Count Me, I'm Armenian
To overcome language barriers and other obstacles in the 2010 count, the Census Bureau boosted its hiring of staffers who work with community-based organizations in Southern California, including the first bureau employee dedicated to reaching the region's Armenians.
"I'm the crazy one in the Census Bureau," says Anahit Tovmasyan. "My colleagues said, 'you went on TV and you put your cell phone number there?'"
Tovmasyan is one of 120 bureau staffers with language skills beyond English who were brought on in Southern California alone to increase participation in the 2010 count. For the last census, in 2000, the bureau hired just 36 so-called partnership specialists in Southern California. Tovmasyan is the first-ever partnership specialist charged with building ties with Armenians and their community organizations in Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and elsewhere in the region.
According to Tovmasyan, the gap between the U.S. Armenian community's own estimates of its size in 2000 – roughly 1.5 million – and that year's census indicated a possible undercount of 75 percent nationally, which would have consequences for such things as federal funding and priorities for school districts. To address the problem, she oversaw a public relations campaign and lent her voice to an Armenian-language audio guide for filling out the forms sent to every household.
Printed materials were passed out by churches, youth groups and Armenian non-profit organizations. Tovmasyan and her team brought information to schools, malls, markets and even the Staples Center and Universal Studios. They also carried materials in Arabic, Persian and Russian to reach Armenian immigrants who grew up in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Russia and other countries of the Armenian diaspora.
For the three weeks leading up to the April 1 deadline to mail back the forms, Tovmasyan's phone rang incessantly. Her number had appeared on Armenian cable television in Los Angeles, but she received calls from Armenians living in Chicago, Michigan and New York. Many asked how to get involved in the effort to increase census participation in this extended community.
Although the census form can be filled out only in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Russian, census guides are available in 50 languages. These language guides look like census forms and can be used as a model for people who need language assistance. Census assistance centers were also available in cities across the country to help people with language barriers.
For each language it targets, the bureau selects one variant to use in guides and other communications. Because many of the newest arrivals to the United States use one of the Armenian dialects spoken in Armenia and Iran, Eastern Armenian prevailed over the Western Armenian spoken in Lebanon, Syria and other countries. A higher proportion of U.S. speakers of Western Armenian also speak English well.
Recent immigrants with limited English proficiency are always one of the hardest groups to count. They may be unaware of the census or have fears about how their information would be used. The hardest Armenian-Americans of all to reach, according to Tovmasyan, are those who lack ties with the local community and are simply here struggling to make a living.
Despite a more focused approach in reaching out to language and ethnic groups who've been undercounted in the past, the bureau's exclusive use of the common "short form" this year appeared to be a setback for these communities. Only the long form, which used to be sent to every sixth household, included questions on languages spoken and national origin. The short form replaces that with a controversial and over-generalized question about race," listing 14 possible responses, including White, Black, Native American and Alaska Native, but leaving groups such as Armenian without their own category.
Tovmasyan and other partnership specialists who inquired about their respective ethnic groups were instructed that checking "other" under the race category and writing in the ethnicity one identifies with is a valid option. In person and in the publicity materials, Tovmasyan urged Armenians to join a sort of write-in campaign to get an accurate count of Armenian-Americans.
The "Count me, I'm Armenian" campaign relayed the same message and was featured on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Armenians across the nation have contributed to census awareness with the click of a mouse, including nearly 6,000 who expressed a "like" for the Facebook page. They spread the word by posting videos on Youtube, tweeting, contributing to discussion groups or inviting their friends to the Facebook fanpage.
When I wanted to ask my grandmother, who was born in Lebanon and knows five languages, if she had sent back her census form, I couldn't think of the Armenian word.
"You know…the census," I asked her in English.
"Oh, yes…the census!" she responded in Armenian, with a long word, pronounced "mar-ta-HA-mar," which literally means "the number of man" or "for the sake of man." What a perfect description of the census!
She knew what I was talking about, I assured her.
"Grandpa already mailed it in," she explained.
"Did you write in 'Armenian'?" I asked.
"Of course!" she replied. She'd been urged to by the Armenian media campaign.
Published: Friday, June 04, 2010