In multicultural Austin, officials launch plan for census participation

Two men stand in a hallway.
Austin Public Schools success coaches Santino Deng, who is originally from South Sudan (left) and Mee Reh Tee, who is originally from Myanmar, inside of the Austin Public Library Feb. 6. Both are using their skills and connections within their own communities to help people engage with the 2020 census.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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Since the early 1990s, Austin has seen significant demographic change, in part due to jobs in the area's meat-processing industry. Refugees and immigrants from all over the world — South Sudan, Micronesia, Myanmar — have made this city of 25,000 in southeast Minnesota their home.

But officials at the county, city and school district levels say that in an election year when the nation is divided over immigration and refugee resettlement, newcomers may be targeted by campaigns aimed at spreading false information about the census — which might keep them from participating in the decennial count altogether.

This week, United States residents are expected to start receiving detailed information in their mailboxes about how to fill out the 2020 census — something that, by law, all U.S. residents are required to do.

For local governments especially, an accurate count is crucial because it ensures that they are allocated adequate federal funding for schools, roads and other public services.

So, Austin officials have devised a plan to make sure the city’s hardest to reach residents participate, a strategy that relies on public service announcements, personal messages from trusted community leaders and an event where people can get help filling out their census forms.

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The strategy also includes in-person outreach, like at an annual resource fair that was hosted by the United Way of Mower County earlier this year.

There, Austin City Clerk Ann Kasel explained to a group of people stopped at the table how the census works.

"They're going to send you a postcard and it's just important that you respond [with] how many people live in your household,” she told a small group of women.

Kasel also handed out flyers that explain the census in multiple languages.

"We're working with a lot of different groups in town just to get the information out in as many different languages,” Kasel said.

The message appeared to resonate with fairgoer Leslie Morales Perez. Through a translator, Morales Perez said it's important for her family to be counted so they can access the programs they need.

She, for one, plans to participate.

Fear, confusion on citizenship question

It was last summer when Kristi Beckman started detecting confusion and fear over the census among some of the families she works with.

Beckman, who works on diversity and inclusion programming for Austin Public Schools, said she noticed it when it came time for the city’s immigrant families to fill out school-related paperwork.

"I had quite a few parents ask, 'Is it OK to fill this out? Is this part of the census?’” she said.

Beckman said misunderstanding seemed to stem from concerns over whether the census would include a citizenship question.

A man with glasses speaks at a table.
John Alberts, who directs Austin Public Schools’ educational services, speaks at a meeting with other community leaders about how to engage the city's diverse community with the 2020 census Feb. 6.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It doesn't. But John Alberts, who directs Austin Public Schools’ educational services, said confusion lingers.

He said the contentious national conversation around immigration and the spread of disinformation online is exacerbating fear and confusion over what the census is and isn’t.

“There's questions of what is real and what is not real, and it's so easy to get information and spread information both truthful and not,” Alberts said. "It's a perfect convergence of events, frankly."

Federal Census Bureau officials are working with social media platforms to quickly identify and take down disinformation. But falsehoods are nevertheless circulating, including a meme that warned African Americans against participating, which Facebook has since taken down.

Austin devised a strategy to get out good information about the census before bad information takes root.

The plan includes a package of public service announcements produced by local public television station KSMQ and translated into more than 16 different languages, including Karen, Bosnian and Anuak.

The public service announcements are being broadcast around the state and distributed by Austin schools. And local officials have planned an event in early April where anyone can come and get help filling out their census forms.

But they're also relying on leaders within Austin's immigrant communities to get the word out — a well-used strategy that takes advantage of the trust Austin officials have built into the ways it welcomes newcomers.

Santino Deng is one of those trusted leaders. As a success coach in the schools, Deng routinely interacts with immigrant students and their parents.

Originally from South Sudan, Deng said people from his home country are wary of giving information to the government because, back home, doing so came with risk. Children were routinely taken from their families during times of conflict.

"So, if someone asks you how many kids you have, if you have five, you would say 'I have three,” he said.

Deng said making sure his community understands why the census is important will help.

"If you explain to them that it's important to get counted so you get services, your school will get funded very well,” he said. “If you explain it well, they won't have difficulties with that."