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Working Toward a Better Count



Kulwinder Singh, a 52-year-old Sikh-American who works as a tow-truck operator, approached a young community organizer who was taping a promotional poster for the 2010 census to a wall inside his temple in Richmond Hill, Queens (New York, U.S.A.). Kulwinder looked perplexed.

"Population count," the organizer, Herminder Singh, 19, explained in Punjabi, before launching into a detailed explanation of the survey.

The older man listened intently, finally declaring, with a resolve that would warm the heart of any census official: "My family has 10 to 15 members. When the form comes, I'll fill it out."

Those forms will start arriving in the mail next week, and government officials say the success of this year's census will depend heavily on the grassroots efforts of thousands of nonprofit, corporate and community organizations that have volunteered to mobilize their constituents to complete the forms and mail them in.

They have their work cut out for them in Richmond Hill, a middle-class neighborhood with a large Sikh-American, South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population. In the 2000 census, swaths of the area had some of the most dismal response rates in the city, with only about 4 in 10 households mailing back the forms.

This time around, members of Seva, a community-based organization that works with Richmond Hill's immigrants, have vowed to raise those numbers by acting as advance troops for the Census Bureau.

"We understood how there was a vacuum in the community," said Gurpal Singh, 34, the group's Executive Director, who was born in Punjab and has lived in Richmond Hill since 1985. [He completed his law degree at The City University of New York (CUNY) in 2009.]

"We looked at what happened in 2000, which was nothing."

Census officials say these advocates will be crucial in helping to dispel fears that the information they provide on the form will be used against them. Though the law protects the confidentiality of the information, many illegal immigrants fear that providing their personal information could lead to deportation. The group members can also help overcome language obstacles - a particular concern in Queens, where nearly half the residents were born overseas.

"The challenge is the thing that we're also very proud of, and it's our diversity," said Susie Tannenbaum, the community and cultural coordinator for the borough president's office. "So many language groups, so many immigrant populations."

Richmond Hill, once heavily Italian and Irish, has changed drastically in recent decades. South Asians, particularly Sikhs and Indians, began settling there in large numbers during the mid-20th century. They were followed, beginning in the 1970s, by Guyanese and Trinidadians - descendants of Indians taken to the Caribbean in the 19th century to work as contract labourers on sugar plantations.

The neighborhood is home to one of the world's largest Sikh populations outside Punjab..

Gurpal Singh and his partners at Seva decided to get involved in the census outreach more than a year ago because it dovetailed with their work as organizers. They saw it as a way "to get people into the room, to get them talking and to then discuss other things," Gurpal said.

They have conducted scores of seminars for Richmond Hill businesses, community groups and its plethora of Sikh gurdwaras, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and Christian churches. They have sent out e-mail blasts and used Facebook.

"We've been taking the grassroots approach, just making sure the local real estate guy understands what the census is about and the message he should send out to his clients," Gurpal said.

The group's attention to the neighborhood's cultural subtleties is reflected in the thousands of posters and leaflets it has printed. Leaflets for the Punjabi population, for instance, are in Punjabi, illustrated with photos of Sikhs in turbans. But those for the Guyanese population are in English, with images of West Indian people.

"Because we live in the neighborhood, we have to use our instincts to know whether someone is going to walk by a poster and think it's sexy," said Ravisharon Kaur, 35, Director of Programs and Development for Seva.

But some of the most critical work has begun only in the past few weeks, as organizers and their workers - many of them high school and college students, like Herminder Singh - blanket the neighborhood with literature and address constituents' concerns one-on-one.

The Seva activists acknowledge that they have not done enough to take aim at the neighborhood's growing yet atomized Latino population, which accounts for about 28 percent of the total. In coming days, the group plans to dispatch a team of interns to canvass Latino businesses and storefront evangelical churches.

And once the census campaign is over, organizers will turn to a cause that hangs on the results of the count: the redrawing of state and federal legislative districts. They intend to leave the neighborhood census committees in place.

With a slight tweak to the committee names and a major shift in focus, they will be ready for their next battle.


[Courtesy: New York Times]

March 17, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 17, 2010, 7:28 AM.

