City of Glendale Armenian-language social media call for 2020 census volunteers during pandemic stay-at-home restrictions

Decennial Census Efforts Continue in Southern California with Much at Stake

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GLENDALE, Calif. – Despite the restrictions on movement required to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of the 2020 US national census continues in Southern California, as well as throughout the nation. Armenians have the option of writing Armenian in one of two different places for their identity or origin, which may help in better identifying the Armenian population and increase its official numbers. Outreach efforts to Armenians in places of dense Armenian population like Glendale are taking place through federal census officials, local governmental bodies and even specially formed Armenian-American community organizations.

The first page of a US Census Bureau Armenian-language guide to the 2020 census (https://2020census.gov/content/dam/2020census/materials/languages/guides/Armenian-Guide.pdf)

The census is treated very seriously in California. Like other states, its Congressional representation, state legislative boundaries, and the amount of federal money it receives for Medicaid funds, student loans, special education support, and many other items, are at stake. Consequently the state of California allocated $187.2 million for an outreach and communication campaign to get people to send in their information. It created the California Complete Count – Census 2020 Office, also known as the California Census Office, to coordinate its strategy and complement the national work of the US Census Bureau, along with a California Complete Count Committee, which is an advisory panel of appointed members.

Armenian National Committee of America Western Region (ANCA-WR) Government Affairs Director Arsen Shirvanyan, who is also director of HyeCount, an organization created to promote Armenian participation in the census, speculated that the state is motivated by the need to accurately count the immigrant population. There is a danger that it may lose delegates from its Congressional representation if its numbers go down. With the tension between the Republican executive government and the Democratic state executive, this becomes more important, he said.

HyeCount coordinators joined the Los Angeles Tenants Union to speak with local Armenian residents in early February, 2020

In March of this year, all households received by postal mail the request to fill out the decennial census form via telephone, and, for the first time, Internet. Paper questionnaires were sent out in April only to those households which did not respond. All fieldwork, such as the personal delivery of census forms to unverifiable addresses, was halted on March 18 due to the pandemic, but will restart as soon as restrictions are lifted. No physical community outreach events have been possible in this period.

Some concerns have been raised about lower response rates in California. Jeffrey Enos, Deputy Regional Director of the Los Angeles Region (encompassing 7 western states in the US) for the national US Census Bureau, countered on May 6 that “We are actually ahead of the projections nationwide and for the state of California for the number of households that have responded. This is very encouraging. For example, statewide for California 58.5 percent of the population have self-responded to the census.”

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Enos said that the census bureau was working closely with state and local government and health officials to preserve the health of census employees and the American public at large and to determine when field operations might be able to resume. Field operations were to be completed by July 31, but this deadline has been extended three months to October 31. The realistic goal for the census in California, Enos said, is an approximately 65 percent self-response rate.

Los Angeles County

As far as is known, the only place in the United States where Armenian employees have been hired specifically for federal outreach to the Armenian-American community is in Los Angeles County. These are all temporary employees for the duration of the current census effort. Here, there are three staff of Armenian-American background hired for this purpose, along with a fourth who initially was hired as a veteran. The four all report to an Armenian-American, Anahit Tovmasyan, who is called a senior partnership specialist or partnership specialist team leader. At present she has ten partnership specialists in her team.

Anahit Tovmasyan providing census information at a Tekeyan Cultural Association Pasadena-Glendale Chapter book event (January 26, 2020). The chapter was one of two local Tekeyan partners in the federal census.

Tovmasyan supervises specialists working with other communities too, including Chinese, Koreans, and African-Americans. The overall numbers of such specialists are based on the results of the 2010 census.

The outreach work starts first but Armenians have also been hired for what is called field work in the later stages of the census. They include field supervisors or managers as well as enumerators who will get information door-to-door from late August to October 31 about people who do not self-respond. Their language skills are important for communicating with Armenian-speakers as well as gaining their trust, according to Tovmasyan.

All of these positions are temporary during the census process. There are also permanent positions, but these are hired from communities which have larger numbers than the Armenians, such as Latinos.

