Building trust, counting Rhode Islanders

The innovative approach behind the state’s 2020 census success

“Trust. That’s the key. If there’s no trust, nobody is coming forward,” George Ortiz, founder of The Elisha Project, says of his organization’s successful efforts to encourage people to participate in the 2020 Census. “We are a trusted part of the community. The people we serve listened when we explained why it’s important for them to participate in the census and the ramifications if they don’t.”

It was a sentiment expressed by many who worked to increase response rates in last year’s consequential census—especially among historically under-counted populations including families with young children, immigrants, people living in poverty, and people of color.

Kate Brewster and Sandra Pates
Kate Brewster and Sandra Pates

Kate Brewster, executive director of the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale, notes of her organization’s partnership with the Tomaquag Museum, “Our two organizations are a trusted source for indigenous residents and have connections to many other trusted sources and institutions in the area. That trust made a huge difference.”

“People who come to us, know us. They know we’re here to help people,” adds Cheryl Robison, president of Turning Around Ministries.

The Elisha Project, Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale, and Turning Around Ministries were three of more than 60 nonprofit organizations that received grants totaling nearly $600,000 through the Foundation’s Rhode Island Census 2020 Fund. The Rhode Island Foundation administered the grant program in partnership with the Complete Count Committee.

The Elisha Project provides food and clothing to residents of hard to reach areas of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls. By training and mobilizing 50 census ambassadors, the Elisha Project shared information about the census at its food distribution sites and community markets, through home deliveries, and through an extensive social media campaign.

“Community building is something we do every day. We saw the overwhelming need to get everyone counted and wanted to get involved with educating people and getting them signed-up. A great way to get people to understand the importance of the census is to explain how it all trickles down (due to federal funding) to what’s on your plate,” George explains.

The Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale and the Tomaquag Museum concentrated their efforts on increasing census response rates of Native American (should this be Indigenous?) households in South County. They created a video which features Lorén Spears, executive director of the Museum, and Sandra Pates, a local Narragansett Indian Tribal member; produced Native-specific flyers; utilized social media; and did personal outreach.

“Whatever media tool we could find we used to get the community to participate in the census. There was definitely some resistance and misinformation. We had to unpack some of the misconceptions,” shares Kate.

Cheryl Robinson
Cheryl Robinson

Turning Around Ministries (TAM) concentrated its census efforts—many in collaboration with Community Baptist Church—on engaging residents of the North End and Broadway sections of Newport, as well as areas in Middletown. A pre-COVID movie night, ads in Newport This Week, workers who shared information at local stores, videos, a Zoom session in collaboration with College Unbound, and post cards in bags at food and backpack giveaways were among TAM’s outreach efforts.

“We tried to talk with everybody and let them know they should participate. A lot of the people we try to help are the underreported and it was important that they got counted,” Cheryl emphasizes.

The impact that the dedicated work of these organizations—and many others—will have on Rhode Island will be felt for years to come.

Highlights of the 2020 Census for Rhode Island

  • Though expected to decrease, Rhode Island’s population is reported to have increased nearly 43,000 residents in the past decade (1,098,163 in 2020 Census; 1,055,247 in the 2010 Census)
  • Rhode Island will retain its two seats in the House of Representatives.
  • Rhode Island will retain its four Electoral College votes.
  • Census results favorably impact the share of federal funding Rhode Island will receive for healthcare, schools, roads, housing, the environment, and other services and programs. The state currently receives $3.8 billion in federal funding each year, about one-third of the state budget.

Donors to the Rhode Island Census 2020 Fund

  • Michael K. Allio
  • Anonymous (2)
  • Blue Cross Blue & Blue Shield of Rhode Island
  • Jean Margaret Young Brown Fund
  • Heather & Ronald Florence
  • Charlotte Bruce Harvey
  • Bhikhaji Maneckji
  • Cynthia M. Macarchuk Donor Advised Fund
  • Mitchell Family Fund
  • Webb Moscovitch Family Fund
  • Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island
  • Nellie Mae Education Foundation
  • New England Health Care Employees Union
  • Jill Pearlman
  • Rhode Island Foundation
  • Anne and Michael Szostak
  • United Way of Rhode Island
  • van Beuren Charitable Foundation
  • Salten Weingrod Family Fund