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Using familiar faces could eventually open Detroit’s doors for census takers

A billboard advertising the 2020 Census in Arabic.

Detroit has a large Muslim population, and some imams have been stressing just how much federal funding depends on them taking the census. Above, a billboard advertising the 2020 Census in Arabic. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

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The U.S. Census Bureau is suspending its field operations until April because of the coronavirus pandemic. With billions of dollars’ worth of federal funding at stake, however, the count will go on.

The bureau wants people to return its surveys through the mail or over the internet, and it’s also contacting households by phone. But in Detroit, a high percentage of people don’t have internet subscriptions.

Detroit has high levels of poverty and many people who rent. That makes it one of the hardest big cities in the U.S. to do a population count.

The bureau always planned to go door-to-door to reach those who had not responded to the census surveys. The head of the bureau, Steven Dillingham, says that’s still the plan. But workers won’t be knocking on doors until May, at the earliest.

“We still will be using the Census takers to go through the neighborhoods,” Dillingham said. “And we will adapt to the necessary health practices. We’re monitoring it each and every day with the federal, state and local officials. And we will have a very safe way in which we can still count the people that may not have self-responded.”

The bureau is training workers in how to practice social distancing and providing safety equipment.

But the executive director of Detroit’s 2020 Census campaign, Vicki Kovari, says some Detroiters don’t trust giving out personal information, especially to the federal government.

She believes it may take more than just contacting people safely to convince them to participate. It may take hearing from someone they identify with.

“The Census bureau actually is trying to recruit people to work in their own zip codes. It’s absolutely preferable to have people work in those areas where they’re familiar faces,” Kovari said.

That could be a vital step towards building trust. Some in Detroit say they’ve heard about the census but have little idea about what it really entails. That includes Detroit security guard Marquita Aldridge, who admits she knows nothing about the census and feels bad about that.

But Aldridge says she tries to guard her private affairs as securely as she does Detroit’s City Hall. So she’s not keen about opening up her life to a stranger.

“When it comes to [your] address, your home is sacred,” Aldridge said. “So [I would] definitely be like, ‘I don’t know you and you might be asking a little bit too much personal questions.’”

Some groups in Metro Detroit have been trying to ease those fears in their own neighborhoods long before census workers even begin approaching a door.

Detroit has a large Muslim population, and some imams have been stressing to people in their communities just how much federal funding depends on them taking the census.

But Chris Blauvelt of Wayne State University’s Islamic Center of Detroit says some Muslims are reluctant to even register to vote, let alone provide information to census takers, because they fear immigration officials are targeting some in their community for deportation.

“And so I think it’s only natural if you’re an immigrant from those places to be afraid and suspicious of this administration,” he said.

But Blauvelt thinks it would be a bit more reassuring to talk with someone who shares their culture.

“If another Arab-American immigrant walked to my door and explained to me that the census is not going to affect you, there’s no risk at all and this will help ensure that our community gets the government aid that we deserve, that obviously means a lot more,” Blauvelt said.

That’s one reason the Census Bureau is actively encouraging people who are bi-lingual to apply for jobs to go door-to door, once it starts the effort. Census officials say they need people who speak the language of the neighborhoods they’re going to work in.

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