We Love Illinois Schools

Make Illinois Count

April 01, 2020 Illinois State Board of Education Season 1 Episode 1
We Love Illinois Schools
Make Illinois Count
Show Notes Transcript

On National Census Day, we're featuring an in-depth interview with Anita Banerji, who leads the organization Forefront's 2020 Census efforts for Illinois. We also drag a teenager away from his video game to fill out the census survey in real time.

Theme music by José Rivera
Incidental music by Ben Johnson

RHODES  0:02  

Hello, we are the Illinois State Board of Education. And we love Illinois schools. I'm Dusty Rhodes in the Communications Office at ISBE and today is Census Day. That means that by now, every household has probably received an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. 

The invite provides three options. You can respond online, by phone or by mail. All of these options are safe and secure. If you don't respond by the middle of May, you could be visited by a census taker who can help you fill out the form in person. Of course, since we're in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to observe social or physical distancing. So to keep census workers from having to go to people's homes, the state of Illinois is really encouraging residents to complete the census online by phone or by mail. 

The census consists of just a few easy questions. And by the way, none of those questions involve citizenship status. Today's podcast will feature an interview with Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative at Forefront. She's going to provide great in-depth information about all the important reasons to get counted in the census. 

But before we get to that, I want to answer everybody's bottom line question, which is OK, OK, OK: how long is this thing going to take? To find a true answer, I dragged my teenage son Evan away from his Playstation and sat him down in my home office to help me complete the census survey online. I mean, all students have to take a semester of civics in middle school and another semester sometime in high school, and what's more fundamental to civics than the census?

OK, we're recording. I'm just going to ask you real quick, do you know what the census is?

EVAN  1:50  

 I do not. 

RHODES  1:51  

OK, the census is something we do every 10 years and we count every single person in the United States, OK? And the reason we do that is to determine how many Congressman we get, how much money schools get. So if we don't count every person, we get less money, OK? 

So here, we got this in the mail. And so we go to this website, was it my... What is it? 2020census.gov. Does it scare you at all that the government wants to count everybody?

EVAN  2:38  


RHODES  2:40  

I got I guess this is where we click, respond now. Start questionnaire. OK, read me the 12 digit….

EVAN  2:55  

R, C, T 6, C, X…

RHODES  3:01  

All right. While Evan and I are taking the census you get to hear Anita Banerji speaking with my colleague, Denise Albert, here at ISBE. I'm going to break back in just as soon as Evan and I finish the survey.

ALBERT  3:11  

I'm Denise Albert in the Communications Office at ISBE. Today we're talking about something very important, that's coming up, the 2020 census. Anita Banerji is director of Democracy Initiative at Forefront, an Illinois statewide association representing nonprofits and private foundations. Forefront's Democracy Initiative is focusing on outreach for the 2020 census. Anita, thank you for talking with us today. 


Thank you for having me. 


OK, let's start with the basics. What is the census and why does it matter so much to Illinois school districts?

BANERJI  3:43  

Sure. So the census is a count of the residents across the country, every 10 years. It's called the decennial census. The reason being is that there are others that are held throughout the course of the decade. One in particular that you may have heard of is the American Community Survey. And that occurs once every five years and has a lot more information that is acquired, but it doesn't go to everybody. The decennial census occurs once a decade, and it is the opportunity to set us up for the next decade ahead. 

So it's really important that all residents across a state are accounted for because the US Constitution mandates that every person regardless of your citizenship status, or your voting status, needs to be accounted for. It matters to Illinois schools because so much of the federal dollars and the statistical analysis that is done based off of our state's population then determines how that money is allocated for various social service programs. For schools, that is relevant to our numbers in terms of enrollment, and the number of people in any given part of this state, so that we know how much money we'll be getting in Title I aids, the National School Lunch Program, amongst a number of other social service programs.

ALBERT  5:20  

Well, it sounds like there's a lot at stake for our state when it comes to getting an accurate count. Talk to us about that accuracy. Why is that so important?

BANERJI  5:28  

An accurate count is important for three main reasons -- the first being that the Census impacts our Congressional representation. Since 1950, Illinois has lost one Congressional seat in every census cycle. We used to have 24 members of our Congressional delegation, and we're now down to 18. In order for us to have trusted messengers, trusted leaders in our Congressional delegation, we can't afford to keep losing so many, and ahead of the 2020 census, we're likely going to lose one, keeping with our trend. But if we don't make an effort for an accurate count, we will likely lose a second. So that's the first reason. 

The second reason is what I mentioned earlier, is our federal dollars, right? We cannot be able to provide for the various social services of any given resident, or even if it's not a resident, it could be a community member or a neighbor, or an extended family member, right, that is utilizing these necessary dollars in and outside of school programs that are that are vital for daily living. That translates into about $1,400 a person -- that is one person that is not accounted for in the census count for one year. So over 10 years, that's $14,000 for just one person that's not accounted for in Illinois. 