Tovmasyan was a partnership specialist in 2009 for the 2010 census and now is in a supervisory position. She said that she manages her team and provides them with any help they need. This takes a lot of time so that she is not able to be in the field herself.

Anahit Tovmasyan, US Census Bureau Senior Partnership Specialist at far right, with Beland Huang, Partnership Specialist and Lydia Scott, Recruitment Assistant

Many types of organizations, schools, churches and businesses can become partners with the US Census Bureau and work with its teams in conducting outreach on the 2020 census. Tovmasyan said that there are at least fifty such Armenian-American partners in Los Angeles County working with her specialists.

One important arena which allows census staff to reach as much as half of a city’s population in places like Glendale is through the public schools. Tovmasyan noted that even during COVID-19 restrictions, grab-and-go lunches allow the distribution of printed flyers.

Anahit Tovmasyan making a “Road to 2020 Census” presentation at a Tekeyan Cultural Association Pasadena-Glendale Chapter book event (January 26, 2020).

It should be noted that while there are Armenians in Ventura County, not that far from Los Angeles County, there is no Armenian specialist like Tovmasyan there. The same holds true for other centers of Armenian population in California or the West in general.

Funding

There is a hierarchy of languages in the census. Aside from English, which is of course the official language of the US and the census, there are 12 other top languages into which everything is translated, including the census questionnaire itself. These 13 languages were chosen at the federal level. The most federal funds go to media in these languages in order to advertise about the census.

However, Armenian was identified as one of 59 non-English secondary languages to which supporting materials will be translated. These include an explanatory website which in turn gives links to a guide to filling out the census form, an explanatory video or public service announcement with a voice-over in Armenian, and a glossary of words concerning the census. Eastern Armenian is the dialect used.

The federal US Census Bureau gave funds to a large public relations firm, VMLYR, to handle outreach in general on the 2020 census and to allocate to state, county and local ethnic groups as part of this work. VMLYR in turn formed “Team Y& R” (Young & Rubicam), composed of 17 agencies, to do spread awareness of the census, promote participation and follow-up in cases of no response. Several hundred million dollars are to be spent.

The Armenian community did not benefit from any of the spending on a national media level. However, outreach efforts exist on the state and local levels too. In California, part of the sum alluded to above was given to various counties, and in turn, cities and other bodies applied to these counties for a share of this money. Los Angeles County received $9,393,090 from the state.

In Los Angeles County, among other bodies, the cities of Los Angeles, Glendale and Pasadena, and an organization created to coordinate efforts of the Armenian community, the Armenian American Complete Count Committee (AACCC), applied for grants from the county, and all three received them. The city of Los Angeles was allocated $2,950,115, Glendale received $147,789 and Pasadena received $73,895.

In general, outreach efforts for Armenians do occur in municipalities with large Armenian populations, such as Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena. Apart from the census, many other things about local government and health are already translated by municipalities and Los Angeles County into Armenian and other languages not included as part of the top 13.

Outreach in the city of Los Angeles is done by the municipality. Armenians who live in neighborhoods like Van Nuys, North Hollywood or Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley are subject to the municipality. Furthermore, Los Angeles City Council member Paul Krekorian, an Armenian-American himself, does outreach in the Armenian language.

Glendale Census Efforts

The US Census Bureau has a program to get communities more engaged in the census process through the creation of outreach bodies called Complete Count Committees (CCC), which can be at the state level, as seen above, and county and city levels. A CCC could be created for many other types of groupings, such as ethnic, religious or even business. Cities like Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank, all with substantial Armenian populations, each created a CCC, which included Armenian representatives.

The Glendale Complete Count Committee began meeting in October 2019. Its coordinator is Christine Baboomian Powers, an Armenian by background. She is a Senior Executive Analyst for the city of Glendale who has been working for the City Manager’s office for 12 years and regularly serves as the city’s legislative analyst. She works on public relations and handles special projects. This is the first time, she said, that she has been involved in the census.

