Counting on you

West Ridge community organizers and census representatives hope community members can get everyone counted

To get to the census workshop, attendees must first be buzzed into the building and directed to the library, past the school children lingering in the hallway.

Inside the library, chairs have been hastily arranged into a wide ‘U’ and the tables commandeered, one to hold coffee, doughnuts, and fruit and another covered with literature in a variety of languages. Despite the snow and slush outside, more than a dozen people have trickled into the room, piling their winter coats on the back of their chairs, as inspirational music plays from a promotional video looping in the background.

School children linger at the room’s window, peering curiously inside, perhaps trying to figure out why these people, mostly women, some accompanied by young children, are sitting quietly as Nathan Taylor speaks in front of a portable projection screen.

Taylor, a partnership specialist for the Chicago Regional Census Center works with community organizers like Aga Kusmierz, with Organization of the North East, to get community members to complete their census forms, which they’ll receive in the middle of March, to make sure the community receives its fair share of funding.

“How much is distributed every year, based on the census counts?” Taylor asks.  A members of the audience murmur in response, “four hundred billion dollars.”  The first woman to respond is given a prize, a tote bag emblazoned with the United States Census 2010 logo.

After Taylor finishes his presentation, Kusmierz addresses the audience.  “The reason why we’re here, you’re not in the school, you’re not in the main building is because you don’t have a school,” Kusmierz said.  The workshop was held in the back end of a West Ridge Orthodox Jewish synagogue rented by Boone Elementary School to accommodate an overflow of pre-kindergarten and first grade students.

“You know this place is extremely overcrowded,” Kusmierz said.  “The kind of curriculum we have, the books, how many teachers we have, how many kids per teacher in the classroom, how long you’re waiting in the bus stop everything the roads the bridges the sidewalks that’s all because somebody 10 years ago didn’t fill out the census.”

Taylor,  said every person amounts to roughly $12,000 over 10 years. “Last time the census was conducted almost half the people in this community did not get counted,” Taylor said.  “So that’s a lot of money that would come to the community for schools, for senior citizen programs, health for clinics, for roads, to help defer the costs of the CTA.”

Getting community members to return their census forms can be difficult in a community like West Ridge where a large and diverse immigrant population may speak many different languages and residents may have cultural experiences which make them wary of the census.

The 2000 census showed that nearly 46 percent of the total population of West Ridge was foreign born and nearly 26 percent of the total population was not a U.S. citizen.  Over 58 percent reported speaking a language other than English at home.

Hala Anwayah, a mother attending the workshop, said that people of different cultures and different religions don’t feel safe or secure with their information being distributed.  Kusmierz added that some of the community members come from countries with oppressive governments.  Oftentimes they come here with a fear of government or a misunderstanding about why the census is being taken.

The U.S. Census Bureau is trying to address both language barriers and privacy concerns.  Paper census forms are available in Chinese, English, Korean, Russian, Spanish and  Vietnamese.  Language assistance guides are available in more than 50 languages, Taylor said.  In his presentation, Taylor stressed “our individual information is totally confidential” and explained  information collected in the census is kept private for 72 years.  Anyone who discloses personal information could face a $250,000 fine and five years in prison.

The bureau is also setting up Questionnaire Assistance Centers where people can seek help filling out their census forms or get answers to questions about the census.  Oftentimes, these centers are partnerships with community organizations such as the Muslim Women Resource Center, Taylor said.

Though tested in the 2000 census, Taylor said, this year’s census efforts reflect a greater effort to reach communities. Complete Count Committees have been formed in each of Chicago’s community areas with members from community business and activist organizations.

Taylor hopes that these efforts will foster a greater awareness of what the census means to community members so they can help explain the census and its implications to their neighbors.  When asked what could be done to help elderly residents who may be cautious about census workers knocking on their door, Taylor replied, “we hope that nighbors like you will tell them that the information is important to the community.  We’re depending on you.”

The census and its impact on community resources is another way for Kusmierz to connect community leaders with the many issues that affect them.  At the end of the census workshop, she announced an upcoming meeting about a new school built in the neighborhood.

Kusmierz said she expected a larger turnout at the census workshop, but that some parents had gone to a “kill the bill” rally to protest a state senate bill that would change the powers of local school councils.  Others had gone to an early morning board of education meeting.  Still, Kusmierz said those who had attended the census workshop would spread the message throughout their community.

by Geoffrey Hing and Shane Shifflett