APIAVote-Michigan and American Citizens for Justice joined together to undertake their Census 2010 Project which was intended to garner a higher census mail return rate for the Asian American community in Southeast Michigan. Barbara Stachowski and I were contracted as co-coordinators of this project and dived right into things on January 4, 2010. Along with the Supervisory Committee, Barbara and I strategized plans for outreach as we embarked upon the major undertaking of reaching out to a vast and diverse Asian American populace in the area. We made our focus major community events, worship services, and community meetings and gatherings. This strategy proved highly effective as we reached out to over 9,500 members of the Asian American community of Southeast Michigan. We are also hoping that we helped contribute to Michigan’s impressive 77% participation rate, making it one of the top five states in regards to mail participation rate. Cities like Troy, Canton, and Rochester Hills, areas where we conducted a great deal of outreach, were among the top 50 cities with 50,000 residents with the highest mail participation rates in the country, with rates above 80%.
It is not only numbers that we have to show for our success however, we were also able to form new relationships and collaborations within the Asian American community in Southeast Michigan. In addition, this four month experience was without a doubt one of the most interesting and fascinating ones I have undertaken. I have lived in Southeast Michigan all my life, but I had never understood how diverse the Asian American community in the area truly was. Even among the South Asian community that I belong to, there were so many different cultural, language, and religious groups that I never knew existed. There was one day I went from a play that was hosted by a Marathi (state/language group of India) play, to a meeting of the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin (AFMI), to the Swaminarayan Temple in Canton which hosts a primarily Gujarati (state/language group of India) congregation, to finally a meeting of Bangladeshi community leaders in Hamtramck. This was all just within the South Asian community! From Filipino mass to the Chinese Lantern Festival to the Cambodian New Year celebration, it was enthralling to learn about new communities and the nuances within each one. Barbara and I had to learn to tailor our approach to each community and ensure that we were speaking to their concerns. The census was important to different groups for often vastly different reasons and, as Barbara and I became more and more familiar with the various groups and established a sense of familiarity, we were able to effectively convey our message of the census’s importance to each community.
Barbara and my outreach experience gave us a great deal of insight into the way future civic engagement campaigns can operate. By establishing strong relationships with community leaders and becoming a well-known presence, we were able to achieve our goals (in this case allaying individuals’ fears regarding confidentiality and encouraging participation in the 2010 Census) with much greater ease. We also recognized the importance of tailoring your message to each community’s needs in order to successfully engage its members. As cliché as it may sound, one of the most important things I learned is that you have to be willing to learn from those you are working with as much as they are learning from you. By establishing relationships with members of a community and really listening to their concerns, you are better able to assess what is truly important to them on a personal level. It is my sincere hope that our work will be of great help in future APIAVote-MI advocacy and outreach campaigns and will provide us a strong starting point in organizing around issues of voter registration, immigration, civil rights, and more.