Op-Ed | Shirley Chisholm knew the importance of the census – now we must continue her work

jennifer jones austin julie menin
Jennifer Jones Austin (left) and Julie Menin (right)

By Jennifer Jones Austin, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of FPWA and Julie Menin, Director of NYC Census 2020 

As the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm has been an icon for those in the struggle for civil rights and equality for more than a generation. Throughout her career, her advocacy for her community and her historic run for the presidency has rendered her as an inspiration for countless activists, politicians, and community leaders ever since. 

Congresswoman Chisholm blazed another civil rights trail, too.

Two years after she was elected to Congress, she chose to become a census-taker (or “enumerator”) in New York City. It was not common then for one of the nation’s most prominent and powerful legislators to be pounding the pavement across the streets of Brooklyn to take stock of her community, and it certainly isn’t common now.

So why did she do it? Because Congresswoman Chisholm knew that the census is about money, power, and respect for all of our communities — especially those that have been historically undercounted.

Despite the fact that the census was (and remains) the very foundation of how the federal government allocated many millions of dollars ($1.5 trillion today) for education, healthcare, housing, jobs, infrastructure, and transportation across the country — and the very basis on which seats in Congress were (and still are) allocated state by state — Black communities across the country had either been long undercounted by or chose not to participate in the census — and many thought for good reason, given the nation’s ignoble history with race.

As a result of the many challenges associated with conducting a complete count in 1970, many enumerators actually quit their jobs, but for Chisholm, the daughter of immigrants from Barbados, the census held the key to the very empowerment, freedom, and equality that Black communities across the nation and in New York City had been fighting and indeed dying for, especially during the preceding two decades. 

Today, the need for a complete count is just as, if not more, important, to ensure an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The layered health, political, and economic crises that New York City is currently experiencing have further exposed severe racial and ethnic disparities both in terms of health outcomes and economic need. The census will determine how many millions we will get from the federal government for housing, healthcare and access, education, and local job growth in communities of color over the next 10 years. Without a complete and accurate count, we will be forgoing the money and political representation that is rightfully ours, and at a time when such a loss cannot be afforded. For many Black and Brown New Yorkers, these resources will be critical for their well-being.

In 2010, many majority-Black neighborhoods in New York City, from The Bronx to Queens to Brooklyn, had census self-response rates that were 10 or more percentage points behind the citywide average, meaning that these communities have been missing out on millions of dollars for critical services and the full political representation they are entitled to, from City Council to the U.S. Congress.

Though the census self-response rate gap has noticeably narrowed for many of the same neighborhoods this year, and certain Black-majority neighborhoods, such as Co-op City in The Bronx (69%) and Starrett City in Brooklyn (64%), far outpace the citywide average of approximately 53% (as of June 29), much more work needs to be done to ensure New York City receives its fair share of $1.5 trillion in federal funds every year and does not lose what could be up to two congressional seats.

“The institutions of this country belong to all of the people who inhabit it,” Congresswoman Chisholm reminded us. “Those of you who have been neglected, left out, ignored, forgotten, or shunned aside for whatever reason.” And the census is one of the most important ways we can reclaim that power. 

This year, let’s honor Congresswoman Chisholm’s incredible legacy and continue her fight for Black communities in New York by filling out the 2020 Census at my2020census.gov and doing our part to help make sure our communities are fully counted. 

Making Sense of the Census” is a weekly column from Julie Menin, Director of NYC Census 2020.  Every week we will be publishing pieces from Julie and guest authors laying out the facts and answering tough questions about this year’s census. Fill out the census now at my2020census.gov