It is great to see Sikhs at work regarding an important national Issue. However, sadly a lot of Sikhs are confused on the importance and the direction on how to get a Sikh voice for the count to our government. Following our article on 'Why' and 'How', we should mark ourselves as 'SIKH' in the 'Other Race Category'; press articles have made their way to redirect Sikhs into counting themselves as 'Asian Indians'. The reasoning provided is that "There is no religion category" and 'Some selfish elements are misguiding Sikhs'. I want to clarify that it is perfectly valid to identify yourself as Sikh in the 2010 census. The reason being that the term of 'Race' in Q.9 is loosely defined by the Census. It also refers to Ethnicity, or Ancestry groups according the Census Bureau. Sikhs are a 'Quom' with distinct needs that fit appropriately in the Ethnicity category. An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage. This shared heritage may be based upon, history, kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or physical appearance; most importantly allegiance or association. We also know and agree that we cannot go to other Indian organizations to address our issues such as that of Dastaar or Kirpan or the bullying of Sikh children in school, thus it is important for our community to have and develop resources and a voice of our own. It is a must for this reason that an accurate count of Sikhs be known and the Census is the only official way to ensure that. In the 1990 and 2000 Census, no Sikh organizations raised the issue of correctly coding the Sikhs as an Ethnicity, hence Sikhs are incorrectly lumped under the Asian Indian code. If you think about it, is Asian-Indian a race ? No. It is a loosely formed category that fits in under no proper heading. The country of India itself has many distinct races in it. The Aryans, Mongols, Dravidians, etc. Our organizations are working with the Census Bureau, etc. for the Sikhs to be correctly counted as Sikhs in the future census. I have independently confirmed with Census officials that if you write-in 'Sikh', the form will not be thrown away or confused. Additionally, the raw data of the census is made available after a certain amount of time, and it is important for Sikhs all over the country to write-in 'Sikh' to support the argument for a separate code in the future. If all Sikhs in the country write the word 'Sikh', we will be successful in getting Sikhs counted correctly. On the other hand, if we don't do this, what basis do our organizations have to fight for this cause? So, it is my request to all readers, that if you consider Sikhi as your identity or association, please check the OTHER category and write yourself in as a 'SIKH'. Together, we can do it. Last but not least, this effort should not be counted as an anti-India stance. Pakistanis, Tamils, etc. have their different codes too, not because they consider themselves as a different race (nussel) but because they are a group of people with different needs.

2: H. S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), March 17, 2010, 11:17 AM.

Someone should have made banners highlighting to mark Sikhs. They could be put up in gurdwaras and other community centers.

3: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 17, 2010, 12:05 PM.

You can download a flier that can be printed on one sheet and distributed. It has the information on where to mark. - Please click on 'What can you do?' A big poster in Punjabi will be uploaded later today.

4: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), March 17, 2010, 2:07 PM.

I applaud Gurmeet Kaur and efforts by her team to spearhead a new kind of census awareness and urge fellow Sikhs to identify themselves as Sikhs. Great effort.

5: Karan Singh (United Kingdom), March 18, 2010, 3:57 AM.

Gurmeet Kaur ji, you wrote: "...Tamils, etc., have their different codes too." Can you please clarify that the census has included a Tamil category or are you stating that the Tamils will be doing what Sikhs are doing, that they will be adding in 'Tamil' in the other box?

6: Gurmeet Kaur  (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 18, 2010, 6:23 AM.

Karan Singh ji, a code does not imply a category. Coding is a way to be able to count and code boxed responses. So no, Tamils don't have a category in the Census Forms. We have talked to a Sri Lankan Tamil group that are doing exactly what the Sikhs will be doing. Tamils, irrespective of Indian or Sri Lankan nationalities, share common culture and language and consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group and hence a distinct race category (as defined by the Census). I am not sure if they were coded this way in 2000, but a lot of new codes have been added in 2010 because of the activism from individual groups prior to this census. We Sikhs are unfortunately waking up a bit late. But we have to begin now; if we don't, we will be in status quo even in 2020.

7: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 18, 2010, 4:33 PM.

Unfortunately in New York, there have been local Punjabi newspapers that told people not to write in "Sikh" in the "Other Race" category. I learned of this after following up on a few of my relatives to see if they had written in "Sikh" as I had instructed them to do. They told me they did not because in the Punjabi newspaper, it said that if they wrote in "Sikh", they would not be counted as such, and would merely be lumped in with the rest of the "Other Race" write-ins. Instead, the newspapers advised their readers to indicate that they were Asian Indians, as they have been doing for so many decades. This is a very frustrating development. It seems that as we try to progress, certain elements within us always hold us back. [EDITOR: These are not elements within our community. In Toronto and Vancouver, the Indian consulate offices pay the ethnic newspapers to put in these articles. There's no reason to think the New York office, and others across the continent, are behaving any differently. We need to understand that the Indian Government behaves as if it is at war with us, the Sikhs - there is NO sector in which they do not cause mischief.]

8: Supreet (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), March 20, 2010, 3:39 PM.

Ms. Gurmeet Kaur, I totally understand your concerns about being represented, but I am confused as to why I should list myself as a Sikh. [EDITOR: The answer is an easy one, but let me make it even simpler - if you are a Sikh, if you are proud enough of your heritage to want to identify yourself as one, and if you have ANY interest in building institutions for the benefit of yourself, your family, your children, your community ... then you may want to identify yourself as a SIKH, as described in Gurmeet article. If this still does not make sense to you, then do as you like!]

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