On Thursday, Sept. 26, the Bellevue Public Library hosted “More Than a Headcount: Activating Communities for Census 2020,” a panel discussion organized by the Seattle Foundation.
Moderated by Mark Baumgarten, the news and politics editor of Crosscut, the conversation was driven by the Washington Census Alliance’s Cherry Cayabyab, the Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition’s Debbie Lacy and the India Association of Western Washington’s Lalita Uppala.
The event intended to give community members on the Eastside a better idea of how regional nonprofit leaders are supporting communities in preparation for the 2020 census, which is currently set to be observed on April 1.
The most recent census was conducted in 2010. Its 2020 successor is the first in U.S. history that allows participants to submit information online or over the phone. Census results will regulate how many seats each state will have in the House of Representations for the 2022 and 2030 elections. Results also will be used for nationwide redistricting and how state-level funding is determined.
Over the course of the discussion, the panelists talked about the concerns they’ve most frequently heard from the communities they’ve come into contact with and how they’re working to embolden them.
The technological evolution of the census has left many prospective respondents anxious, according to the panelists. A major talking point during Thursday’s discussion revolved around how many people are wary that their information will be shared. That concern has especially become prominent following the presidential administration’s recent — and ultimately failed — attempt to include a citizenship question on the census. Though the question will not be included, the conversation surrounding the potential implementation instilled in many vulnerable communities a worry that sensitive information might be shared for ulterior purposes.
“In many ways, people feel the damage has already been done,” Cayabyab said.
Lacy often tells people that data information is protected by Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which, in addition to making census participation mandatory, makes personal information submitted for the census private and thus unable to be shared by the bureau. But panelists noted that they cannot guarantee anything, which can present difficulties. A lack of faith in the current presidential administration, according to Lacy, also lends itself to people feeling like they’re generally unprotected.
“You can — and should — absolutely fill out that census form,” Uppala said.
Uppala said tshe’s often seen overall disenchantment with political engagement, whether rooted in a language barrier or general confusion around citizenship and its relationship to the census. There has additionally been concern around getting into contact with rural areas and communities who can’t easily access the organizations the panelists represent.
Though some apprehensions about the census have stayed consistent throughout the decades, the panelists discussed the biggest changes they’ve noticed when comparing the 2020 census to its predecessor. Cayabyab said — besides an increased communal ambivalence — she’s noticed a higher lack of investment and support on the part of the government.
Uppala and Lacy talked about how the current political climate, paired with the general underfunding of the census, has made them more passionate about the event beyond themselves. There’s more of an urgency to think holistically.
“If it’s about yourself, it’s not enough,” Uppala said, adding that she’s constantly fighting an apathy and disenchantment on the part of some of the people she’s spoken with.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists discussed some of the ways they’re working to address key issues. To combat disengagement and uncertainty, Uppala’s organization frequently hosts civic engagement events to educate the public on the intricacies of the census and strike down misinformation. The Washington Census Alliance has partnered with several organizations to further its reach in rural communities. Stressed, also, is how organization messengers deliver information: Uppala said her association is always thinking about how and when it’s sharing information in order to build trust, and looking at where there might be holes in certain messages.
Toward the end of the discussion, Lacy noted that, even though a good portion of the conversation had centered around negatives, it was important to emphasize that what Eastside nonprofits are doing to empower prospective census respondents is “incredible.”
“We really can make a difference,” Cayabyab said.
For more information on the Washington Census Alliance, go to its website (https://wacensusalliance.org/). For more information on the Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition, go to its website (http://ericmembers.org/). For more information on the India Association of Western Washington, go to its website (https://iaww.org/).