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‘Community power’: East Palo Alto organizations adapt census outreach for COVID-19

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Volunteers for Nuestra Casa, an East Palo Alto-based service organization, pass a bag of free food over a fence to a mother and her child on a Saturday afternoon. Programs Manager Iliana García-Ruiz calls out in Spanish, “Have you filled out your census form?”

“Sí,” the mother responds. Most people who visit the food distribution event on this day late in May tell García-Ruiz they have already filled out the census — evidence to her that Nuestra Casa’s census outreach on Manhattan Avenue, home to many low-income families, is working.

But beyond the avenue, only 56.4% of East Palo Alto residents had completed the census as of June 6, making it the city with the fourth-worst response rate in San Mateo County, according to county data. COVID-19 has further complicated matters, preventing census takers from conducting in-person visits. In the meantime, community organizations like Nuestra Casa and One East Palo Alto are filling in with outreach to hard-to-count communities, supported by funding from San Mateo County. 

Their efforts are paying off: East Palo Alto had the largest seven-day increase of respondents in San Mateo County — 0.7% — as of June 1, according to Emma Gonzalez, who co-chairs a county committee responsible for ensuring a complete count.

Under normal circumstances, in-person visits from census takers are crucial to reach those who did not self-respond. These visits were slated to start nationally on May 27, but as a result of COVID-19 they are not expected to start until the beginning of August, two months before the extended census deadline.

An accurate census matters to a city and its state for both political representation and funding. California estimates that for every person uncounted, the state could lose $1,000 in federal aid per year for the next 10 years. 

But conducting the census in East Palo Alto is, under the best of circumstances, a notoriously difficult task, for reasons ranging from a distrust of the federal government to apathy about the impact of the census. The recent wave of protests against police brutality and racism in East Palo Alto, which has the highest percentage of Black residents in the county, has led to further speculation about the impact civil unrest will have on the census.

“It’s certainly not making our job any easier,” said U.S. Census Bureau Media Specialist Josh Green.

On the other hand, the wave of activism had the potential to increase response rates, according to Kava Tulua, executive director of One East Palo Alto, another community organization conducting census outreach.

“It’s actionable that you can fill out the census and practice your power,” Tulua said. “You are counted, and funding can come to our community.”

County recruits “trusted messengers”

Even before COVID-19, East Palo Alto was a historically undercounted part of San Mateo County. In 2010, East Palo Alto’s final census self-response rate was 62.5%, according to Gonzalez.

City Clerk Walfred Solorzano said those who are undocumented were especially concerned about filling out the census, even though the census does not ask about one’s citizenship. “Many generations have had issues where the city or the people have been disenfranchised in one way or another,” Solorzano said.

Deputy County Manager Justin Mates said the digitization of the census — 2020 is the first year in which Americans can respond to the census online — also could pose challenges for East Palo Alto. Solorzano said that many East Palo Alto residents did not have access to digital devices or have sufficient digital literacy to complete the online census. 

Mates said only 46.1% of East Palo Alto residents had responded online as of June 1. San Mateo County has averaged an online response rate of 64.2%, according to Gonzalez.

To address these challenges, Mates said San Mateo County had received around $200,000 from the federal government to “get the word out” about the census. The county further committed $3 million, putting the money toward funding local organizations that could serve as “trusted messengers” and organizing complete count committees to prepare outreach and communication efforts, according to Mates.

Solorzano said East Palo Alto had anticipated that grassroots campaigning from community groups and in-person census taking would have been the “most effective” way to increase the response rate.

Funding recipients, like Nuestra Casa and One East Palo Alto, planned events accordingly.

And then COVID-19 struck.

Nuestra Casa Programs Manager Iliana García-Ruiz said prior to the pandemic, the organization had planned in-person events to conduct outreach and help people fill out their census forms, including an event themed around Mexican-American entertainer Selena. “Everybody in the Latino community knows who Selena is,” García-Ruiz said.

Now, Nuestra Casa has pivoted to methods like phone banks and distributing flyers to raise awareness. García-Ruiz also continues to help people fill out the census at Nuestra Casa’s food distribution events.

“I can do a family of 13 people in less than five minutes,” she said.

García-Ruiz said that while many people she helped had been hesitant at first, they were usually willing to complete it after she explained the importance of the census.

“This is how we build community power,” García-Ruiz said. “This is how we bring more resources and representation to this community.”

One East Palo Alto is also finding ways to conduct census community outreach through partnerships with other local organizations, according to Tulua.

Tulua said that while she was not too concerned that COVID-19 had sidelined the census takers, she was worried about the lack of in-person interaction between residents and One East Palo Alto’s partners: Anamatangi Polynesian Voices, Bread of Life Evangelistic Outreach, El Concilio of San Mateo County and Fountain of Life Global Christian Ministries.

“People don’t trust you if you’re a stranger coming up to knock on your door,” Tulua said, referring to the takers. “Most of our work with this community has to be face-to-face. That’s why we’re grassroots. We have the trust.”

One East Palo Alto is engaging its “youth ambassadors” in promoting the census and plans to hire 60 youth and young adults for summer positions to raise awareness.

Youth Ambassador Amy Gutierrez said the ambassadors had helped with online outreach, creating ads on YouTube, starting an Instagram page and even making TikToks that combine census outreach with short dances.

“If everyone fills it out, we could really make East Palo Alto better,” Gutierrez said.

Tulua said she anticipated, thanks to the efforts of the community, that East Palo Alto’s 2020 census would be more complete than the 2010 census.

“The goal is definitely to get 100%,” Tulua said. “That will always be our goal, and every percent moving toward that is its own success.”

Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Kate Selig '23 is a news desk editor. Questions, comments, concerns? Send her an email at kselig 'at' stanford.edu.