By Darlene Jackson
To many, the U.S. Census is an obscure part of our government’s traditions: it only happens once a decade, and unlike voting for your preferred candidate or protesting at City Hall, it isn’t entirely clear how your action in that moment will have an impact politically—at the end of the day, you’re just filling out a form with basic information and fewer questions than those at the doctor’s office.
But for historically undercounted Black and brown communities like Parkchester, filling out the census is a subversive political act. To be counted in the census is to tell Trump and the forces that be that our needs cannot be ignored or pushed to the margins any longer; that we demand our share of the federal money, political power, and respect as people that have been owed to us for decades.
In many ways, my own story is the embodiment of an undercounted community. My mother suffered from poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, and untreated trauma, and the community I grew up in didn’t have the funding or systems in place to prevent her from falling through the cracks. In the end, her substance abuse was not treated as a public health issue but one of criminality; that choice resulted in parental termination and family separation, sending me through a cycle of foster homes and family shelters.
These inequities pushed me to further my education and devote my career to advocating for community investment over incarceration. I’ve been a social worker, educator, and activist for over two decades, and am running for City Council in 2021 so that Bronx youth like my son are supported by the system, not punished by it as my mother and I were.
I’m also a census worker, and have spent the last several weeks knocking on doors to drive up participation and make sure people know what’s at stake. As New York City’s poorest borough and the hardest hit by Covid-19—by both the virus and the economic fallout—the Bronx can’t afford an undercount. We need federal funding to alleviate conditions for people living at or below the poverty line, to live in dignity and thrive, and to have actual upward mobility.
Here in Council District 18, I’ve seen firsthand how badly we need this funding. Immigrants are the heart and soul of our communities, and many of them have been left out of critical federal stimulus packages.
Unemployment is the highest it’s been in decades, and District 18 has no workforce development office to provide job training and placement. The small businesses that make our neighborhoods unique and prop up local economies—from Westchester Avenue to East Tremont—have been starved of aid and forced to shut down temporarily, if not for good.
Cramped housing in our neighborhood shelters has only gotten worse as families are forced to quarantine for their own safety, and kids being unable to attend school in person creates added stress in the household. Parkchester also stands to lose a representative in Congress, diminishing our power on countless other issues.
People don’t trust the system because it’s failed them time and time again. We need the census to regain that trust and empower people to take what they’re owed; every single person that’s counted means more federal money for affordable housing, for our schools, for our health system and emergency services, senior centers, and so much more.
Trump knows that if our communities turn out in full, it won’t bode well for him—which is why he’s trying so hard to stop it. At the beginning of this month, he directed the Census Bureau to end the count four weeks early—meaning we have just five weeks left. And in July, he ordered a state-by state count of undocumented immigrants so he could have them removed from census totals before the House reapportionment process.
But despite the challenges, I have faith in our communities. The Bronx has long been under-served and under-resourced, yet its people have remained resilient, beautiful, and influential cultural pioneers. Our problems didn’t start with coronavirus, which is why I’m running for City Council in 2021; we need participatory budgeting, open government, and leaders with the experience and knowledge to best serve marginalized communities and fight for an equitable future.
But the census has the power to help alleviate all of these problems and more by giving our residents the power, representation, and money we deserve. Join me today by completing the census.