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California AAPI Census Outreach Goes Virtual Following Stay-At-Home Order

By Amy Xiaoshi-Depaola, AsAmNews Contributor

California’s Asian American Pacific Islander groups have found a way to get around the shelter-in-place order in pursuit of community census outreach.

Door-to-door canvassing and other in-person efforts have ceased in the wake of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order, which warns all Californians to stay at home — save for “essential infrastructure workers,” such as healthcare and food service — in an effort to contain the virus.

So AAPI groups are looking to — and starting to — go digital.

“We have stopped all of our workshops since last Friday due to shelter-in-place, so we’re coming up with some alternative ways to reach out to hard-to-reach communities,” said Myan Duong, program coordinator of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay.

Duong said these efforts include social media, as well as calling and texting their clients, encouraging them to respond to the census. The organization used to have in-person workshops and census clinics to connect with senior citizens, immigrants, and others with English language difficulties, but is strategizing from within and with other local organizations to reach them.

“The #2020Census is here!” one of the messages reads, translated into Vietnamese. “We encourage you to respond to the Census online or by phone by calling 844-398-2020 (Cantonese), 844-391-2020 (Mandarin), or 844-461-2020 (Vietnamese) to complete your Census. If you need any assistance, please reach out to us. #EveryoneCounts.”

Torm Nompraseurt, senior community organizer at Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said that they used to have person-to-person interactions at social sites like church, temple, or grocery stores.

One major concern that gets lost is that many Laotian elders can’t read and/or write the English or Lao language, and need someone’s help to translate. If the elders live alone, their resources to know about — and later fill out — the census are even more limited.

It’s not as simple as translating English into Laotian, as with Chinese or Korean, both of have a standard language, Nomprasuert said. There are 42 different Laotian dialects, with 12 main dialects in the U.S., including Lao, Hmong, Mien, and Khmu.

So Nomprasuert and other community leaders are recording video messages on Facebook in Laotian, English, and multiple ethnic languages in an attempt to reach as many groups as possible.

“Because [the organization] can’t go door-to-door anymore to reach out to them, they really rely heavily on social media and recorded videos to try to reach them,” said Nompraseurt .

It’s especially important to reach Lao elders, who “are hardest-hit with non-disaggregated data” in being lumped into the Asian American umbrella, Nompraseurt added. Language access for medical, legal, social, and senior services are critical, but language access in Lao, including in the many dialects, is missing in many U.S. municipal areas.

“The elders are physically and linguistically very isolated with language barriers, which can lead to elder abuse and mental health issues like depression,” he said in an email.

As a result, the organization is looking for volunteers to make phone calls, particularly to encourage children and grandchildren to educate their elders, as well as artists who can communicate the importance of the census to have these governmental resources.

Grassroots community-building organization Jakara Movement, meanwhile, is taking outreach one step further: to local radio and TV stations.

“We are doing interviews with Punjabi Radio USA, where a hundred thousand Punjabis tune into almost every single day,” Ragini Kaur, Jakara Movement’s Greater Bay Area Community Organizer. 

In addition to using Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and translating census videos into Punjabi, the Jakara Movement conducts interviews on news channels in Fresno and other local radio and TV stations, such as Radio Punjab 620 AM and Jus Punjabi TV. They are also spreading awareness through newspaper advertisements and newsletters.

Census Count Protest

Like the Lao community, language barriers and accessibility are issues for the Punjabi community, especially in the Central Valley. Punjabi is the “third-largest spoken language” in the area, after English and Spanish, but there are few translators, Kaur said.

The group would canvas in Alameda and Santa Clara county, go to local community events and places of worship, and planned to be at a religious and cultural festival in April, but the coronavirus and stay-at-home order halted those plans.

“A lot of that had to be cancelled,” she said.

For now, they’re setting up phone banking, hoping to encourage people to advocate for their specific needs, despite hesitance about filling out the census from the community.

“There’s a fear within the Sikh community… and a lot of us come to this country as economic refugees from India, are undocumented, or asylum seekers,” Kaur said, and people fear their personal information being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This is similar in the Vietnamese community as well, Duong of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay said, and much of their dialogue is reassuring people that their information will be confidential.

Making sure people know how important the census is, she said , is critical, mainly because their organization serves the low-income, refugee population in the San Francisco Bay Area. The AAPI community is the fastest-growing population, yet historically undercounted and underrepresented in governmental resources.

“100% of our clients are considered hard-to-reach,” Duong said in a phone interview.

And these clients are no longer reachable in person, especially the elderly.

Kaur is adamant about filling out the census, as the specific needs of the Punjabi community, often grouped with Asian/Indian category, are often lost. Much of the Punjabi population are blue-collar workers who are in the transportation and agricultural sectors, as well as economic refugees.

“We have 120 years of history in the United States,” she said. “We’re often overlooked; our issues are very different.”

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Torm Nompraseurt).

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