Christine Baboomian Powers

Powers said her role is to promote census awareness and make sure as many people participate as possible. She also is the city liaison with US Census Bureau partnership specialists like Tovmasyan, who work closely with municipal bodies like the Glendale CCC.

Staff from the city of Glendale participate in Los Angeles County CCC and California CCC meetings and webinars, and obtain resource materials from them. Powers said that if they have campaigns, the Glendale CCC piggybacks off of them.

Powers pointed out that outreach on the census began in Glendale even before the creation of its CCC. She said that the city had been talking about it and making community presentations through the city council as early as January 2019 in public spaces about its importance. For example, the then mayor, Zareh Sinanyan, in March of 2019 held the first nonprofit summit for the city of Glendale, which Powers worked with him closely to organize. He spoke there about the importance of the census and US census representatives were present.

When the Glendale CCC was being organized, a lot of different organizations from Armenian, Korean, Hispanic, Filipino and other ethnic groups living in the municipality were invited to participate in this CCC. There were also hospitals, the school district, the college district, a multitude of local nonprofits and cultural groups, service and volunteer organizations, and even banks, according to Powers.

Powers said that some 40-50 people were invited to the first meeting, and by January 2020 people were invested and really ready to work, though the pandemic changed the situation.

Meetings were not held since the stay-at-home order in March until the second week of May, when a virtual meeting took place, with some 12-15 people participating, Powers said.

The Armenians are solely represented at the Glendale CCC by the AACCC. Powers said that since the AACCC does significant outreach to the Armenian community, making sure the city’s CCC knows what it is doing, and the AACCC knows what the city is doing, eliminates duplication of efforts, confusion and waste of resources.

COVID-19 led to a pivoting of outreach efforts by the Glendale CCC and the city. One advantage of the 2020 census is the use of the Internet, which makes online response easier despite the pandemic.

Powers related that many planned events in which city staff would promote the census had to be cancelled. Questionnaire assistance kiosks in which staff could provide laptops or phones to fill out the forms could not be formed. It was no longer possible to reach seniors who could no longer go to their adult daycare or healthcare centers but instead were shuttered at home.

Instead, the city increased advertising with media, Powers said, along with phone banking and text messaging campaigns, after permission to do this was received from Los Angeles County (the provider of grant money to support the CCC’s activities).

All seniors who receive meal assistance through delivery or pickup are sent multilingual messaging encouraging census participation. City case managers are made available to seniors as translators for census purposes. The managers of all affordable housing buildings in Glendale are being contacted, Powers said, to find out what is needed to allow them to reach their different tenants.

In a city program to give 500 cooling fans to those without air conditioning who are stuck at home, city workers call those who register to make sure they are aware of the census and participate.

Glendale city initiated a volunteer campaign in which members of the community were asked to commit to tell 20 people about the census. The city sent them an information sheet to help them answer questions that people may have.

The city promotes the census on its various social media channels – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and Powers said that lately it has been translating its social media posts into Spanish and Armenian. It is also doing translating of materials on its website.

“Glendale Counts” – City of Glendale Armenian-language flyer on 2020 census

It has done direct mailings about the census which include a condensed version of the information translated into Spanish, Armenian, Korean and Tagalog.

Homeless in Glendale do not seem to be a major issue for the census, as it is small enough to be successfully counted, according to Powers. She said that the annual homeless counts, which are done in January, are in the range of 200 people, and there have been efforts to house them in hotels and motels through a California state program developed in response to COVID-19 called Project Roomkey.

Since the Armenians compose almost half of the city population, Glendale spends almost half of its census funding on Armenian media and outreach, Tovmasyan estimated. Powers said that the money allotted from Los Angeles County for the census appeared to be a “fair and reasonable amount” with which to do outreach. She explained that the amount of money received from Los Angeles County for the census was based on the analysis of tracts, areas of 10,000 population, that were statistically considered hard to count. Some cities like Burbank, according to Powers, declined to accept the money from the county, which meant they allowed the county to do census outreach for them. Glendale, on the other hand, accepted.

