Census Advocates Get Creative In Getting Detroit Counted

Organizers use online concerts, yard signs and neighborhood rivalries to encourage people to fill out the Census during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Less than 50 percent of Detroit’s residents have responded to the Census.

That means the city is at risk of losing federal funding and political representation determined by Census data. But city officials, faith leaders and residents are finding pandemic-friendly ways to promote the count.

The Census is “the roads, the schools, childcare, all the things that really effect the core of the city.” — Big Sean, rapper

One of these ways was at the City of Detroit’s “Everybody vs. COVID-19” online festival in late May. The streaming video featured performances by local musicians interspersed with messages to stay safe and stay home — and to fill out the Census.

Click on the player above to hear how celebrities, faith groups and local leaders are getting Detroiters counted during the pandemic.

Even rapper Big Sean, who participated in the event, says that after COVID-19 the next battle that’s ahead for Detroit is getting everyone counted.

The Census is “the roads, the schools, childcare, all the things that really effect the core of the city,” said Big Sean. “It’s literally all of that.”

During the last Census, in 2010, Detroit had one of the worst response rates for cities of its size. Only 64 percent of residents filled out forms. Because the count data is tied to federal funding and political representation, area leaders want to see more people participating this time.

The city had planned to run a major campaign in March, April and May to get residents to fill out their forms. But officials had to cancel more than 90 in-person events once the pandemic hit.

Pandemic Counting

Erinn Harris, the Deputy Director for the city’s Census outreach efforts, says Detroit has been figuring out how to promote the Census amidst COVID-19.

“We’ve had to get creative with concerts on Facebook and Instagram and learning Zoom and making sure to get the word out,” says Harris.

Census forms in Detroit can be completed on paper, over the phone or online here, no 12-digit ID necessary. 

She admits it has been challenging at times to promote the Census given the circumstances.

“But I think that we’re continuing to work hard to get the word out about how important the Census is. And so if that means that we have to do it virtually, then we just have to do that,” Harris says.

City of Detroit
City of Detroit

Houses of Worship

Faith leaders are also adapting their Census outreach efforts.

Originally many places of worship were planning to encourage their congregants to fill out the Census on laptops before and after services. That hasn’t been possible while in-person services have been cancelled.

Dion Williams, the Director of Faith-based Affairs for the State of Michigan, says the religious community has found ways to spread the word about the Census in the midst of the pandemic “whether it’s doing a food distribution drive and making sure that literature is in those boxes or doing phone banking and calling their constituents in their congregations.”

Some preachers are even getting creative.

Take Pastor Moe Hardwick, also known as “The Street Preacher.” He wrote a rap about the Census and recorded a video of himself performing it. Dressed in a matching white denim outfit paired with a white ball cap, Hardwick repeats the phrase, “I’m just handlin’ my business, gotta complete my Census.”

Watch: Pastor Moe Hardwick raps about the Census.

Residents are stepping up, too. Beverly Frederick lives in North Rosedale Park on the city’s westside.

In late May her neighborhood was leading the city in terms of the percentage of people that had filled out the Census.

“We are number one and our rival is Rosedale, which is like a family member to us, but we want to really take them down,” says Frederick. “We taunt each other so it’s fun.”

“This is just something that we are getting super excited about.” — Beverly Frederick, resident

More than 75 percent of North Rosedale Park residents have taken the Census. Frederick says each block captain has been responsible for calling and emailing their neighbors to encourage them to fill out the form. Some of them even have Census yard signs.

“Before the pandemic, I filled out the Census but I didn’t have a sense of urgency for it until we found out that we couldn’t go anywhere,” Frederick says.

Now, she says, focusing her energy on this campaign has become an unexpected, but welcome, distraction.

“This is just something that we are getting super excited about. It’s a game we’re playing but it takes our mind off of everything else,” says Frederick.

It takes less than ten minutes to fill out the Census, but Frederick says encouraging others to complete the form can provide hours of distraction in these trying times. Plus, it can provide benefits that will last until 2030 when everyone will need to be counted again.

October 31 is the very last day that residents can submit forms for the 2020 Census.

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  • Laura Herberg
    Laura Herberg is a Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here.