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Islanders Need Familiar Faces to Connect to Count

New America Media, News Feature, Erik Fowle Posted: Sep 26, 2009

Editors Note: As the U.S. Census gears up to count traditionally undercounted communities, its relying on partnership specialists who have strong ties to those communities. Elaine Sihoatani Howard, a Tongan-American is one of them. NAM contributor Erik Fowle has this profile.

The Census is coming. That seems to strike a note of fear in many marginalized, especially ethnic minority, communities in the Bay Area. Residents are either afraid their personal information will be shared with other government agencies or they simply are not informed about, or are unsure of, what the Census is and does.

This is why Elaine Sihoatani Howard, a U.C. Berkeley graduate and Marin resident of Tongan descent, literally dropped what she was doing and signed on with the U.S. Census Bureau this past June. Sihoatani Howard works out of the Bureaus San Francisco office as a partnership specialist.

Sihoatani Howards mother emigrated from Tonga in the 1970s, while her father is of European descent. A self-proclaimed data-nerd, Sihoatani Howard once created a map of every Pacific Islander organization in the Bay Area. When Sihoatani Howard showed her map to the chairperson for Pacific Islander Affairs of the Census Race and Ethnicity Advisory Committee, she was asked to join the Bureaus ranks for the 2010 effort. The Census advertised for a Pacific Islander Partnership but received no response. Next time, Sihoatani Howard decided to answer the call.

Her main task, says Sihoatani Howard, was to develop relationships with community leaders. Sihoatani Howard had already spent much of her time working with organizations and Pacific Islanders interested in helping their communities. As someone rooted in the community, she already knew who was who.

Its important for insiders to be partnership specialists, she said, in order to help reach people missing out on mainstream messaging. An insider knows how to get to the elder leaders of Pacific Islander communities, mostly born overseas. They are the gatekeepers to their communities and need to be approached in humble fashion, she said.

The bigger issue at stake is trust.

Communities led by elders do not share the younger generations fascination or familiarity with technology, such as YouTube and Facebook and other hi-tech ways of reaching population groups. In order to reach and achieve better counts for these communities, Sihoatani Howard says, they need to be made comfortable, to see a familiar face. She will stress the message that the Census is confidential. The message partnership specialists send to these communities is not participate in the Census! but rather, Can you help us?

Sihoatani Howard remembers attending a Samoan Flag Day celebration in a particularly hard-to-count San Francisco neighborhood. At one point during the festivities, she became acquainted with a younger member of the community. He was a man in the most widely undercounted 18 to 25-year-old demographic and was unaware of the Census and mainstream advertising for the count.

When Sihoatani Howard provided the young man with a Census information sheet, he was elated, she said, to learn that not only were Pacific Islanders counted as separate from Asians, but that Samoans even had their own box to check.

We count! We count in America! Sihoatani Howard remembers the young man shouting, before sharing the news with every other member of his community at the festivities. He became our Census advocate for the day, she said, and a very trusted messenger.

And when the Census Bureau completes is decennial count in April 2010, Sihoatani Howard, like thousands of other Census workers, will return to their previous jobs, or, as she says with a sigh, begin the search anew.

But without specialists like Elaine Sihoatani Howard, people who stand to benefit from Census counts simply wouldnt know about it. Sure, she said, many census workers have given up other jobs to join the brief campaign. But, she continues, its to help our communities. And if not us, then who else?

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