Philly’s Cambodians in the 2020 census: ‘We aren’t invisible’

With about one month to go until Census Day, April 1, it’s crunch time for job fairs hiring on-the-ground enumerators to count hard-to-reach communities.

On Saturday, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia hosted its final Census Champion training — an initiative by the city’s Philly Counts Office for the 2020 Census to train community members to become neighborhood messengers on the census. It also hosted a U.S. Census Bureau job fair. Philadelphia is hoping to hire 3,000 temporary workers to knock on doors in May to count people who did not respond to the census online, over the phone, or via mail.

Sarun Chan, the association’s executive director, said reaching Philly’s Cambodian community — many of whose members live in immigrant enclaves in North and South Philadelphia — is crucial this time around. Philadelphia has the fourth largest Cambodian population among U.S. cities. According to 2010 census estimates, roughly 10,000 Cambodians lived in Philadelphia.

Chan — who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the United States as a 1-year-old — said that estimate was an undercount. He said the association thinks the number of Cambodians living in Philly is closer to 18,000 to 20,000.

The 2015 American Community Survey put the number around 12,000.

The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia has offices in the city’s Olney section as well as in South Philly on Seventh Street near Ritner, where Saturday’s Census Champion training and job fair took place.

“The push to get Cambodian Americans hired within the census is crucial because if our staff aren’t census workers, we can’t actually complete it, we can only help explain what it is,” Chan said. “So that’s why it’s really crucial that the census also do their part in actually hiring multilingual staff to complete the forms.”

The Census Bureau’s Philadelphia branch did not immediately respond to a request for its recruitment goals based on language or race and ethnicity.

Chan, now 34, joined the association around the 2010 census. He said some of the main barriers to reaching Cambodians in Philly stem from contrasting ethnicities within the country, from people who identify as Khmer (ethnic Cambodians from Cambodia), people who are ethnic Chinese from Cambodia, and people who identify as Khmer Krom (Cambodians who are from South Vietnam).

The resulting language barriers — and people thinking they can only choose one identity — can be a hindrance to filling out the census.

For the first time in its history, the census will be available online and in 13 different languages, including Chinese and Vietnamese. But the census is only offering a language guide in Khmer, so Khmer-speaking Cambodians who don’t speak English might need assistance from either a friend or family member or an official Census Bureau employee when filling out the form.

Chan said it’s difficult to estimate how much funding his organization has missed out on because of the past undercount. For perspective, he said that for a nonprofit assisting nearly  1,000 Cambodians and other community members with social services and case management, funding has never surpassed $500,000.

“It’s ridiculous,” Chan said. “I wouldn’t say we lost, we just never had access. We were invisible, and our voices were never heard to actually gain it.”

But because the 2020 census will be so digitally focused, the association wants to connect that to its community’s changing demographics.

Many of the elder members of the city’s Cambodian community are relatively social media-savvy. Chan said many use Facebook’s translated platform available in the Cambodian language and live-stream events at temples and other places.

So the association has 10 laptops and over 20 tablets that are currently used for its day-to-day programming but will also be used to help educate community members about completing the census.

Another strategy it plans is creating public service announcement-style videos, audio segments, and print notices explaining the importance of the census and how it will impact Philadelphia’s Cambodians. The goal is for the PSA’s to highlight local community members speaking about the importance of the census and how it could impact their future and that of their children. They hope the PSA’s can help recruit people to become census enumerators.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *