Capital Region officials move census efforts to TikTok and Youtube amid pandemic

Credit: Albany Counts

This story has been updated as of April 29, 12:15 p.m.

By Joe McQueen

ALBANY, N.Y. – County and city officials in Albany and Schenectady fully moved all their census efforts to digital platforms in mid-March, including Tik Tok and YouTube instructional videos, and Twitter and Facebook campaigns, to replace in-person events and outreach, banned due to COVID-19.

Videos and social media are aimed at explaining the importance the census has for the city’s finances, and making sure people in the region are counted efficiently. The more people who are registered, the more money the region will receive from the Federal Government.

“We’re using social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Snapchat doing different challenges and pledges to get people involved in different ways,” David Galin, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Albany, said. “It’s not just sending people a postcard, it’s trying to engage individuals and explain why the census should be important to them.”

In Albany and Schenectady, they planned on hosting public events to help spread the word about filling out the census back in January.

The Albany Community Action Partnership, a non profit organization that helps combat poverty throughout the community, was set up to inform the public about census participation, which has a correlation on the amount of federal dollars that local governments receive. The pandemic forced public facilities to close and large social gatherings were banned in New York starting March 20.

The organization was forced to rethink their strategy in making sure residents in the community are counted.

The Albany Community Action Partnership says they had a number of public events like block parties planned, but the coronavirus halted their on-site operations and public information sessions.

“A lot of our initiatives are on hold,” Neenah Bland, Executive Director of Albany Community Action Partnership, said. “We are still using our social media platforms to advertise and to get the word out. It’s definitely not the scope we had hoped for in the impact we hoped we would have.”

Bland’s organization serves as a Complete Count Committee, whose job is to spread awareness about the census to local communities across the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has deprioritized census efforts on the ground. Much of the focus in local communities has been on providing them with essential goods like food and cleaning supplies and training parents on homeschooling their kids since their schools are closed.

“It has decreased the level of what I feel our impact could have been especially in the hard-to-count communities that we wanted to serve,” she said.

The mayor’s office in Albany had to quickly change their strategy in reaching residents to count. Galin says the city is no longer able to go door to door for the foreseeable future and not able to hold events.

“It’s disappointing that we have to cancel some of these events, but we understand that public safety is paramount,” Galin said. “We want to assure the safety of our residents, assure the safety of the folks who are getting out the word about the census and we know there are a variety of ways to reach people.”

The halting of on the ground census efforts has the mayor’s office concerned about the total count. He says Albany is hoping to reach the 100,000 people mark they didn’t reach in the 2010 census so they would have access to additional funding from the Federal government.

“We knew we were very close to 100,000 people in 2010, we knew there was a large portion of our population that was under counted and uncounted so we knew there was an opportunity to add to our population tally and get over the 100,000 mark,” Galin said.

The Trump administration has asked congress to delay the census deadline, which is Dec. 31, to April 2021.

Trying to get in contact with the harder to reach communities, particularly minority communities, has been more of a challenge during the pandemic. Eva Bass, Community Engagement Coordinator at the Albany Mayor’s office, says it has created a gap in the access to information in the community.

“We work very closely with the faith based community, our government partners to maximize every opportunity to do our best to ensure Albany’s complete count,” Bass continued.

The coronavirus pandemic has also halted efforts by the N.A.A.C.P. to get locals counted. They had set up computers in their Albany office for people to come in and fill out the census, but COVID-19 didn’t allow them to do that.

“We couldn’t have that person to person connection,” Debora Brown-Johnson, President of the Albany N.A.A.C.P., said.

Schenectady County spokesperson Erin Roberts says they are looking for ways to include census information into their pandemic messaging, which includes issuing flyers to people along with meal deliveries 

“Making sure everyone is counted, especially communities that are traditionally underrepresented, is a priority for the County Legislature as it will have a tremendous impact on the County for years to come,” Roberts said in an email.

Although the coronavirus pandemic may be interfering with the census and making outreach efforts more difficult, local governments and community organizations are continuing with online efforts and other ways to promote the census to people in the community.

Roberts says Schenectady County is distributing flyers about the census along with food deliveries and other necessities to seniors, and others under quarantine or are in need.

