Here's why Memphis nonprofits care about the U.S. census and you should too.

Why should the average Memphian care about being counted in the 2020 U.S. census?

How it influences the power of your vote is a big one. The $11,000 is another.

Dorian Spears, chief partnership partner with Momentum Nonprofit Partners, said each Memphian counted in the census translates to almost $11,000 in federal funding for the city over the next decade.

If the current population estimate of 651,073 holds true at the end of the 2020 census, Memphians could collectively bring in over $7 billion. Private funders also often use population data to decide where their money goes.

Memphis—with its massive geography, low density, and persistent poverty—needs that money. 
It goes towards public education, transportation, job training, housing, emergency services, and healthcare for children and seniors.

“Just like voting, completing the 2020 Census is an act of civic engagement,” said Spears.

The deadline to complete the census by mail, phone, or online is September 30.

The census count and the demographic information it collects can also affect distribution of public and private support in specific census tracts. It’s vital that the residents of Memphis’ low-income communities are counted, but they’re some of the hardest to reach. 

“We understand that without an accurate count, our community will continue to be underrepresented and denied the opportunity to be prioritized according to the needs of their real share of the population,” said Trina Williams, Knowledge Quest's director of development.
Knowledge Quest is a youth, family, and community development nonprofit based in South Memphis. Many of its families fall into one or more groups considered at-risk for being undercounted in the census.

Those groups included non-English speakers, young children, college students, communities of color, low-income communities, and people experiencing housing instability or homelessness.

“Our community has been underrepresented in the census for decades and is now subject to increased vulnerability due to the internet being used as the primary way for households to respond to the 2020 census,” said Williams.

Spears said that being under counted means communities will have to do more with less resources for the next 10 years.

“This, in turn, creates communities that have no leverage to build wealth and attract assets desperately needed for neighborhoods to be healthy and thrive," she said.

In spring Knowledge Quest received a Get Out the Count grant for $3,000 to promote census completion among their families and the larger South Memphis community.

“It is important to support on-the-ground organizations who work with residents because trust and rapport have been established,” said Spears.

Jamie Jones is the founder and executive director of Asha’s Refuge, which is a support organization for Memphis’ asylum seekers and refugee community.

They also received a Get Out the Count grant. They used it for interpreters, fliers, and staff. Jones said many of their clients are illiterate even in their first language, do not have basic computer skills, and needed side-by-side help.

“It was clear that most of our clients would not have been counted or completed the census without our explanation of what this was all about and physical help doing so,” said Jones.


The Get Out the Count grant program was supported by a partnership between Momentum Nonprofit Partners, City of Memphis, and the 901 Complete Count Committee.

Knowledge Quest used their grant money for phone banking, text alerts, emails, a YouTube video, and Facebook posts to educate and encourage completion. They also partnered with Sesame Street in Communities and used their census kit of videos, print materials, and social media assets.

They distributed information and spoke with residents in-person at four food distribution events and the June 25 “Count Me In” Census Day event at Gaston Park.

In addition to Get Out the Count, Momentum began issuing census micro-grants in May to local organizations that work closely with groups of people who are at-risk for being under counted. That fund included $100 grants for artists, performers, and social media influencers to help spread the word. Nonprofits received either $250 or $500.

Spears said they've conducted safe door-to-door outreach in neighborhoods and invested in creative new ideas including video campaigns, PSAs, mass outreach at community events, and a billboard that reads, “Aye mane, have you completed the census yet?”

“Organizations have applied with great ideas around how to successfully engage those they serve, and in spite of the shortened timeline every outreach attempt makes a difference until September 30, 2020," said Spears.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.