Counting Philly’s Cambodians in the 2020 census: ‘We aren’t invisible’

Stephanie Sun and Sarun Chan co-facilitated the Census Champion workshop at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia on Saturday. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Stephanie Sun and Sarun Chan co-facilitated the Census Champion workshop at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia on Saturday. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

With about one month to go until Census Day, April 1, it’s crunch time for job fairs hiring on-the-ground enumerators to count hard-to-reach communities.

On Saturday, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia hosted its final Census Champion training — an initiative by the city’s Philly Counts Office for the 2020 Census to train community members to become neighborhood messengers on the census. It also hosted a U.S. Census Bureau job fair. Philadelphia is hoping to hire 3,000 temporary workers to knock on doors in May to count people who did not respond to the census online, over the phone, or via mail.

Sarun Chan, the association’s executive director, said reaching Philly’s Cambodian community — many of whose members live in immigrant enclaves in North and South Philadelphia — is crucial this time around. Philadelphia has the fourth largest Cambodian population among U.S. cities. According to 2010 census estimates, roughly 10,000 Cambodians lived in Philadelphia.

Chan — who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the United States as a 1-year-old — said that estimate was an undercount. He said the association thinks the number of Cambodians living in Philly is closer to 18,000 to 20,000.

The 2015 American Community Survey put the number around 12,000.

The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia has offices in the city’s Olney section as well as in South Philly on Seventh Street near Ritner, where Saturday’s Census Champion training and job fair took place.

Sarun Chan, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, co-facilitated the Census Champion workshop at the organization’s South Philadelphia location. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

“The push to get Cambodian Americans hired within the census is crucial because if our staff aren’t census workers, we can’t actually complete it, we can only help explain what it is,” Chan said. “So that’s why it’s really crucial that the census also do their part in actually hiring multilingual staff to complete the forms.”

The Census Bureau’s Philadelphia branch did not immediately respond to a request for its recruitment goals based on language or race and ethnicity.

Chan, now 34, joined the association around the 2010 census. He said some of the main barriers to reaching Cambodians in Philly stem from contrasting ethnicities within the country, from people who identify as Khmer (ethnic Cambodians from Cambodia), people who are ethnic Chinese from Cambodia, and people who identify as Khmer Krom (Cambodians who are from South Vietnam).

The resulting language barriers — and people thinking they can only choose one identity — can be a hindrance to filling out the census.

For the first time in its history, the census will be available online and in 13 different languages, including Chinese and Vietnamese. But the census is only offering a language guide in Khmer, so Khmer-speaking Cambodians who don’t speak English might need assistance from either a friend or family member or an official Census Bureau employee when filling out the form.

Chan said it’s difficult to estimate how much funding his organization has missed out on because of the past undercount. For perspective, he said that for a nonprofit assisting nearly  1,000 Cambodians and other community members with social services and case management, funding has never surpassed $500,000.

“It’s ridiculous,” Chan said. “I wouldn’t say we lost, we just never had access. We were invisible, and our voices were never heard to actually gain it.”

But because the 2020 census will be so digitally focused, the association wants to connect that to its community’s changing demographics.

Many of the elder members of the city’s Cambodian community are relatively social media-savvy. Chan said many use Facebook’s translated platform available in the Cambodian language and live-stream events at temples and other places.

So the association has 10 laptops and over 20 tablets that are currently used for its day-to-day programming but will also be used to help educate community members about completing the census.

Another strategy it plans is creating public service announcement-style videos, audio segments, and print notices explaining the importance of the census and how it will impact Philadelphia’s Cambodians. The goal is for the PSA’s to highlight local community members speaking about the importance of the census and how it could impact their future and that of their children. They hope the PSA’s can help recruit people to become census enumerators.

South Philadelphia is home to a large Cambodian community, but the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia estimates the city’s Cambodian population has been undercounted by at least 10,000 people. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

The Cambodian Association has applied for grants that will help it finish the PSA’s, as well as help it keep both its locations open extended hours in March to help people with filling out the census. The group recently received a grant from the Digital Literacy Alliance that it is sharing with the nonprofits VietLead and Laos in the House.

Saturday’s event was the Cambodian Association’s fourth champion training and second job fair. Chan said the organization has trained 70 or 80 Census Champions. Unfortunately, he said, the numbers have been less positive for people — particularly those who are younger — applying for jobs.

Jenny Sem, 22, who is Cambodian and lives at Seventh and Tree streets, was one of the four people who came out to the training and job fair on Saturday. She said it was the first time she had heard about the census.

“I really think the community should get together and just raise awareness that we are here, that we aren’t invisible,” Sem said.

She added that she thinks there’s a lot of fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement among people in South Philly. A 32-year-old mother from El Salvador is facing deportation after she was arrested earlier this month by ICE while dropping off her child at Kirkbride Elementary School at Seventh and Dickinson streets. Sem said it might contribute to people’s concerns about filling out the census.

“They have ICE grabbing people from the streets,” Sem said. “I do understand that people don’t want to talk to strangers at the door. It’s for their safety. Their family is here.”

But Sem is also looking for a new job — her current employer pays $7 an hour — and the $25.50 an hour offered to census enumerators is appealing to her.

Jaime Moy of Northeast Philadelphia (left) applies for a census job with the help of Helene Berger of the U.S. Census Bureau. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Something Chan said he’d like to see from census officials is how many Cambodian-speaking individuals have applied for those jobs.

“What are their zip codes? So that we know and can reach out to them and ask them, ‘Hey can you house certain census workers at our site?’” Chan said. “Because we have hundreds of people who walk through our site daily, every single week, and we don’t have the capacity because we are doing basic, urgent social services … but if we had a census worker with us during those hours, it’s going to help so much.”

Chan said success in encouraging census participation will come down to trust and whether people fully comprehend the point of the once-a-decade count.

“Because our community, when we first arrived to the United States, we came from a corrupt government and we came from genocide and war,” Chan said. “The biggest push will be them understanding that it’s safe, it’s protected and it will be a positive impact for us more so if all of us complete the census as much as we can.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.