Making it count: Community groups get creative in collecting census data during a pandemic

When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued the statewide coronavirus stay-at-home order in mid-March, Selina Pagan and other Latino leaders in Cleveland became worried.


They’d been planning in-person events to get more people to participate in the 2020 census—historically, Hispanics have been undercounted, resulting in a loss of federal funds and voting power at the local level.


Months and years of planning were suddenly tossed out the window when the pandemic hit.


Pagan, president of the Young Latino Network in Cleveland, came up with a new idea when she came across a video online. “I saw a Puerto Rican pickup truck with a speaker strapped onto the back—playing a loop announcing the stay-at-home order,” she says. “And I thought, ‘that’s a pretty cool way to get your message across. How do we do that in our community?’”


Pagan pitched her idea while on a phone call with other voting and census outreach organizers, and the Cleveland Caravan (or La Caravana) was born.


At the inaugural caravan in April a pickup truck, followed by dozens of cars, wove through the densely built streets of the Clark-Fulton neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West Side, which has a large Latino population.


A speaker on the back of the pickup truck played a looped message in English and Spanish about how to respond to the census, vote, and keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers walked alongside the caravan, passing out information to people on their porches and outside of businesses.


“It’s hard to get our community to participate,” Pagan says of the outreach, which is difficult under ordinary circumstances and was made more complicated by the pandemic. “These are systems they either don’t trust or they’re not familiar with. We’re getting people to learn about how the system works and how the structure works, how we have power in numbers as a community that gets counted and in our vote.”


Pagan and other activists have organized the caravan monthly since April. Inspired by the efforts, organizers have also held caravans in the Buckeye neighborhood and in Lorain.


At the August caravan, organizers collected 78 vote-by-mail applications and 54 voter registration forms. “These numbers may not seem like much, but they’re the largest one-day totals yet,” says Pagan.


Doing outreach in a pandemic

Cities like Cleveland are historically undercounted in the U.S. census because they have higher numbers of hard-to-reach groups—low-income people, communities of color, homeless people, and immigrants, says Kate Warren, who studies census data regularly as a research associate with the Center for Community Solutions.


An accurate count is important because it is used to determine whether Cleveland gets its fair share of more than $675 billion in federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads, and other programs.


<span class="content-image-text">The Young Latino Network of Cleveland</span>The Young Latino Network of ClevelandIt’s also used to allocate Congressional seats and for business groups and developers to decide where to locate jobs and new development. According to U.S. Census data population estimates, the city of Cleveland has seen a significant reduction in its population size, from 396,815 in 2010 to 381,009 in 2019.


The census had already become politicized when President Donald Trump proposed adding a citizenship question in 2019, raising concerns that it would be used to intimidate immigrant respondents or punish districts with high noncitizen populations. The Supreme Court ruled against the idea, but some damage had already been done, according to advocates.


“Historically, black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by undercounts,” says Erika Anthony, director of Cleveland Votes, which is part of the Ohio Census Advocacy Coalition and has given grants to 30-plus agencies to support census outreach work. “There is a tremendous fear for persons of color when it comes to the government. We’ve got to re-imagine how we do this.”


The recent decision to shorten census collection by a month (from October 31st to September 30th) added a whole new level of urgency. With 38 million households still uncounted, according to a recent article in the New York Times, advocates everywhere fear a historic undercount.


So, Cleveland groups began going to outdoor events and food banks where people gathered during the crisis. So far this year, the Cleveland Foundation, in partnership with Cleveland Votes, and other foundations, have provided about $200,000 in micro-grants toward community outreach projects aimed at improving Greater Cleveland’s census response. One more round of grants is on the way later this month or early in September (The Cleveland Foundation provides financial support for reporter Conor Morris’ position with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative).


Asian Services in Action (ASIA) received a $2,500 micro-grant. ASIA CEO Elaine Tso says the nonprofit has been visiting members of the Asian and Pacific-Islander community, to both check on how they’re doing during the pandemic and to offer aid in completing the census. As of mid-July, ASIA had helped 1,190 people complete their census forms.


