Hawaii census gets boost from community organizations
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
The message was essentially the same as the television advertisements: 10 questions take 10 minutes to answer and ensure that everyone is counted in the 2010 Census.
And all it took was five minutes for the Chuukese Catholic Community president to deliver the message and, most importantly, explain why it was important for a community that is too often overlooked.
Addressing an audience of hundreds at a recent gathering of Chuukese Catholics at Kūhiō Park Terrace, Sanser Betiru emphasized how participation in the decennial count was critical to the state receiving its full share of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and, in turn, the Chuukese community in Hawai'i receiving the help that it needs.
"In 2000, most of us were not included (in the count)," Betiru said afterward. "This year, we've gone to churches and public housing areas to let everybody know that it is important that we get counted so that we can get the funding we need for services."
Betiru said that during the last census count, many Chuukese people received their census forms but either didn't know what to do with them or didn't understand why it was important to participate.
"Now they understand," he said.
Betiru's group is one of more than 200 nonprofit organizations working with U.S. Census offices in Honolulu and Wai'anae to improve on the state's 64 percent response rate in the 2000 Census.
And their efforts may be paying off. In 2000, Hawai'i recorded the third-lowest response rate. Nearly two weeks into the latest mailback period, Hawai'i is right at the national average of 34 percent mail participation.
With state budgets strapped by the recession, U.S. Census offices this year are relying more than ever on partnerships with civic, religious and social service organizations to get the word out about the decennial count.
The result, census officials say, could be a historically strong response rate from populations that previously have been difficult to enumerate.
Individual states traditionally have shouldered most of the cost of advertising and marketing local census efforts.
But with many states now struggling to fund basic services, the U.S. Census Bureau and its individual offices have reached out to thousands of nonprofit organizations around the country to raise awareness of the census and to make inroads with ethnic, regional or socio-economic populations that tend not to participate due to language difficulties, political objections or other reasons.
Rebecca Blank, U.S. Department of Commerce under secretary for economic affairs, said the Census Bureau has enlisted the aid of about 200,000 partners nationwide, roughly twice as many as in 2000.
"We've been looking for partners within the hard-to-reach communities because these are going to be the people that carry the message for us," Blank said. "We can't make the census succeed by standing there and saying it's important. For many people, the only way is to hear it from people they know and trust.
"The proof is going to be when we get the mailback responses and see what happens in those communities," Blank said.
Partnerships with local nonprofit groups have yielded positive results in the past and the emphasis on securing grassroots support is consistent with previous census efforts to recruit workers from within the communities they will serve.
In Hawai'i, census partners range from large nonprofit organizations that coordinate outreach efforts through various grassroots networks, as well as smaller organizations like the Chuukese Catholic Community that work directly with their target populations.
While local census offices provide informational materials, giveaway items and other support, census partners fund their own operations.
Armed with a grant from the Asian American Justice Center, Papa Ola Lōkahi, an information clearinghouse concerned with Native Hawaiian health issues, is coordinating a census awareness effort targeting Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Asian and Hispanic populations around the state.
Momi Fernandez, who is leading Papa Ola Lōkahi's census efforts, said groups like hers are especially effective in mobilizing grassroots efforts because they have experience in reaching out to communities that might otherwise be overlooked.
"For Pacific Islanders, a lot of times their churches are their community centers, not the Rotary Club or social or civic organizations," she said.
Just as important, Fernandez said, is recognizing the reasons that some ethnic or regional groups resist participation.
Fernandez cited the case of Native Hawaiians who are loath to participate in federal government initiatives given the long and troubled history of U.S. involvement in Hawai'i before, during and after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
She also noted the lingering resentment from some in the Chuukese and Marshallese communities stemming from U.S. nuclear testing in Micronesia in the 1940s and '50s and, in particular, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's alleged comment to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel on the subject of compensating Micronesians for lands appropriated by the United States: "There are only 90,000 people there. Who gives a damn?"
In both cases, census partners try to "soften" the resistance by emphasizing that census counts directly affect the amount of federal funding states receive for a wide variety of programs and services.
Fernandez said she understands why some choose not to participate.
"I lived on the Neighbor Islands and we had this attitude about people from Honolulu coming in, telling us what to do, getting what they need, then leaving," she said. "If I was going to have anything to do with this, we were going to have to do it in a way that was pono with the community. It couldn't be 'because I said so.' We had to give incentives for why they should do this."
In particular, Fernandez said she tries to ensure that each census event is "life-giving" by distributing clothes and other necessary or useful items. She also educates communities on how to leverage census data to their advantage.
Fernandez said census officials have been supportive of her approach and more than willing to let her network of advocates follow "a different drummer and a different rhythm" in working with their communities.
James Christy, director of the U.S. Census Bureau's Los Angeles regional office, said community partnerships are key to reaching communities that may not engage with mainstream English-based media.
"You can advertise on TV, newspapers or radio forever but there will always be a segment of the population that you just don't reach because they don't consume media," Christy said. "(The advertisements) might not be in their language, and what it really comes to then is relationships. The whole idea behind our partnership efforts is to leverage those relationships on the ground."