With a growing Asian community, local organizations dismantle misperceptions of the 2020 census

Every 10 years, the U.S. census plays a crucial role in the allocation of funds, but often, many go uncounted, which can negatively impact the resources communities receive for everything from education to health care. There are many reasons people may go uncounted, from a lack of awareness or government trust, to misperceptions and language barriers, and with Wyoming population and diversity, getting an accurate count is all the more important for the city.

The Asian community is one of the growing demographics in Wyoming. It's estimated to have risen from 2.8% to 3.6% since the 2010 census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But, a January 2019 report by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that among racial and ethnic groups, Asian respondents were least likely to report that they would participate in the census.
While Asians were only undercounted by 0.1%, in the 2010 census, compared to 2.1% of the Black population and 1.5% of the Hispanic population, there are unique circumstances for many in the Asian community that may contribute to misperceptions or unwillingness to participate in future censuses. 

Raising awareness

"A lot of people don't understand what the role of the census is," says Crystal Bui, president of Asian Community Outreach.
Asian Community Outreach Treasurer, Nicole Lam with the youth dance group from Linh Son Buddhist Temple.From the same report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians were the least familiar with the census out of the other racial and ethnic groups, with only 22% saying that they were extremely familiar or very familiar with the census.

"They don't understand how much value each household, each person counted, brings to the community and they don't understand the services that benefit from the census, you know, housing, education, transportation, health care, and all those things impact them and affect them in one way or another." 

Founded in 2015, Asian Community Outreach is a community-based grassroots organization that provides a variety of services to Asians in Kent County, from offering English language and job skills classes, to providing scholarships and food relief. It's also one of the 2020 census mini-grant recipients from Heart of West Michigan United Way, which is the Census Hub for Kent County. The mini-grants are given to local nonprofits to help raise awareness of the census in communities that are at risk of being undercounted.

"We talk to people in the community who are well respected and trusted by Asian groups to really help us promote the census," says Bui. They began by reaching out to various religious organizations such as Our Lady of La Vang in Wyoming, St. Mary Magdalene in Kentwood, Linh Son Buddhist Temple in Belmont, and the Myanmar Buddhist Association.Our Lady of La Vang Catholic Church.

"We focused on those four groups because we know that's where a lot of people congregate at once and so we can get the message targeted to those groups through our contacts."

Asian Community Outreach also worked with a team of high school students of Asian descent to help raise awareness of the 2020 census in their communities. "This was kind of both a community service project for them and a civic project for them," says Bui. "It was a way for these kids to learn more about the importance of the census and also convey that to their own community."

A growing business community

Bui's family has owned a number of businesses in Wyoming since 1997 including a jewelry store to a grocery store. At one point they were providing tailoring services and were landlords of a building with hair salon tenants.

"Now you can go down that corridor, Division from 44th Street to 36th Street, or even 44th Street all the way down to 28th street, that stretch of Division, you have Vietnamese and Korean markets, you have dimsum restaurants, you have beef noodle soup restaurants, boba tea shops are fairly recent in the past 10 years, so you just have so much more than you had 20 years ago," says Bui. "It's just added such a richness to the community."

She says the community is very tight knit, and you can see that in the physical locations of businesses.

Cafe Boba at 4314 Division Ave S.Businesses often use census data, such as population statistics, to inform important decisions about products and payroll, or whether to add jobs or open new locations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Furthermore, many of the programs funded as a result of census data contribute to the overall well-being of the community, and in turn positively affecting businesses and the economy. An accurate census count this year will depict just how diverse Wyoming is and perhaps, positively impact the variety of businesses in the area.

"As a family, we're really proud to see how these Asian businesses that are located in Kentwood and Wyoming have flourished in the past 20 years," says Bui.

Historical and cultural influences

Many immigrants may have never experienced a census in their home country or it may have negative connotations depending on how census data was used there.

The report from the Census Bureau also noted that nearly 25% of respondents were concerned that their census answers would be used against them and Asians (41%) were the most concerned out of all of the racial and ethnic groups, in addition to those not proficient in English (39%) and those born outside the U.S. (34%). The Asian community was also the most likely to be extremely concerned or very concerned about confidentiality. Duy Nguyen of The Asian Community Outreach Census outreach team at GVSU’s Lunar New Year Festival in early 2020.

"I've talked to my friends of different ethnic Asian groups and many Asian countries," says Bui. "Governments have used the counts for reasons that were very dangerous, that were not good, or to drive groups of people out." 

In Wyoming, 12% of the population is foreign-born. 

"The census has a negative connotation in our community because historically [the] census, it's been used as a weapon," says Dilli Gautam, president of the Bhutanese Community of Michigan

In response to a large Nepali population, the Bhutanese government used its 1988 census to classify people into groups, forcing many to leave Bhutan. Since the early 1990s, there have been thousands of Bhutanese refugees, many relocating around the world, and particularly in Michigan about a decade ago.

Gautam arrived in the U.S. in November 2008. With a master's in public health from Eastern Washington University, he not only works as an Early Intervention Specialist at the Red Project in Grand Rapids, but is also educating his community on the 2020 census.

Along with Asian Community Outreach, the Bhutanese Community of Michigan is also one of the 2020 census mini-grant recipients from Heart of West Michigan United Way. 

A majority of the Bhutanese community that Gautam serves lives in Wyoming or Kentwood. He says the biggest challenge is educating the community on the importance of the census and making sure they know that it won't impact them negatively. 

Many may view the census as a form of civic engagement or political participation, which Gautam says can discourage them from participating. "Many of us refugees and immigrants, I have found that we choose to stay away from politics, because politics and those like civil engagement were the very reason we became refugees in the first place," says Gautam. "If I voice my opinion, and if you know, if I am evicted from this country, where would I go?"

He says that this perception isn't unique to the Bhutanese community, but that he has found it in other immigrant and refugee communities, too.Dhaka Timsana, Bhutanese Community of Michigan board member.

The other crucial part of their outreach efforts is explaining how the survey can be completed online. "Since we're doing it online this year and the fact that we came from a place where we've never seen a computer before or never used it, it's a challenge for elderly and if they don't have someone who attends school or college, they would have no idea how to use a computer to fill out the survey," says Dhaka Timsina, a board member for the Bhutanese Community of Michigan. Similar to Gautam, he arrived in Michigan in 2008. He's now a Systems Analyst in IT at Farmers Insurance and is taking classes in cybersecurity.

Timsina created a step by step video in Nepali to show viewers how to complete the census online.

Like Bui at Asian Community Outreach, the Bhutanese Community of Michigan has been mobilizing the younger generation to help increase awareness of the census.

Shifting perceptions and getting counted

"We want to show the federal government how diverse this community is," says Bui. "The number of people in the household, income, wages — it just gives us a better snapshot of our community." 

It's not too late to submit the questionnaire for the 2020 census, which can be completed online at my2020census.gov, by phone, or by mail. The census is available in 13 different languages online and by phone, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, and there are also guides in 59 non-English languages to offer support.

Growing Wyoming is a four-part series highlighting the people, neighborhoods and small businesses in the city of Wyoming impacted by the 2020 census. This mini-series is designed to uplift community voices, and encourage all Wyoming residents to get involved and be counted.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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