A big thing ASIA brought to the table was staffers who could talk to people in their own languages. “Across our staff, I believe at last count there were 27 (language fluencies),” says Tso.


Refugee and immigrant services nonprofit Us Together also received three micro-grants from the Cleveland Foundation, totaling about $12,500. Senior case worker Luda Pinchuk has been heading up outreach toward resettled Ukrainian refugees.


<span class="content-image-text">A caravan of cars drives through the Clark-Fulton neighborhood in Cleveland several months ago in an attempt to get the local Hispanic community registered to vote and counted in the Census.</span>A caravan of cars drives through the Clark-Fulton neighborhood in Cleveland several months ago in an attempt to get the local Hispanic community registered to vote and counted in the Census.She says she went back through five years of her case files, and talked to those families about the census, helping many of them complete the forms. She estimates she’s reached about 120 families and their extended families, for a total of about 700 people.


Pinchuk, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish, says these are people who do not trust the government easily, so many would not have otherwise completed the census.


“These people are thinking this is a government conspiracy on them,” she says. “I explained why we have to have a proper headcount and how we benefit from it.”


Meeting people where they are

Like other groups, the Urban League Guild of Greater Cleveland, also saw their efforts turned upside down by the pandemic.


During one sunny Saturday morning in late July, Guild President Billy L. Sharp joined the congregation at Mt. Gillion Baptist Church for a Greater Cleveland Food Bank drive-up food distribution event—where they handed out census information, census-branded tote bags, and water bottles along with the food.


“Food banks, grocery stores, gas stations, we try our best to meet them [undercounted groups] there,” Sharp explains of the Guild’s efforts to get the word out.


The idea of meeting people where they live and in the places they frequent is an important part of the strategy for census outreach, Sharp says.


For example, Juan Galeano, project consultant for the 2020 Census for the Cleveland Foundation, says Cleveland nonprofit Smart Development partners with immigrant-owned grocery stores, mosques, and other places where diverse groups congregate to canvassthose locations for the census, using iPads to help people fill it out on the spot.


The Cleveland Task Force to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis—led by a group of community leaders—is also setting up neighborhood stations with laptops two times per week through the end of September.


Simeon Best, program administrator of Cuyahoga Counts, says the county is also using its outreach van to do census canvassing at food distribution centers, Dave’s Supermarket locations, and even library parking lots that have Wi-Fi.


“Just being out there helps,” Best says. “We run into people who say, ‘I meant to do that,’ and we can tell them, ‘well, do it now—you can do it on your phone.’”


Despite these efforts, the city of Cleveland is still lagging behind on its response rate. It ranked 68th out of 68 large metro areas for its census response rate in July.


As of August 20th, Cleveland had a response rate of 48.2% and was still stuck behind most other big cities. Some lower-income census tracts and communities of color in the city, especially on the East Side and impoverished areas in the West Side, have a response rate below 30%. Cuyahoga County’s rate was 64.2 % and Ohio’s rate was 64.6%.


Warren with the Center for Community Solutions says it’s difficult to track whether the various outreach efforts are working. Just judging from the Census Bureau’s map tracking self-response rates, she says there’s only been a “very slow tick-up in Cleveland.”


The Cleveland Foundation’s Galeano says he believes groups like ASIA, Inc. and Us Together have seen some success based on the number of people they’ve helped complete the census. Pagan says that although the numbers are small, she thinks her group has done a good job reaching people.


Anthony says that she’s hopeful that people will emerge from this crisis with a better sense of how to reach hard-to-count groups. After all, if they’re successful at reaching people during a pandemic, during normal times their “civic engagement muscles” will be bulging.


“If there’s a silver lining, it’s the efforts of people to adapt during the pandemic,” Anthony says. “People have been incredibly resilient during these challenging times. They’ve leaned in and figured it out.”


This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 18-plus Greater Cleveland news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland). Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land, and Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America.

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.
Conor Morris
Conor Morris

About the Author: Conor Morris

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.