Powers said, “We felt like we know better how to use that funding since we do similar outreach for elections and various types of educational efforts.” It is extra work, but the city wants to reach the various newspapers and media outlets in different languages which in turn will hopefully reach its residents.

In the 2010 census, the Glendale self-response rate was 73 percent. On May 14 of this year, the response rate in Glendale to the census was about 64.2 percent and in California overall 60.4 percent, while the US overall was just under 60 percent. While there are tracts in Glendale with response rates as high as 76.8 percent (La Crescenta), there are also pockets with rates as low as 48.3 percent, which require extra work to reach.

Powers said, “We have a good figure but we are not satisfied with it. We want to get that self-response rate as high as possible.” One further concern is that as it is unclear what the overall effect of COVID-19 restrictions will be on the final census follow-up process and how long deadlines might be extended, getting as many people as possible to respond online can help obviate some of this uncertainty.

Cities like Glendale suspect their populations are being undercounted, based on their own data and analysis. For example, Powers pointed out that in the last census, the city’s population went down but household size increased. It might be assumed that since Glendale was a fairly family-friendly city, this points to population not being counted properly. The federal census information from the continually renewed and more detailed but small sample based American Community Survey can also point to such problems.

The causes are varied. Sometimes, people do not report the correct number of people living in a household and this cannot be checked easily, Tovmasyan said. If they write 3 people, it is possible that 7 people are living in a crowded basement or garage. Fear or mistrust of the government, especially for those without legal immigration status, motivates some to avoid giving correct information. Concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment might also be a problem, Powers said.

Arsen Shirvanyan, director of HyeCount and of ANCA-WR Government Affairs

Shirvanyan of HyeCount added that language barriers contribute to undercounts in Glendale, as relatively new immigrant Armenians don’t speak English and cannot fill out the questionnaire. They are not familiar with a census since in their countries of origin, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia etc, they did not take place in the same comprehensive manner. They might be afraid that their immigration status will be impacted.

Shirvanyan said that any response rate below 70 is considered by the federal census a hard-to-count area, and parts of Glendale, Burbank, Tujunga, and Little Armenia are among them. There is further evidence for an Armenian undercount. First, many of the areas deemed hard-to-count in the Los Angeles area have large Armenian populations. Second, Shirvanyan pointed out that it is estimated that 166,000 Armenians marched during the commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. The vast majority were from Los Angeles, and not everyone went. The 2010 census listed 194,000 Armenians in Los Angeles, so the total population must be larger. Third, in Los Angeles County public schools, there are at least 133,000 students of Armenian origin, implying many more parents. Finally, Armenian cable television channels have used viewership data to estimate at least ½ million Armenians in Los Angeles County.

It won’t be possible to see whether Armenians are actually responding in higher numbers than before until the results of the census are all calculated, and this will take a few years, Tovmasyan said.

Armenian Community Efforts

When Tovmasyan began her work on the 2020 census, one of the first things she did was to encourage the creation of a lot of committees in different ethnic groups. These committees were to bring many organizations under one umbrella to promote the census. Among the Armenians in Los Angeles County, this took the form of the Armenian American Complete Count Committee (AACCC), which was formed in July 2019. This was the first time that a CCC was formed specifically to work with Armenian Americans.

The ANCA-WR took the initiative to apply to the Census Bureau to form the AACCC and assemble many other organizations. Shirvanyan explained, “In a lot of ways, it is a community issue so there should not be any partisanship in this, and no one organization can do it on its own.”

(instructional Armenian-language census video from HyeCount)

Its first meeting in August 2019 was attended by representatives of approximately 17 different Armenian organizations and churches of various denominations and affiliations. The Pan Armenian Council of [the] Western USA provided many of the contacts, Shirvanyan said. Tovmasyan made a presentation. The goal, said Shirvanyan, was to create a unified message for the Armenian community, instead of each organization using its own information and approach. Four more meetings were held.

