A handful of people were gathered Tuesday afternoon around a conference table at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau when a federal official interrupted their special training with words of gratitude. They were learning to become “Census Champions.”

“I just want to thank you. You’ve got a big job ahead of ya,” said Tim Olson, the associate director for field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau. “You guys are sort of the shining example to the nation. What you’re doing here is just amazing.”

They were among more than 2,000 people in the city and surrounding counties who trained on Tuesday to spread accurate information about the census in their communities and to persuade their neighbors to participate next year.

Philly Counts 2020, a city census initiative, organized the more than 70 trainings, many hosted by community organizations. The city also has partnered with FactSumo, a Duolingo-esque learning app, to offer the training online and via app.

Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, said his agency wants to use Philadelphia as a model.

Dillingham and his employees were in Philadelphia on Tuesday to mark Constitution Day in the city where the Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, and to encourage every person living in the United States to participate in next year’s census, the population count mandated in Article 1, Section 2.

Dillingham called the census “the cornerstone of our democracy” at a news conference at the Independence Visitor Center.

The 2020 Census will determine the disbursement of hundreds of billions of federal dollars to state and local governments each year over the next decade. The number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House depends on the population count. States will use the count to redraw voting districts in the redistricting process that starts in 2021. Businesses use the data to decide where to operate and nonprofits use it to evaluate needs. Local officials use it to better understand the makeup of their neighborhoods and plan services.

Joseph Pizzoli, 74, took PATCO from his home in Lindenwold, Camden County, to attend a training in Center City. Pizzoli, a retired commercial real estate tax consultant and Army veteran, said he wanted to do something meaningful with his leisure time. He plans to use what he learned Tuesday to educate fellow members of the organizations to which he belongs, including the Knights of Columbus and veterans and church groups.

“What struck me,” he said, “is the fact there is so much on the line.”

He and other trainees role-played conversations with hypothetical reluctant neighbors.

Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, thanks city employees for taking census training at the Municipal Services Building on Tuesday.
Michaelle Bond
Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, thanks city employees for taking census training at the Municipal Services Building on Tuesday.

Fernando Armstrong, director of the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office, said, “We need everyone’s help to make 2020 a successful census.”

In six months, the Census Bureau will ask every person living in the country to fill out questionnaires online, by mail, or by phone. It’s the first decennial census in which the government is encouraging everyone to choose the online option, which is easiest and cheapest for the bureau. But it also presents challenges, especially in cities such as Philadelphia in which large swaths of communities do not have easy internet access.

The debate for more than a year over the Trump administration’s desire to add a citizenship question to the forms is another challenge. Although the question will not appear due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s order blocking the question and the administration’s subsequent decision not to pursue it, officials inside and outside of the bureau believe the controversy surrounding it will still dissuade some people — particularly immigrants — from participating.

Area community-based organizations such as Make the Road, VietLead, and the Philadelphia Chinese United Association hosted Tuesday’s trainings, which were available in several languages: American Sign Language, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cantonese. Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church held a training when congregants usually attend their weekly bible study. The John C. Anderson Apartments, LGBTQ-friendly senior housing, and the Community College of Philadelphia also hosted trainings. The city hosted some for city employees.

Part of the city’s strategy for next year’s census, said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts 2020, is “engaging a large, diverse range of community-based organizations that have a deep and wide reach in historically undercounted communities,” including racial minorities and immigrants.

“We are absolutely thrilled by the support we’ve received from every corner of Philadelphia,” Reid said.