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Government, Politics & Issues

Local Organizations At The Center Of Metro East Census Outreach Efforts

The census will only ask if respondents are 'male' or 'female.' That leaves out a growing number of people who identify outside of that gender binary.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Communities across the Metro East are working to ensure accurate counts of their communities. The results of the census determine how federal, state and local funding is distributed.

BELLEVILLE — Communities across the Metro East are ramping up their efforts to get an accurate count when the U.S. Census Bureau begins collecting responses in less than two months. 

The once-a-decade headcount determines congressional representation and how billions of dollars in federal and state funding is distributed. Locally, critical revenue for cities and some communities' home rule status are at stake.

The 2020 count is different this time around in Illinois. It tests the state’s $20 million wager that local organizations embedded in communities are better than the state or federal government at getting their residents to respond to the headcount.

“They just put the power in our hands, and we’ve never had that before,” said Shannon Anderson, program manager at East St. Louis-based Teens Against Killing Everywhere. “I think it’s going to work out in our favor. It’s a really smart idea.”

Anderson’s organization and the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies were the two community organizations that received state grant money from the Illinois Department of Human Services to ensure an accurate census count in the Metro East and surrounding counties.

They were awarded nearly $700,000 total to support community-based census outreach in Bond, Calhoun, Clinton, Jersey, Madison, Monroe, St. Clair and Washington counties.  

Barbecues and bounce houses

The money pays for local census outreach. TAKE is still solidifying what that will look like in East St. Louis, Anderson said. In the near term, she imagines an indoor community forum with a brief encouraging speech about the headcount.

“As it gets warmer outside, barbecues and bounce houses,” she said. “Things that would interest the kids in coming, so that they’ll drag their parents along and we can start to get people counted. We’re not looking to make anyone feel like they’re in class.” 

Other city governments and community groups are stepping up their efforts elsewhere in the Metro East. 

Read More: Here’s What's At Stake With The 2020 Census In The Metro East

“It’s going to be a big information campaign,” said Collinsville Assistant City Manager Derek Jackson. The city plans to use digital resources, like its website and social media, to get the word out, he said.  

“But we realize not everyone is on Facebook or goes to the website,” Jackson said. “So it’s getting creative. We’ve created a list of stakeholder groups in the community.”

That means churches, civic organizations and landlords in the city and distributing information about the census to them, Jackson said. Other communities, like Edwardsville, will even have census information on the water bills it sends to residents.

The idea is to saturate the community with information about the census. 

“You want to make it something that people think about regularly,” Anderson said. “And eventually just push them to go in and complete the census.” 

The library’s role

Cities and counties are turning to every resource they have to reach and count people this April. Libraries are front and center — a big change from the 2010 census. 

“Ten years ago, the information went out to residents and they just did it themselves,” said Tina Hubert, Six Mile Regional Library District executive director. “Now the federal government is asking us to help out especially because of technology.”

The 2020 census will primarily be conducted online this year. For some people, the local library is the only place to access the internet or get technology assistance, Hubert said. 

“It’s essential,” she said. “Libraries as an example are fairly trusted by communities. We’re not going to spam or spoof our communities.”

Collaborative approach

Part of the grant money that TAKE and IACAA received is intended to go to local organizations to help with census outreach. For TAKE, that meant disbursing money to organizations in more rural counties, Anderson said.

“We made sure the sub-recipients would be based in the counties that they’re serving,” Anderson said. “That they’re places where people are comfortable, got to be a household name.”

TAKE’s approach to outreach in counties beyond St. Clair is more hands-off, Anderson said. The organization is trusting that its partners will know how to promote participation in the census.

“In more rural communities, there’s usually a central hub where everyone goes,” Anderson said. “They know what their citizens love, so they’re going to set up in those spots.” 

Madison County Community Development received a census education sub-grant from IACAA, which supports countywide engagement efforts.

“We are here, and part of our grant is to print [materials and flyers] off,” Lisa Mersinger told a room full of city officials and community organizers. Mersinger, the county’s community development coordinator, stressed the county’s efforts don’t have to end at the county border. 

“We don’t mind helping out in the non-Madison County areas,” she said. “We just figure and believe that everyone counts in Illinois. We are willing to help wherever it is needed.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

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