Rhode Island breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when the US Census Bureau announced the state’s population had grown enough to keep our two congressional seats. This was not a happy accident — it was the result of more than a year’s worth of hard work to ensure we had an accurate count. While the Trump administration was trying to stop the 2020 Census early, Rhode Island used innovative strategies to engage residents who were the hardest to reach. The success of this direct outreach should be a model for delivering other government services.
Rhode Island’s population growth in the last decade is due to immigration. Native-born Americans left our state, while new residents settled here. The 4.3 percent population growth, which saved our second congressional district, happened because Rhode Island welcomes people of all backgrounds.
When the 2020 Census started, everyone involved knew we needed an accurate count of these new residents and recognized there would be challenges in counting them. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and Rhode Island Public Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott formed and led the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee. I was proud to be one of the many volunteers who helped to accomplish this crucial mission. We worked with Luis Estrada and Jordan Hevenor, two of the best community organizers in the state, to ensure no Rhode Islander was left out of the critical count.
I know the Rhode Island immigrant experience because I lived it. My family and I came to America from the Dominican Republic when I was 20. After a brief time in New York City, we moved to Providence. It was the best decision we made. The city offered me the opportunity to learn English and attend college. Most important, the people of Rhode Island welcomed me as one of their own. It is a testament to the promise of America that I was able to become an elected official in my adopted home, where I’ve worked to make sure everyone has access to the opportunities I enjoyed.
My background let me understand the difficulties of reaching Rhode Island’s immigrants. When someone is working two jobs while raising a family, stretching every dollar as far as they can, the last thing they want to do is spend time after work filling out paperwork. Instead, we needed to bring the services to them, in partnership with trusted community leaders.
We went to the neighborhoods where the hardest to count people live. We held dozens of events with the Elisha Project and other community organizations. Many people were scared to complete the survey because of the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question about immigration status. Trusted validators clarified that the census would not affect anyone’s immigration status or put undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation.
At the same events, we distributed personal protective equipment and boxes of food, which was essential because the coronavirus pandemic significantly increased food insecurity. This kind of direct outreach, connecting government services and assistance with the people who need them, should be expanded. Government cannot expect marginalized people to proactively seek out services that can help them. Instead, government needs to bring the services to the communities they help.
We were able to get an accurate census result because we empowered the community we needed to count. While it happened in Rhode Island, this success proves US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts was right when she said, “The people closest to the pain, should be the closest to the power, driving and informing the policymaking.” For government to serve everyone, it has to let everyone have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
Sabina Matos, former president of the Providence City Council, is lieutenant governor of Rhode Island.