Shirvanyan explained that the AACCC was a council without a formal leader. He and the ANCA-WR facilitated the meetings, preparing a general agenda, and did the messaging and outreach to the various organizations. However, he said, “we did not want to come off as the one leading the campaign, so that other organizations could be involved as much as possible.” After presenting some ways to do outreach, Shirvanyan said that a dialogue would ensue about what the various organizations thought was best. At most of the meetings, Tovmasyan was invited to answer questions about the census and provide updates.

The AACCC received a grant from Los Angeles County for grassroot operations. It came in installments and was a substantial amount, but an exact figure was not available at the time of publication from AACCC. AACCC in turn offered to regrant money to other Armenian organizations which presented a plan of action. It could include holding town hall meetings, helping elderly fill out the census questionnaire, or other promotions. The maximum regrant offered was $7,500. Schools were among the applicants.

HyeCount census 2020 advertisement

The way canvassing was to be carried out, messaging, how to hire people, and who to hire,were all discussed at the AACCC meetings. In December 2019, HyeCount was started as a way of doing grassroots work and spreading the AACCC messaging, Shirvanyan said.

Alex Galitsky, third from left, working with HyeCount organizers

Its two fulltime staff members are Shirvanyan, serving as director, and Alexander Galitsky, communications director, who also happens to be ANCA-WR Communications Director. Their salaries are paid by ANCA, not HyeCount. Two additional people have been hired as HyeCount coordinators of canvassing. There are eight canvassers. Shirvanyan said that 2/3 of the latter are full time and the rest part time.

At the AACCC meetings, candidates for coordinators or media work were proposed and most who were hired were not ANCA-affiliated people, Shirvanyan said. He stressed that the census was an Armenian community issue, and said, “Every organization has to put its differences aside…I understand differences with other organizations but there is something special about being united. 2015 was the best example of that. Different organizations united to hold the rally; then the Pan Armenian Council came about. We want to work with that and not a partisan message.”

The two HyeCount leaders began doing interviews with various Armenian and non-Armenian television channels and stations. HyeCount placed ads to encourage filling out the census questionnaire and noting Armenian as ethnic background on all four major Armenian channels, ARTN, USArmenia, Pan Armenian  and Horizon. Advertisements were placed in a number of Armenian print newspapers such as Asbarez and Nor Or.

A number of local Armenian public figures recorded videos, including news anchor Araksya Karapetyan and comedian Mary Basmadjian, and more are forthcoming. On social media, a movement called #BigFatArmenianFamily was launched, but, Shirvanyan explained, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with it garnering much attention.

HyeCount poster at a Los Angeles region business

Prior to the COVID-19 era, HyeCount used a list of registered Armenian voters bought from a political software platform to begin house to house canvassing. Canvassers were sent to Armenian-owned businesses to put up posters. In Glendale all big businesses in general were visited because the Armenian population was so extensive, whereas in other areas, lists of Armenian businesses were used.

Texting to phone numbers from the political list as well as from an ANCA list was done. Shirvanyan said that the canvassers sent a total of 60,000 text messages through a texting software.

A presentation by HyeCount Coordinator Van Der Megerdichian speaking on the census at the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School of Los Angeles in February 2020

A lot of presentations were made at different university campuses to Armenian student associations, Armenian Youth Federation chapters, churches, and Armenian organizations. If they had their own buildings, posters on the census were given to them to hang.

While the government grants could only be used in Los Angeles County, the ANCA used its resources to send flyers and posters to other states in the western part of the US as far away as Texas.

Tovmasyan estimated that if all the organizations, businesses and media working with HyeCount and AACCC were added to those working directly with the US Census, there might be over 100 partners in the Armenian community.

HyeCount coordinators joined the Los Angeles Tenants Union to speak with local Armenian residents in early February, 2020

With the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, face to face contact, meetings in person, and canvassing halted, but Shirvanyan said phone banking was intensively conducted from late March, with around 20,000 numbers called by early May. Telephone assistance was provided when people, especially the elderly, had difficulties in filling out the census questionnaire.

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