Now, that number might be a little bit higher across the country, but specific to Illinois, those are necessarily dollars that we just can't seem to, to lose out on when we know that we need those dollars for so many different purposes. 

And the third reason why is because we're a state that is perennially broke, we've got a state budget that is in flux every given year, and a state legislature that dukes it out so that they can afford the best opportunities for all of our residents across the state. But since the census count determines for the next decade, what that allotment will be for our federal dollars, we really need an accurate count to help us provide for a better tomorrow.


It sounds like that's an essential part of the census is getting accurate, a lot at stake for our state. So how can our school districts and even families help support the census? This sounds like an important message to be getting across now.


Denise, there are so many ways that school districts and families and communities can get involved. But the first and foremost is to have conversation, right? To have students be able to understand through their civics classes, what is the census? Why is it important, and how are folks counted? Another way would be for local school councils, PTA associations, superintendent associations… for folks to get together and be able to have that conversation so people understand what's at stake, and that people and families and communities feel safe in reporting information. 

There's also the very real need for rural communities to be very much accounted for in this census. And with the census going online, for the first time in the history of the census, we know that broadband access is not readily always available in rural communities. And we also know that the digital divide in general, is a very big issue for our country. So to the extent that we can galvanize the various school components within the rural parts of our state, it's really important that we get the word out in whichever way looks best for that community. 

I would say that social media has never been utilized in outreach for census purposes. This is a really big opportunity for the 2020 census, a really big opportunity for the younger generations that may be more comfortable with technology, with the millennial generation that is certainly steeped in in social media, to be able to use that and be able to harness the power of social media to help families and communities understand when the census is going online, when the census is open for people to self-report and or households, I should say, and for communities to be able to share accurate information, so people know how to go about being counted.

ALBERT  10:17  

What about teachers specifically? Do you have any ideas for how they can get involved in the census or bring it to life in their classroom?

BANERJI  10:25  

I'm hearing that there is a civics requirement that recently passed within the Chicago Public Schools, but I'm not certain if that translates to all throughout the state. But I would say that if there is a civic component that is available for the current school curriculum, that opportunity certainly should be taken. Teachers can come together and help explain why the census is important for families to self-report. They are the trusted messengers in so many of our communities, and particularly for families with children. So this is an opportune time for teachers to step up and be able to be creative with what that kind of outreach could look like.

RHODES  11:18  [breaking into the taped conversation]

You're almost finished it says, you must select submit to complete your questionnaire. Are we done? Submit. OK. All right. So I timed it, eight minutes. 

Honestly, it took Evan and me a wee bit longer than it should have simply because both of us are adopted. So we stumbled over this one question about ethnic origin. Not a problem most people encounter. Was it painful for you? 


Did you think it would be longer than it was?

EVAN  11:55  

Yes, I thought that we were going to be here for like 20 minutes doing, answering a lot of questions that I don't know, I just probably wouldn't want to do but I would do it anyways. Because we have to, obviously.

RHODES  12:13  

It probably would have gone faster if I click the right button every time, too. 


Yeah, that too. 

RHODES: All right. Thank you for doing this with me. 


You're Welcome. 


All right. So now let's rejoin Anita Banerji speaking with Denise Albert.

ALBERT  12:33  

What's the most challenging part of your job? And how do you work through those tough days?

BANERJI  12:37  

Oh, gosh, well, you know, the census impacts everybody. Right? It's not just when people think of hard to count communities, oftentimes people think of communities of color, or immigrant communities. But it's so much more. Right. As I mentioned, the rural communities, everyone living in rural America is now considered a hard to count community with the mere fact that the census is gone online. 

But when you also think about the census, you think about what about, you know, ensuring that the elderly, that live alone, are being accounted for, and they have the right information, to be able to self-report, the disabled communities, certainly the LGBT community, making sure that they're accounted for and that they know that they should certainly be counted in the 2020 census. You've got the children 0 to 5 population, that is essential for the count. 

You know, that was the biggest, hard to count community that went unaccounted for in 2010. So we were able to determine that about 1 million children are unaccounted for in the 2010 census. Can you imagine? That's a lot of people that we didn't account for all across the country. 

And in Illinois, that translated to about 100,000 children of that, you know, of that age range 0 to 5 in the Cook County region alone. And so when you think about encouraging schools and communities to self-report, it's essential that our, our, you know, school communities are very much a part of this effort, being the trusted messengers, and so I might have my work cut out for me. 

I am constantly trying to think about which group should be engaged on the ground, which group hasn't been connected yet? Are there enough local count committees? Are they connecting to the regional Census Bureau? It's that relationship-building and it feels like there's never enough time to ensure that everyone's being connected so that we are making ample efforts for a fair and accurate count. But how do I get through it?

