Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn, NYC are getting creative with promoting the Census

April 27, 2020 Trone Dowd and Gabriel Sandoval THE CITY
Share this:

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.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

With the citywide self-response rate so far at just 41.3 percent — 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.

“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.

Assemblymember Nick Perry advertised his Facebook Live “Census Day Party.” Photo via Twitter

“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 percent and 46 percent.

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 happening

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.

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

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 game plan embraces messaging apps, relying on faith leaders and other trusted figures to share messages and urge passing along the word to family and friends.

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 percent 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.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment