Detroit census campaign aims to knock on 200,000 doors

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Residents can respond to the Census by phone, mail or online. (Photo by Ralph Jones)

Lisa Williams wakes up early, puts on her bright yellow T-shirt and heads out to meet her team by 8 a.m. Williams is the executive director at New Beginnings Community Development Corp., one of the local organizations working with the City of Detroit to canvass neighborhoods with a low response to the 2020 U.S. Census. 

Canvasser Jacob Webster will join the city and 11 community groups to knock on doors. (Photo courtesy of City of Detroit)

Canvassing efforts are necessary because fewer than half of Detroiters, 48.2 percent, have responded to the census questionnaire so far, even though this is the first year that residents can respond by mail, online or by telephone, compared to 68.4 percent of Michiganders. In 2010, 64 percent of Detroit residents responded to the Census, down from 70 percent in 2000 and below the nationwide average of 74 percent.

Now, in an effort to get Detroiters counted, community groups are stepping up to encourage people in their neighborhoods to fill out the census questionnaire.  

Door-to-door canvassing began across Detroit this month. According to a city news release — canvassers plan to knock on 200,000 doors across communities that currently have low response rates. So far, the city has commitments from 11 community groups to do canvassing.

“Different teams will have different perspectives but we’re running into a lot of positive responses and we’re really encouraged as we encourage residents,” Williams said. “I think that Detroiters are recognizing the importance of the census and it is our goal to just encourage those who may not understand its importance.”

Because Detroit ranks far below other cities comparable in size, organizers hope that residents will use the canvassing teams as an opportunity to submit a complete Census response.

Local groups hope to engage in community

The decennial census takes place every 10 years and it is vital in allocating federal funding to states and communities, including systems like health care, food, road and highway maintenance, education and emergency services. Numbers from each state also help determine how many seats in Congress each state gets.

Williams said her team gathers “with the mindset to engage in community because we know the dollars are needed. We set aside everything else and just lock into our minds that we need an accurate count in our communities.”

Raquel Garcia, executive director at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision has been canvassing with her team of English, Arabic and Spanish speakers to get her community to be counted. Garcia also tries to find out if residents have heard about the census or why they haven’t filled it out. Her goal is to encourage civic engagement and “create enough noise to make people aware” in southwest Detroit to get residents involved. 

Canvassers are visiting Detroit’s neighborhoods with the lowest response rates. (Photos by Ralph Jones)

“It’s usually a status or privacy issue, especially if people are undocumented,” Garcia explained. “But I’m even thinking that a partial count is better than no count at all. It might be a good idea to encourage at least the members of the household who have status to respond to the census.” 

Kenyetta M. Campbell, a member of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, said “We want to ensure that all Detroit residents are counted and run hard to the finish line. Our city is depending on us.”

How to spot a canvasser 

Understandably, Detroiters won’t want to give personal information to just anyone, or even open the door to a stranger during a pandemic, so it’s important to know how to spot an authorized Census taker and feel confident in completing the questionnaire with them. 

Canvassers working with the city can be spotted in bright yellow shirts that read “CENSUS” across the front; they’ll also be carrying identification. For the protection of others and themselves, team members will have on masks — or even face shields — as they travel from home to home. Members are trained to guide individuals through completing the form and any information collected is secure. 

Most people find that calling in to the toll-free number is the easiest way to record responses, says Williams. 

“Some people don’t feel comfortable at the door because they have different levels of concerns about COVID-19 or some people just don’t have the time to fill it out so most people prefer to call the number and let the person on the other end take care of it.”

Generally, filling out the questionnaire takes 5 to 10 minutes but can take a little longer if there are more people in a household. 

Canvassing efforts are concentrated in low response areas by organizations that are familiar with the target neighborhoods. Canvassers hope to get 4,000 households to complete the Census. 

According to city officials, this one action that takes about 10 minutes will impact Detroit for the next 10 years. 

Detroiters can fill out the census online at my2020census.gov, by calling 844-330-2020 or filling out the paper form.

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