ALBERT  14:47  

It sounds like you've got a lot on your plate leading up to the census.

BANERJI  14:51  

I do, I do, and so to answer your next question of how I get through it, I meditate. I try every morning to have some quiet time. I'm in space so that I have the energy in reserve throughout the day to make sure that I'm connecting with the folks the best that I can.

ALBERT  15:10  

I think that's a great, great way to work through it. Have you ever gotten emotional in the course of your work? I know, it's quite a lot to try to reach every single person in Illinois.


BANERJI  15:20  

There have been moments, you know, as I think about that proposed citizenship question, and how that caused so much consternation and fear amongst communities. And it was a long wait, right, it was over a year that we had to wait to figure out and find out whether that question was going to be on the form or not. And we know now, right, we know, as of June the end of June, that that question will not be on the form. 

But the damage is done, right? This is a very real fear for many communities. And with there being ICE raids across the country, we know that there are a number of hard-to-count communities that are fearful. And we as advocates have our work cut out for us because we have to make sure, to the best of our ability, we have to make sure that communities feel safe, right, that they rely on their trusted messengers or trusted community leaders, who are teachers, superintendents, principals, local school council members, right? All of these folks really matter in helping us ensure that we get a fair and accurate count. 

And we certainly will not have an accurate count, if we don't have our immigrant families, our mixed status families, counted for in the census. You know, everyone matters. And we know that without folks being accounted for, we're going to miss out. And we are one of three states in the country that has the most to lose without a fair and accurate count. 

So there are so many times that I am emotionally caught up in this work. And when I think about, you know, I'm an immigrant family, you know, my family was afforded the opportunity to come to this country once my parents got married, and I'm a first-generation Indian American. But I identify as American, right? And this issue is a civil right. It's a human right. And there are so many moments when you can certainly get caught up emotionally.

ALBERT  17:26  

Absolutely. That's such an essential message to get across to every family. What keeps you coming back to this work?

BANERJI  17:33  

I think it's the sense that everyone matters. I love being able to wake up in the morning and feel like I'm making a difference in the world. Everybody wants that opportunity or that, that job, if you will, to be able to make that difference in someone's life or make a meaningful difference that's going to impact several lives. And for me, I feel like this is that role. I get to help connect people, which I love to do, I get to help people understand an issue of national importance, but how that really has such a local, meaningful impact. And that really keeps me coming back to everyday knowing that I'm, I'm helping to not just build history, but also build awareness for something that is so essential for our democracy.

ALBERT  18:25  

Tell us about something you're proud of.

BANERJI  18:29  

I am proud of so many things in life. But I would say that the most prideful moment I've had this year was the opportunity to work with so many nonprofits, philanthropy leaders and government leaders to encourage the Illinois General Assembly and the governor's office to think about a sense of state appropriation. And we started this journey in this fight at the start of 2018. And I got to meet so many wonderful community leaders all across the state in joining in this effort. It made me realize what my boss always says is that for this particular issue, for the census, we rise and fall as a state and I feel like that that is so incredibly meaningful and real. And when the governor's office and the Illinois General Assembly decided to appropriate $29 million dollars for Census outreach efforts this past spring, that was a real prideful moment knowing that we certainly worked together as a state to make that happen.

ALBERT  19:40  

That's definitely something to be proud of. So we've talked a lot about our schools being a trusted source for information. What do you wish more people knew about our schools?

BANERJI  19:50  

I wish more people knew about the strength and the asset of community because every school has a special relationship with community partners, with community leaders, with the opportunity to bring that to schools. When you think about community schools that there are across the state, that there's a real power in family, families connecting so that it's not, it's not just about, a nine to three experience that it's a holistic approach and an experience that is not intended for just the student but the entire family. And I'd like that to be lifted up more and for people to understand that the urban you know, school system looks different from the suburban and the rural, but that all of these components are so rich in community.

ALBERT  20:53  

Okay, last question, we ask every guest, why do you love Illinois schools?

BANERJI  20:58  

I love Illinois schools because it provides families and community the opportunity for a better tomorrow. And I value our school system, having gone through it myself, that there is an opportunity to really make a difference for our next leaders in our next generation. And I'm hopeful that as we get into the next decade, the 2020 decade ahead, that we harness the power of our schools so that we truly have a better tomorrow.

ALBERT  21:33  

That is such a wonderful message, Anita, thank you for your time today. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

BANERJI  21:38  

Yes, thank you Denise for the opportunity and let's get counted in 2020.

ALBERT  21:46  

Forefront's website offers information, resources and much more on the 2020 census. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and tap the share button to share it with someone else you think who will enjoy it. You can find more information about supports that the Illinois State Board of Education offers to school districts and teachers at isbe.net.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai