Housing Complex

Three Questions for Maurice Henderson, the Man Who Will Make Sure You Participate in the 2010 Census

So you know the big, recent announcement that Washington D.C. had added nearly 9,600 residents between mid 2008 and mid 2009? Well, when it comes to populations and numbers, that ain't nothing in comparison to what's coming soon.

2010 is the year of the US Census. We'll be hearing about it a lot. In October, Maurice A. Henderson II began working as the director of the DC Counts campaign to increase awareness about the Census. This morning, I talked to Henderson about the national Census Bureau's $400 million advertisement campaign, what prisoners and college students have in common, and other Census-related topics. (I'll put up the entire interview over the course of two or three posts. It's pretty lengthy.)

So, prior to working on this campaign, you'd never worked on the Census. You must have learned a lot in the last few months–what has surprised you the most?

I was completely unaware of the fact that Americans respond to the census at a higher rate that we vote. The fact that the national average is a 67 percent response rate-–now given that's also with the enumerator coming to your door—now, that's pretty high.

Unfortunately, the District responded at a 60 percent response rate. But in some ways, the District is kind of a dichotomy: It's a hyper political, hyper activist town–but there's also a sense of a disconnection and disenfranchisement to some degree, where you would have that level of apathy.

Do you have a goal–a percent–for participation at this point?

The goal is always 100 percent. But realistically speaking, what I've been asked to do, is to figure out the best mechanisms for getting the word out as far and as wide as possible. The Census Bureau has been on ground since late 2007, if not early 2008. They've been in touch with community-based organizations. They've touched base with the District government in the past, at various levels of success. I was asked to help bridge that communications gap.

This is such an unprecedented time, it's really hard to predict what's going to happen. You've got foreclosure rates, which are going to affect migration rates. At the same time, where you've had a single family home, maybe it's a two and three family home now. We live in a post-9/11 world where the sensitivity toward the big brother notion, or big government looking over my shoulder, is even more heightened now because of the Patriot Act. People are more aware of the security of their identity—so you have those factors in place.

On top of that, 55 percent of the District's population is deemed 'hard to count.' They're the least likely people to be participatory in the Census process. So what does that entail?: 18 to 39-year-old African American males are traditionally nationwide the hardest group to count. When you look at our population–and I don't have the exact figures–there's a fairly high number of that demographic that are either in the ex-offender population or currently in the penal system. So getting those young men to participate is increasingly hard. Plus, the fact that we don't house the majority of our inmates here in the District. That means they're not counted here in the District.

Then you look at the 23,000 young people that are in college here in the District. Their parents might not know that they should be counted where they live. We're actively engaged with all nine colleges and universities here in the area.

Then, you've got the diversity of our city. That's a strength, but it's also challenge when it comes to something like this when 12 percent of our population, I believe, is foreign born and 15 percent speaks a language other than English in the household. The Census Bureau has six different languages that will be represented in the questionaire form that actually comes to the house, those being: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian. [They have other languages on other forms.] They're doing what they can do to make sure they touch as many people in the American fabric as possible.

The already fearful nature of addressing or dealing with government–depending on your status–is something that people are worried about. And what we've been trying to present is that the Census is safe and secure, that their information will not be used against them—that INS or ICE or any other immigration law enforcement will not be coming after them.

So getting that message out is a challenge as well. It's a monumental task, and certainly, I'm honored to take it on. And you know, the mayor didn't give me a number is the simple answer. There wasn't a number. The number is about effort, in my mind.

So at this point what has the DC Counts campaign done? What should I have seen from the campaign?

You should not have seen much. Mostly, the campaign has been in government buildings and through government e-mail. I got the City Administrator to add a tag to every D.C. government employee's e-mail about the Census. Every time that e-mail is generated, there is a Census logo and tagline attached to it. It's just a way to continue to push the Census in District government. We have 30,000 employees plus the additional 33,000 or so employees that are part of DCPS. So for the people we're contacting, it's a subtle message. I think marketers say you need to hit someone 40 plus times for them to recognize something, and then it's another 40 to 50 times that they recognize and actually connect the dots to something else. We also made sure that every single DC government building managed by the Department of Real Estate Services had posters in it.

The next wave of [the campaign] is getting posters more targeted for particular communities and talking to business leaders, particularly those in retail spaces and storefront spaces, about getting Census materials–posters and pamphlets and what not. We've been actively engaged in that part of the campaign—so that coupled with the Census Bureau's plan to have what will be the largest advertising campaign in the country this year. They're spending upwards of 400 million dollars nationwide. Television, radio, internet–you name it. That's what they're going to be doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed. I'll post the rest later on this week.


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