An attendee asks a question to a panel during Nov. 9's Action Summit held by Philly Counts 2020 at South Philadelphia High School. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.
An attendee asks a question to a panel during Nov. 9's Action Summit held by Philly Counts 2020 at South Philadelphia High School. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.

Philly Counts 2020’s Summit: Reaching Philadelphia’s undercounted communities ahead of the 2020 census

The all-day affair held at South Philadelphia High School on Nov. 9 featured discussions with two panels of leaders from undercounted communities geared…


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2020 is gearing up to be one of the most important years of recent history in the United States of America. In addition to having a presidential election, there is also a census.

Philly Counts 2020 — the city’s office dedicated 2020 Census — has been hard at work since its inception in January, educating residents across Philadelphia about the importance of the census and what to expect.

On Constitution Day, Sept. 17, the office completed its first major action when it trained more than 2,000 “census champions” at 70 trainings held across the city in five different languages.

The participants learned all the basics about the census, such as what it’s used for and what to expect when the forms are distributed next April, and took the information back to their communities to act as a trusted source.

Philadelphia as a whole is considered a hard-to-count area of the country because of its high immigrant, minority and low-income populations compared to other localities.

These populations are the most likely not to fill out the census, but are also the ones who stand to benefit the most from the data collection. 

The census champion training was one step of Philly Counts 2020’s approach towards building connections and trust within the communities hardest to count, but it offered only the basics.

On Nov. 9, those individuals were invited again to South Philadelphia High School to partake in another, this time day-long session, to learn more about the communities most at risk of an undercount.

This time, the participants weren’t “census champions,” but “action leaders” and their meeting was dubbed “The Action Leaders Summit.”

More than 300 of these “action leaders,” also “trusted messengers,” filed into South Philly High for the event.

Throughout the day, with a series of presentations and activities, participants learned more about some of the population-specific issues when conducting the census and brainstormed ideas on how to confront them in Philadelphia’s communities.

The hard-to-count populations were split between two panels that spoke for an hour-and-a-half each. The first panel consisted of representatives from the National Urban League, the Hispanic Federation, NALEO Education Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to discuss the census in regards to the Black, Asian and Latinx communities.

In regards to the Hispanic community, the group at the most risk of not being counted are young children. 

The canceled citizenship question has also thrown a wrench in the works, and the presenters were quick to clarify that there will not be a citizenship question on the official census.

For Emely Paez of the Hispanic Federation and Julio Rivera of NALEO, the key to communicating with the Hispanic community is being clear about what can and cannot be done with the data they give.

“The census employees must remain confidential by law regarding all the data they gather,” said Rivera. “It cannot be used for anything else, but census work.

Despite the assurances, Jeri Green of the National Urban League said most in the black community assume anyway that when they fill out the census, “something bad will happen.”

Her selling point for its participation is all that stands to be lost if an undercount occurs.

“We are at the precipice of losing tons of money and political representation,” said Green.

The second panel of the day featured reps from AARP, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Keystone Counts.

Yocasta Lora, the Associate State Director of Advocacy at AARP, warned attendees of the risks facing elderly when filling out the census, such as some of the scams they face over the phone and the lack of digital literacy when filling it out online.

“A lot of older people prefer one-on-one interaction when giving information,” said Lora.

As a side note, Philadelphia does have a digital-first approach, but is also employing door-to-door enumerators to conduct census work. The pay in Philadelphia is between $17 and $21 an hour

Lora continued to say that the older populations in the U.S. are “the ones who make the decisions” and not representing them in the census is not having a vital voice in the mix.

Daniel Warner, a Data and GIS Manager for Philly Counts, sat in as the rep for the National LGBTQ Task Force. While admitting the census will only have a male and female option when identifying one’s sex, he still made it paramount that all members of the LGBTQ community filled out a census, albeit incomplete, for funding reasons.

“Fill it out, even if that means leaving some of the questions blank,” said Warner.

After the panel discussions and a lunch break, the group reconvened in South Philly High’s auditorium for a Q&A with U.S. Census Bureau Regional Director Fernando Armstrong, before splitting up into smaller groups based on where participants lived in the city — Northeast, South, North, for example.

Once split up, each group suggested approaches to try and organizations to reach out to to get the word out about the census in that particular part of the city.

Census Day is officially set for April 1, 2020.


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