Count our Community

AAAN reaches out to community to encourage participation in 2010 Census

February 20, 2010

“Are you coming to count us for the beled [“home country” in Arabic] or for this country?” joked an elderly woman dressed in an embroidered black thob. She was the second person to answer AAAN Census Fellow Fatmah Tabally’s knock on the morning of February 11th.  Fatmah has been going door-to-door in Bridgeview since January, telling residents about the Census and gathering pledges that they will fill out the ten-question form when it arrives in March and mail it back by the first of April.  

Fatmah speaks at ICIRR press conference.

On top of Tabally’s many-layered defense against Chicago’s winter she wears a neon yellow vest with buttons that read “ICIRR” (Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights), the organization which, partnering with local community organizations, national partners, and private foundations, is leading the 2010 Census campaign.  Tabally began with streets full of multi-unit apartment buildings to reach more families in less time. Her strategy is simple: she chooses Arab names from the mailboxes and rings the accompanying doorbell. When they hear her native Arabic, they tend to buzz her through. Once inside, she knocks on every single door. 

Many of the people answering the door, especially the Arabs, are wary—not of Tabally—but of the Census itself.  Arabs in America have been especially mistreated since 2001 and many have come to expect violations of their civil liberties. That’s where Tabally’s job comes in. She explains the confidentiality of the Census and why it’s so important: it determines how over $400 billion in federal funds gets allocated to different communities for things like hospitals, schools, libraries, and bridges. “The penalty for unlawful disclosure,” states the Census Bureau web site, “is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both.” And the Census form doesn’t ask anything sensitive like immigration status. “If the government wanted to go after you,” Tabally commented to one particularly reluctant resident, “they would use something more informative than the Census information.”  

Another reason why some Arabs feel apathetic about the Census is that it doesn’t provide them with a racial, ethnic, or nationality category. They can either mark white or “Other,” but at this point “Other” doesn’t factor in to most federal government programs.  As for lobbying to add a category, AAAN board member Louise Cainkar doesn’t see much point, and she notes that no term would be quite right. “Arab” would exclude groups like Kurds, Iranians, and Armenians, while most Arabs don’t identify as “Middle Eastern,” as was found in a test the Bureau conducted in the 90s. Instead, Cainkar advocates for “another kind of study.” To get an accurate count for Chicagoland, she says, “We could do our own block to block canvas” for a particular small area, generating further data from institutions like schools, and “then use the error rate we find to extrapolate on existing data.” 

Tabally’s experience with grassroots canvassing as a fellow suggests that Cainkar’s alternate proposal could be easily achieved. The hardest part, it seems, is getting in and out of houses quickly—“everyone wants you to come in, sit down, drink tea and coffee and have lunch,” Tabally says. “That’s our way.”

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