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OPINION | KARA WILKINS: Census lessons

Our partners moved the count by KARA WILKINS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 5, 2020 at 3:12 a.m.

Faced with the global coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, civil rights protests and more challenges than anyone could have imagined, Arkansas Counts partners came together, engaged communities and, together, got out the count for the 2020 U.S. Census.

Nearly 100 percent of households in Arkansas were counted in this year's census. To say I'm proud of my home state would be an understatement. And Arkansas Counts would be remiss if we did not express our gratitude for the tireless effort and support we received from the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago Regional office.

At the Arkansas Counts kickoff meeting in downtown Little Rock in 2019, a diverse group of community partners nodded knowingly as speakers took center stage to walk us through why it was so critical we get Arkansans counted in the coming census, especially for historically hard-to-count residents like children under 5, people of color, the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and rural individuals. Nearly 100 Arkansans left that first meeting full of verve, ready to do whatever it would take to get every resident to complete the census in partnership with organizations, elected officials and businesses across the state.

Then 2020 happened.

Despite unprecedented obstacles, the creativity, determination and downright grit Arkansas Counts partners have demonstrated has been inspiring. The City of Pine Bluff hosted multiple census drive-through events, with applause-worthy attendance. The City of Fort Smith converted a van into a mobile census kiosk and drove around Sebastian County's most rural areas to help residents, including those without Internet access, complete the census.

Our state came together when it mattered the most to ensure all Arkansans were counted.

While this year's census may not be completely wrapped up, it is never too early to begin preparing for 2030. Our Constitution mandates that every resident be counted every 10 years, but because there are always more pressing needs to address, the census is often not at the forefront of people's minds. However, considering the billions of federal dollars this data brings to our state to support education, health care and infrastructure, it is something we should begin to prepare for no later than five years in advance.

Arkansas Counts has learned so much from this process. This is one of the boldest, most inclusive collaborative efforts in our state's history. In the coming weeks, we will begin to document our accomplishments in more detail, along with challenges we faced and lessons learned. Through our conversations with our partners, we plan to clearly document our story to inform future collaborative action to help shape Arkansas' future.

Organizational leaders, elected officials, employers and engaged residents showed just how much we can accomplish--no matter what is thrown at us--when we come together to pursue a shared goal.

As a result of our advocacy, action and community engagement to move the count for the 2020 U.S. Census, Arkansas will receive billions of dollars to meet our communities' needs over the next decade. We are excited to use those funds to continue to build a more prosperous, equitable place we are proud to call home.


Kara Wilkins is the coordinator of Arkansas Counts, a statewide, community-led initiative of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Arkansas Impact Philanthropy, Arkansas United and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.


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