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Exploring community organizations' joint effort to get all Grand Rapids residents counted in 2020 census

A variety of Grand Rapids organizations are teaming up to educate their fellow residents about the importance of being counted in the 2020 census.
Census ambassadors answering questions about the 2020 census at Gerald R. Ford Middle School

Census ambassadors answering questions about the 2020 census at Gerald R. Ford Middle School /Complete Count Committee

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Looking for more info about the 2020 census?

More information about the 2020 census effort in Grand Rapids can be found at and the 2020 U.S. census effort as a whole at

Census ambassadors answering questions about the 2020 census at Celebration Cinema GR South

Census ambassadors answering questions about the 2020 census at Celebration Cinema GR South /Garfield Parks Neighborhoods Association

Census ambassadors at Grand Valley State University for the Asian Student Union's Lunar New Year event on February 14, 2020

Census ambassadors at Grand Valley State University for the Asian Student Union's Lunar New Year event on February 14, 2020 /Heart of West Michigan United Way

A new decade brings with it a changing U.S. population, which in Grand Rapids means once again taking stock of where its own population stands. As the 2020 U.S. census gears up nationwide, Grand Rapids residents will renew their role in the once-every-decade effort to get as complete a count as possible of how many residents are living in the city; and the nation by extension.

With the census count informing the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding to community resources, determining the number of congressional seats for each state, and redrawing state and congressional legislative districts, much is to be gained and much is at stake in getting residents in every neighborhood counted. However, with a local history of not getting every resident counted according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a need exists to help ensure all or as many as possible get counted in 2020.

Responding to this need within Grand Rapids, a variety of local organizations, from neighborhood associations to faith-based groups to housing assistance centers, are working together with the City of Grand Rapids to get out into the neighborhoods they call home and educate their fellow residents about the importance of everyone in Grand Rapids being included in the census count.

“The importance really is about, ‘How does it affect me?’” emphasized Shannon Blackmon-Gardner, vice president of community impact at Heart of West Michigan United Way (HWMUW). “That’s the question that we’ve been getting asked from a lot of the residents in the community: ‘How does it affect me?’”

Blackmon-Gardner articulates many of the positive effects of an accurate census count to residents she engages with around town in ways that are simple, understandable, and relevant.

“We know that we receive federal dollars from the census that’s allocated to every state. The purpose of that is to be able to provide additional services such as education and food in schools — to the kids — and a lot more,” she shared. “We also know that it’s worth understanding that congressional seats are important for us. They give us a seat at the table to be able to share what our needs are in our community.”

Blackmon-Gardner continues: “I think many people don’t realize the importance of having a seat at the table to say, ‘Here’s what we need. Here’s how we fight for what’s right for our community.’”

The number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives reapportioned to each state and the state and congressional legislative redistricting that both follow the completion and review of census counts enable the community needs of those living in any particular area to be more accurately represented at the state and federal level. This can result in improved or better-funded hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and so on.

HWMUW is advancing its engagement with Grand Rapids residents about the census this year through taking on the responsibility of being the city’s first-ever Census Administrator Hub. With funding through Michigan Nonprofit Association, HWMUW is leading the effort of recruiting, organizing, and training local organizations, now totaling 18 in number, to be able to engage with those in their respective neighborhoods about how getting counted positively affects the lives of those in their neighborhood.

The 18 Census Hubs supported in this effort are Asian Community Outreach, Bhutanese Community of Michigan, Creston Neighborhood Association, Dégagé Ministries, Dwelling Place, Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association, Genesis Non-Profit Housing, Grand Rapids HQ, Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project, Grand Rapids Urban League, Hispanic Center of West Michigan, John Ball Area Neighbors, LaMejor Foundation, Migrant Legal Aid, Neighbors of Belknap, New City Neighbors, West Grand, and the YMCA.

Each of these organizations are focusing on those in their immediate neighborhoods, which have a history of being underrepresented in past census counts according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An example is the Garfield Park neighborhood, located on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, between 28th St. and Cottage Grove St. and between Eastern Ave. and US-131.

“We are aware in the 49507 area, which is one of the lower areas where data is gathered in the census historically, that we need to do some focused efforts to make sure that folks get out and allow themselves to be counted,” said Fran Dalton, a neighborhood organizer for Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association.

To make sure residents from this area get counted, Fran and her team have organized a number of concrete efforts.

“One of them is the development of PSAs [public service announcements] that we want to get out that are going to have people that are from our neighborhood, as well as individuals and folks recognized, talking about why people should be involved,” Dalton said.

These PSAs will be shared through television and radio, but also through a more participatory and in-depth environment: the neighborhood itself.

Organizations like the Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association will be hosting free events over the coming months at various locations in their neighborhoods to be present, welcoming, and enthusiastic to any potential questions or concerns residents nearby and beyond may have about the census. They’ll also be promoting the variety of upcoming important dates connected with the census residents may likely not be clear on.

Upcoming important dates include April 1st, Census Day, which is the date by which every home should have received an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. This participation can be done online, by phone, or by mail. Other important time periods include the month of May, when census takers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to the 2020 census to help them get counted, and the month of December, when the U.S. Census Bureau will deliver completed counts to the President and Congress as required by law.

All of this engagement effort by community organizations is enthusiastically embraced by the City of Grand Rapids, which aims to help ensure every Grand Rapids resident can be counted, homeless residents included, and raise self-reporting to 85% in 2020; a 12% increase from 77% in 2010.

"We're trying to make sure that we're removing any barriers,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalyn Bliss shared in February’s episode of GRTV’s City Connection. This means not only getting out into the neighborhoods where residents are living with the help of community organizations, but also establishing Census Assistance Centers (CAC) around Grand Rapids. These CAC locations, 50 in total so far, are providing space and access to a computer and internet for individuals to complete their Census Questionnaire.

For “individuals and families that don’t have access to internet or computers, those will be available,” Mayor Bliss shared when introducing the CAC locations in the GRTV episode’s discussion that included the city’s census coordinator, Kathi Harris. “There will be people who can answer questions.”

The various CAC locations include Grand Rapids’ public libraries, Grand Rapids Pride Center, Hispanic Center of West Michigan, Literacy Center of West Michigan, and Migrant Legal Aid, and numerous churches, among other sites.

“The census community partners play a major role in this important endeavor,” added Harris. “This team partners with the community because they have a trusted relationship with their communities. They know how to reach them. They can inspire them to support a complete and accurate count.”

From the Census Hubs’ neighborhood efforts to the city government and CAC preparation and readiness to help get the job at hand done, there’s no shortage of individuals and organizations in Grand Rapids working together to help make the local 2020 count and contribution to the overall U.S. census as accurate as possible. Only time will tell if this unprecedented level of citywide engagement around census participation leads to a more accurate count for Grand Rapids.

“I’m eager to see the results,” said Blackmon-Gardner, summarizing her excitement about the work ahead. “Will it make a difference? Will the numbers increase compared to ten years ago? I think it will."

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