Justice advocates, parish promote census among Hispanics

By Dennis Sadowski | Catholic News Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Rose Ocampo, a leader in the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, urges passersby in Maywood, to complete the U.S. census on May 9, 2020,while she maintains social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership)

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed a lot of things, but not the census outreach efforts of a group of Chicago-area Catholics.

Through the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, the census campaign has utilized social media, phone banks and creative means to urge the largely Hispanic community of Maywood to complete the census so that as many people as possible are counted.

“We are doing as much outreach as we can on a daily basis,” said Rose Ocampo, a leader in the coalition, which roots its work in Catholic spirituality and theology in addressing pressing social concerns such as hunger, discrimination and environmental justice.

The coalition’s noncensus work has been funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program.

Maria Franco, another coalition leader and religious education coordinator at Sacred Heart and St. Eulalia Parish in Maywood, said the organization’s members felt education and action around the census was crucial to village residents.

Any significant undercount of people would mean the potential loss of millions of dollars in federal government assistance, she said.

“It’s important to remember that the census taking is not a one-time act,” she said. “This will affect our lives for the next 10 years.”

The Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership estimates that an undercount of hundreds of people in the 2010 census resulted in the Chicago suburb of Maywood losing tens of millions of dollars for social services, infrastructure repairs, education and other important needs.

The campaign began last fall with education and outreach to residents. Much of the plan was based on one-on-one contact. Members received the backing of their pastor, Father Francisco Ortega. Census reminders also appear regularly in the church bulletin.

However, when the pandemic exploded in March, the coalition changed plans, utilizing phone banks staffed by volunteers, social media and creative at limited locales, such as food pantries.

Ocampo said pantries have become an important place for people who have lost their jobs because of stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closings. With more people visiting the pantries, the sites became a natural place to conduct census outreach, with social distancing in mind, she said.

“Pantries are one of the areas we pass out flyers in the bag. We go with music. We make people smile. We bring a microphone. People know the importance of being counted,” she said.

Before the shutdown, events such as a Census Family Day at Sacred Heart and St. Eulalia Parish drew about 250 people, according to Megan Miller, a community organizer with the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership. Participants learned about the importance of completing the census and where to seek assistance if they had questions while socializing with their neighbors.

Since the shutdown, the coalition has turned to about 30 volunteers who have been calling people throughout the community reminding them to complete their census form. In a matter of weeks, the volunteers made 7,000 calls, Franco said.

Callers ask if the census has been completed; if not, they offer assistance or explain how the process takes perhaps 10 minutes and what it means to Maywood. For those who responded that they have completed the census, the volunteers offer a word of thanks and move down the call list.

For people who don’t answer their cellphones, a text message is sent.

“All we do is give them advice,” Ocampo said.

One obstacle in Maywood, which has seen a large influx of Hispanics since 2010, is that some residents may not be legally in the U.S., Franco said, and they fear that completing the questionnaire will result in their arrest and ultimate deportation.

The volunteers try to calm such fears by explaining that the information being collected is not used by immigration enforcement officers.

“Nobody should be afraid to fill out the census,” Franco said. “That is something we have to take to heart.”

The pandemic has delayed completion of census work from July 31 until Oct. 31. For Ocampo and Franco, that means three extra months to reach people.


  • parishes
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19
  • census

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