National Census Day.
Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy hosted a Zoom party on National Census Day, April 1.
Photo: Screengrab Courtesy of the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy

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With the stakes high for the 2020 Census, nonprofit groups strategized for months on how to help hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in hard-to-count communities grasp the importance of responding.

They planned to host town hall meetings, knock on doors and canvass at parades, subway stations and busy street locations.

Then came the coronavirus, upending carefully laid plans — including $19 million in neighborhood programs funded by the City Council to strive for a complete count.

The old-school organizing playbook went into the recycling bin. In are enticements like a contest announced Wednesday by “Hamilton” maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda: He’ll make personal thank-you calls to five New Yorkers who send in a computer screen image showing they’ve completed their survey.

With the citywide self-response rate so far at just 41.3% — and with billions of federal dollars and New York congressional districts hanging in the balance — local Census outreach groups are improvising creative, socially distant ways to lure New Yorkers from different walks of life to stand up and be counted.

Here are a few tactics.

A Yiddish Jingle

In 2010, Borough Park in Brooklyn placed among the lowest Census participation rates in the city and nationwide. In some sections, not even half of households participated.

Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, won a $75,000 Council grant and outfitted the Censusmobile, an office on wheels that would park in Borough Park and Williamsburg to conduct in-person outreach.

A Boro Park Jewish Community Council  truck plays a jingle in Yiddish about the importance of filling out the Census and staying home.
A Boro Park Jewish Community Council truck plays a jingle in Yiddish about the importance of filling out the Census and staying home.
Courtesy of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council

“When things needed to start getting executed, which was March, everything went flying out the window,” Greenstein told THE CITY.

In February, the group secured a marketing firm to compose a catchy Census-themed Yiddish jingle. Greenstein and others figured the vehicle could now just cruise the streets, blaring the musical message.

“Please stay at home for your safety and that of so many others,” says an announcement playing before the jingle. “While at home, please take a moment to complete the Census. This is your chance to benefit our families…for the next 10 years.”

The Censusmobile is filling a void, Greenstein said, helping spread its message multiple times a week to people on both sides of the digital divide.

“A large number of the population does not have internet at home,” he said. “I mean, it may seem unbelievable, but that’s the truth.”

Party On

Even with large gatherings banned, people still crave coming together. So a few nonprofits threw online parties based around National Census Day, April 1, relying on Zoom, Instagram and other digital platforms.

East Flatbush Village, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit and recipient of a $50,000 grant from the City Council’s Census fund, hosted an April 3 bash on Facebook Live. The group has its work cut out for it: Area response rates so far have ranged between about 27% and 46%.

Hundreds tuned in to the Facebook stream, where three DJs performed and special guests talked about the Census.

“It’s almost like listening to radio in a sense, and then you just see a DJ,” said Chidi Duke, the nonprofit’s program director.

During the livestream, State Assemblymember Nick Perry (D-Brooklyn) appeared in a hoodie, gloves and mask. He joined the party from his basement after driving from Albany, where the legislature had passed the state budget a night before, he said.

After unmasking, Perry noted he already mailed in his Census form — which he assured viewers went to the Census Bureau, not President Donald Trump.

“You shouldn’t be afraid to complete it — whether you’re a documented resident or not,” he said in the broadcast. “You need to be counted.”

Another Council-funded Brooklyn nonprofit, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, which serves families mostly from African and Caribbean backgrounds, held a Zoom party after canceling a Census event at BKLYN Commons in Flatbush.

Director of programs Sabine Blaizin played soul classics and Afro-house music for about 40 guests, interspersed between a Census Bureau rep’s remarks and a “teach-in” led by Ifetayo’s “Census Outreach Captain,” she said.

Ifetayo’s youth ensemble rapped, an alum sang and the executive director, Naima Oyo, raffled off gift cards from local businesses Life Wellness, Grandchamps and Cafe Rue Dix, Blaizin added.

“For dealing with Caribbean or African American populations — interconnections are our cultural roots,” Blaizin said. “It’s also a great way to decompress, especially during this time.”

Blaizin said that Ifetayo follows up with attendees by phone and email. Ifetayo aims to have 1,000 people confirm that they completed their Census form and is nearly halfway there, according to Blaizin.

