Intergenerational Census Engagement

June 29, 2021 | By: DSVE Staff

Tags: Student Voice Participate Civics Census

Communities lose out on $2,000 for every person not counted in the census. This is one of the many things that struck students, teachers, and administration from the South and West sides of Chicago on January 24th, 2020. At a convening hosted by the Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement, participants--both adults and youth--gathered to engage in community organizing and action-oriented problem solving. For some students, this was their first time experiencing authentic civic engagement beyond the classroom, and for most, their first exposure to the US census.

The event was aimed towards equipping students, working alongside their teachers and administration, with the knowledge and courage to create a census engagement strategy involving their school and community. They would then collaborate with a local community partner, establishing a connection to work towards a common goal of spreading the importance of completing the census.

The room was filled with ah-ha moments while students and adults alike learned the impact the census has on their community. As the day progressed, common themes emerged. Participants were able to learn about issues of credibility, confidentiality, fear, and lack of widespread knowledge on the census. Margie Smagacz, a Civics Teacher from Foreman High School shared what she learned: “people [who] don’t complete the census [in which] the result of that is we lose funding - it’s fascinating how much money there is with the census.” With heatmaps, participants saw census mail-in rates within their individual school communities. Stephanie Rodriguez, a student at Infinity High School made the connection that higher census mail-in rates are along the freeway in their neighborhood where there are houses: the “majority of [household owners] have their papers, so they’re less scared of deportation.”

What made this event different from your average lesson plan was the co-learning between participants that created a strong connection with one another. Ruben, a Civics teacher from World Language High School, described the intergenerational conversations as follows: “it puts them on the same level and that’s where they want to be...what I love about young people, they’ll come up with the solution, most likely it’s the one that makes the most sense. That’s what this environment fosters.” Similar beliefs were echoed with adults throughout the room, everyone was impressed by the student leadership they were witnessing, and humbled by the opportunity to co-problem-solve together.

Forming a community action plan went farther than just the 2020 census, it provided an avenue for everyone in the room to step up and see themselves and those in their communities as active participants. Camilia, a student from World Language High School, shared that she’s here to be a voice for her community through using her “citizen privilege to voice my opinion instead of using my loophole for ignorance.” Camilia went on to explain her group’s community action plan, and how they wanted to connect with the religious community by reaching out through the church to spread awareness about the census.

School teams were quick to realize the important role everyone can play in ensuring a fair and accurate count. Maria Fitzsimmons from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights echoed this sentiment. She shared “I think it’s really exciting to really have an accurate count. To show who we really are. Especially in a political environment where they want to erase us. And especially to see the faces of these young people and to think about what they’ll do during the next census. I’m excited for these young people to take the roles.”

Camila from World Language concluded that what she took away from the day wasn’t just facts about the census, but rather “how organized my community is, in the sense of we are more than willing to come together to inform black and brown families to let them know they are in power for change and creating something beyond them.” She looked forward to returning to her community to strengthen their work and ensure a fair and accurate count.