Stuck home because of coronavirus? Spread the word about the census, Philly groups urge

Signs posted around the offices of Ceiba in Norris Square, Kensington encourage visitors to participate in the 2020 census. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Signs posted around the offices of Ceiba in Norris Square, Kensington encourage visitors to participate in the 2020 census. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Organizations serving Philadelphia’s diverse communities spent the past several months coming up with creative face-to-face outreach methods, set to roll out in mid-March, that they hoped would encourage residents to fill out the census. Then COVID-19 shook the region.

“This was our hot and heavy time,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, a nonprofit that promotes financial literacy in the Latinx community. “Obviously, now that’s not in the cards.”

Ceiba and dozens of other organizations that partnered with the city to shoot for a complete count of all residents now find themselves balancing census outreach with addressing the fallout from the current public health and economic crisis.

In addition to answering questions about unemployment help and social distancing, these nonprofits are reminding people that the census is now available to take online and has been mailed to many homes across the region. And they’re trying to do that in a sensitive way that acknowledges the uncertainty people face as schools and non-life-sustaining businesses remain closed.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would suspend field operations, including training workers, through April 1, though it warned additional adjustments could follow.

Philly Counts 2020, the city effort that partnered with dozens of community organizations like Ceiba, is hoping for the best, but is prepared to get the word out virtually should face-to-face operations remain off the table into April.

Philly Counts put out a digital tool kit with virtual “events” to get the word out, according to its executive director, Stephanie Reid.

There’s Census Jeopardy and Bingo, and a video contest with a cash prize for anyone who can come up with a compelling census-related video.

Reid hopes the virtual outreach will boost the city’s current self-response rate, which as of Wednesday stood at 20% — 5 percentage points below the state’s.

“Our toolkit is quite comprehensive,” Reid said. “We have social media, we have phone banking, we’re also working with another organization to see if we can add text banking for people who prefer that to phone banking.”

Wednesday was the first day of phone banking, said Reid, and volunteers made about 200 calls, getting through to roughly 75 people — a promising start for what stands at almost 20 volunteers.

“There’s people who are home and want to do something good, and [phone banking] is just one way,” said Reid, adding that anyone could support the census from home.

Changing tactics

Community organizations say adjusting to the changes brought on by COVID-19 may be difficult and time-consuming, but the alternative could mean a loss of thousands of dollars in federal funding for every Philadelphian left uncounted and a loss in congressional representation.

Before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Philadelphia, Ceiba had partnered with theater nonprofit Just Act to create an interactive play to dispel census myths while residents waited for free tax filing help at the nonprofit’s North Philly office. Actors only got through a handful of performances before the city shut down in an effort to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We are looking at using technology and video to make [census outreach] happen,” said Gonzalez.

While Ceiba and other organizations rethink their strategies, they’ve also had to deal with the community’s immediate needs as a result of the city’s freeze.

As city and state officials took increasingly strict measures to slow the spread of the virus, Gonzalez said Ceiba had to focus on translating and disseminating information in Spanish, which took time.

“It took us some work, that could have been devoted to the census, to ask city government, state government to make sure that information was conveyed,” he said.

Gonzalez said until that happened, organizations like Ceiba had to continue filling in information gaps.

Though Gonzalez said the state is falling behind in making critical coronavirus information available in Spanish, he sees the needle moving in Philadelphia. It helps that news outlets have started to translate some COVID-19 coverage in Spanish, he said, and City Hall is now offering Spanish translations during daily briefings.

Ceiba is looking into rewriting that interactive play for a digital audience, and launching short videos from community members explaining why it’s important to be counted.

Asian Arts Initiative, which had a now-postponed “Come to Your Census” open-mic event planned, is also making difficult adjustments and rethinking its in-person approach.

“It’s sort of [like] asking a concert pianist to suddenly become a football quarterback,” said Anne Ishii, the organization’s executive director. “It’s actually quite different disciplines, performing live to creating digital content basically.”

But it’s not just the platform that’s changing. The messaging to Philly’s Asian American communities has changed, too, since the pandemic and its negative impact on the city’s Asian businesses started weeks before a single case was confirmed there.

“The negative experiences can help galvanize the Asian American community to realize that if they don’t get counted, you know, no one else is going to protect us,” Ishii said.

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