Ifetayo is promoting its next Census party, scheduled for April 29, on social media and through its networks.

“I’ll be deejaying again,” Blaizin said with a laugh. “We’re trying to keep this momentum going.”

What’s Appening

New Yorkers use nearly as many messaging apps as they speak languages — putting a powerful way to reach targeted individuals in the palms of their hands.

WhatsApp is huge with the South Asian community, according to Miriam Rauf, the Asian American Federation’s census outreach manager.

KaKaoTalk is a go-to for New York’s Korean population. The app Viber is popular with Nepalese New Yorkers, while WeChat is the choice of the Chinese community.

For the federation and the Chinese-American Planning Council, the new gameplan embraces messaging apps, relying on faith leaders and other trusted figures to share messages and urge passing along the word to family and friends.

The Asian American Federation has been relying on immigrant communities on apps like WhatsApp and Viber to spread translated census messaging among each other.
The Asian American Federation has been relying on immigrant communities on apps like WhatsApp and Viber to spread translated census messaging among each other.
Courtesy of the Asian American Federation

So far, getting results has proved a challenge, said Howard Shih, the federation’s director of research and policy.

“Overall, Asian-majority Census tracts have a 37.6% self-response rate,” he notes — lower than the citywide average. Hard-to-reach areas include Flushing and Richmond Hill in Queens, Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Chinese-American Planning Council staffers text message community members in traditional as well as simplified Chinese. But they can’t replicate the level of comfort they could provide in person, noted Amy Torres, CPC’s director of policy and advocacy.

“It’s just harder to bridge that gap,” Torres said.

Families preoccupied with health, finances and anti-Asian bias incidents don’t have much bandwidth for the Census, Torres laments: “Census messaging isn’t resonating as strong as it would in normal circumstances.”

Join the Crowd

Like the phone trees of the pre-email era, where activists would call contacts who in turn called their contacts to turn them out for meetings, 30 out of 51 City Council members teamed Monday for a census text-a-thon — contacting constituents to remind them to respond to the Census.

Some recipients of the messages signed up to volunteer to help spread the word.

“If getting an accurate count was essential before COVID-19, it is even more critical now since we are going to need all the federal funds we can get to recover from this crisis,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement.

Council members are carrying on the campaign in their own idiosyncratic ways — with Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) posting the my2020census.gov link on the wall behind him during the Council’s first-ever online meeting Wednesday.

In (GASP) Person

As the city cements into social distancing, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground census outreach has become almost non-existent.

But BronxWorks, a nonprofit that had been focused on face-to-face engagement in hard-to-count parts of the borough, is trying — by piggybacking census outreach onto food aid to hungry New Yorkers.

At food pantries every other Saturday, staffers quickly jot down phone numbers of those coming to pick up meals, said Alida Quinones-Reyes, BronxWorks’ census manager.

On a recent Saturday, a BronxWorks staffer shares Census information at the food pantry at the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center on the Grand Concourse.
On a recent Saturday, a BronxWorks staffer shares Census information at the food pantry at the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center on the Grand Concourse.
Courtesy of BronxWorks

“We’ve been calling them not only to remind them that the pantry is there but to remind them that we’re available to help them fill out the Census application,” she said.

Quinones-Reyes said people were not immediately receptive to over-the-phone reminders — especially since the city and its community partners had warned New Yorkers to not pick up calls claiming to be from the Census.

“I know that some people felt a little suspicious of us,” she said. “Some of them would say, ‘Can you call me back?’ They probably thought if this was a scam call, we weren’t going to call back. But I would ask them when they’d like for us to call them back.”

By allowing these folks to set a time that works for them, Alida believes people have become more receptive to BronxWorks’ phone calls.

“I would tell them in advance, ‘When I call you back, this is what I need,’” she said.

In addition to census reminders, Bronxworks is calling to conduct wellness checks on the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“These people just need somebody to talk to them, even if for a minute or two,” Quinones-Reyes said. “I told the staff if somebody needs to tell you something, even if it has nothing to do with the census or any of the other issues, just listen to them. Help them out because some people are lonely and don’t have friends and neighbors that they can count on.”


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