Deliveries are made all over the county, with many of them going to communities that are traditionally under counted,” Roberts said.

Staff at the Albany Community Action Partnership are still reaching out and giving out information regarding the census to help maintain their relationships with families in Albany. The organization trained 40 members of its staff before the pandemic that work directly on the ground with many families.

“We send them flyers, send them educational materials, activities for children to work with parents and talk to them about the census and why it’s important,” Bland said. “We of course are utilizing our social media pages, where we have pages designated for parents and children to get information and really trying to convert our message in a way the community will respond to.”

The Latino community has historically been one of the hard to reach communities in the census count. They have been under counted in the census in the past and making them count in this year’s census is vital for organizations like Capital District Latinos, a non profit organization that helps give opportunities to the local latino community.

“A lot of the community we normally interact with, people who are affected directly, are employed in the service industry who might have mixed documentation in their household, so one person might be documented and one might not,” Dan Irizarry, President of Capital District Latinos, said. “Were worried that they might be like so many Latino communities across the state, primarily New York City, that they’re disproportionately infected by the virus and their fear of ICE raids.”

One thing Capital District Latinos are doing to combat this problem is talking to leadership in the communities to help get the information to them about the census and the pandemic.

The organization is very concerned about the Latino community being under counted this year. Irizarry says that much of the issue for the Latino community is that they strongly distrust the government due to them being scapegoated for much of our country’s problems, making them more fearful of what the government will do with the census information.

“It is critical, especially when you consider the impacts of the pandemic, and that resources are tied to the census count,” Irizarry said.

Two years ago, Albany reached out to residents in the community to convene their Complete Count Committee. Their goal was to contain it with people from the community who are trusted in particularly harder to reach communities. Galin says The South End, Arbor Hill, and West Hill neighborhoods of Albany have been historically under served and under counted and the main focus of the city’s outreach efforts.

The police and water departments in Albany produced videos explaining how the census impacts their operations, she said. In these videos they explain how the census affects how much federal funding they get so they can repave roads, fill potholes and plow snow during the winter.

Local colleges and universities, which were collaborating with the Census bureau and promoting the census, had to change their strategies too, since 10,000 of their students will be staying off-campus for the remainder of the spring semester.

At the University at Albany, contacting their students, who are no longer on campus, has made it a challenge for student ambassadors. They have been responsible for contacting off-campus students encouraging them to fill out the census.

The university has a program called Point Person Census, which is the university’s program regarding the census.

“We started to do digital outreach on social media months ago with the intention that once spring break ended, we were going to shift to pretty intense peer-to-peer, door knocking student outreach,” Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, university spokesperson, said. “We had to suddenly change how we were going to do peer-to-peer outreach. We quickly assembled contact info of students who live off-campus and re-deployed our student ambassadors to just calling their peers.”

Since the university began phone banking off-campus students,16 people, 10 of whom are student ambassadors have made nearly 2,150 calls to students.

The university has also been using social media as part of their main strategy for reaching students back home, Carleo-Evangelist says. It was always part of the plan, but it has become more important to them now in using it during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It became more significant after. The university has a very savvy social media staff, they figured out very quickly how to make it work,” he continued.

The student ambassadors have been preparing for the census count for at least a year. They gathered flyers, began sending emails to students, and speaking to students during classes to tell them about the importance of the census.

“Because of COVID, we had to re-examine our approach, so we have been heavily reliant on phone banks, emailing specific sub-populations,” Steven Torres, Graduate Assistant at the university’s Dean of Students office, who is one of the student ambassadors,” said. “We’ve been primarily targeting to make sure our students are counting themselves.”

Some of the challenges of trying to reach out to students have been figuring out the right times to contact them. Torres says he tries not to contact students before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m. The time he found is the best to contact students is between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

“For the ones that I’ve been speaking with, it’s honestly a great conversation to have with them,” Torres said.“Our students tend to think that it’s their parents who fill out the census. The Census (bureau) wants to make sure students who live away from home while attending college are counting themselves where they live most of the time. For students who live in the Albany area, means they should be counting in that area.”