Census reminder phone banking: An opportunity to improve equitable outcomes through individual advocacy

Sherrie Saint-Amant, YW Boston Board Member and member of YW Boston's Advocacy Committee
phonebanking blog photo
Advance equity by helping the 2020 Census reach a complete count

During this time of physical distancing, I’ve found a way to do remote advocacy work in collaboration with other racial justice activists. The work is census reminder calls to low-response census areas in Massachusetts. Field census takers who historically go door-to-door cannot visit neighborhoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, census phone banking is a crucial component of ensuring a full count in this year’s census.

It is so important that households are counted every 10 years because a community’s residential count is a component of federal funding for a whole range of services. In Massachusetts, these services include Medicaid, direct student loans, SNAP (food stamps), highway construction grants, Head Start, Low Income Energy Assistance, and vocational rehabilitation. Here is the full list of programs. To learn more about why the census is crucial, find our blog post “Help us reach a complete count” and our Census Toolkit.

Unfortunately, response rates from low income communities and communities of color historically lag behind those from higher income communities. The response rate from Lexington residents, whose town is 68% white, is 80.6% (as of 5/28) just short of the 83.3% self-response rate in 2010. On the other hand, the response from Chelsea, a primarily Latinx city, is 45.5% (as of 5/29) still lagging behind the 63.4% self-response rate in 2010. This huge difference illustrates the need to increase the response rate in communities such as Chelsea to help address the inequitable distribution of resources.

What is phone banking?

Phone banking is a form of outreach where volunteers place calls to identify supporters, raise funds, raise awareness or encourage support for a specific cause. Census reminder phone banking is pretty easy. I have made a personal commitment to do one two-hour block each week. I typically do Thursday evenings from 5PM to 7PM. There are other time slots available and here is how you can sign up to phone bank for Massachusetts census reminders. Eventbrite will send email reminders and the organizer will send a Zoom link the day before the scheduled phone bank. The script for the calls is included, in case you want to practice. Preparation is not necessary, though, as the script is in front of you as you make each call.

Here’s what a typical two-hour block of phone banking looks like:
  1. I join the Zoom meeting with 2 to 3 organizers and about 12 other volunteer callers.  
  1. We do introductions in the chat box and then the organizers take us through a 20 minute training session using a slideshow. The training covers the “why” and “how” of census reminder calls.  
  1. We then all mute and stay in the Zoom conference. That way we can ask questions through chat and the organizers can keep an eye on us!  
  1. I split my screen and go to van.statevoices.org and sign in to “census banking” with a username and password. This website provides the phone numbers we call and the script we use. On Thursday evenings, we use a predictive dialer which calls numbers automatically screening out busy signals, voicemail, no-answers, and disconnected numbers.  
  1. I enter my cell number into the VAN website and the predictive caller software calls me. I stay connected for the whole session entering responses on VAN and then selecting “next call” to move on from one call to the next. 
  1. We make calls and speak with community members until 6:45PM when one of the organizers debriefs with us, asking for memorable calls, thoughts, ideas, and concerns. 

Census reminder calling is well received and people often thank me for reminding them. I have found that several people have already completed the census, so I thank them and tell them how important their action is. To date, I’ve had only one person say “I’m good. I’m not completing the census.”

More volunteers are needed for each session.

In order to reach a full count in the census this year, more people need to dedicate their time to volunteering and spreading the word. In particular, those who speak languages that are not English are needed in order to reach all of our Massachusetts communities. The census has been extended to October 31 because of COVID-19. Phone banking will continue through September at which time census reminders will be included in get out the vote (GOTV) phone banking. The phone bank led by Massachusetts Voter Table occurs two to four times per week, and time slots vary between lunchtime, afternoon, and early evening.

Join me in support of the census this summer. To get involved, visit this Eventbrite page and sign up for a phone banking session. Thank you in advance for your work to increase census participation this year!

Written by Sherrie Saint-Amant, YW Boston Board Member and member of the YW Boston Advocacy Committee. Sherrie Saint-Amant is the former Community Relations Business Partner for The TJX Companies, Inc., the world’s largest off-price retailer of apparel and home fashions. Sherrie supported community engagement efforts across 49 States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Sherrie is a past director of the North Shore Workforce Investment Board (WIB) based in Salem, MA. She discovered early on in her career the power of community based organizations to effect positive change.  As a YWCA Youth Director, she organized and coordinated activities for rural youth in Maine. Since that time, Sherrie has contributed thousands of volunteer hours to community based anti-racism work in Maine, New York City and the Boston area. Sherrie is a founder of the Melrose, MA Human Rights Commission and a past director of the Melrose Affordable Housing Corporation. She has a degree in International Relations from Clark University. 


About YW Boston 

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and youth programming, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.