For Gateway Cities, Census outreach during COVID-19 matters more than ever before

Gateways Podcast Episode 55

For Gateway Cities, Census outreach during COVID-19 matters more than ever before

This week on Gateways we continue to examine innovative Gateway City responses to the COVID-19 challenge.

Tracy talks with Molly Teece, a UMass Lowell student and president and co-founder of the university’s 3D printing club. Molly and her club mates haven’t let the school’s closure keep them from 3D printing. With help from a wildly successful donation drive, they are printing face masks, face shields, and ear savers for local hospitals.

For the second segment, Ben is joined by Beth Huang of the Massachusetts Voter Table and Michael Moriarty of OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation. Beth and Michael remind us why it’s so important to get an accurate Census count, and describe how they are fashioning new strategies to reach hard-to-count population as the pandemic has made traditional outreach all but impossible.

Read an excerpted transcript below:

Dr. Tracy Corley: Welcome back to Gateways, a podcast about the people, places and possibilities of our regional cities. I’m Dr. Tracy Corley. The coronavirus outbreak is fundamentally changing the way we work, socialize, shop and live. It also illustrates the importance of adequate funding on public health. And in order to determine what’s adequate, a complete census count is necessary. But how do we make that happen when face to face interaction is no longer an option? Later in this episode, Ben discusses that question with guest Beth Huang of the Massachusetts Voter Table and Michael Moriarity of OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation. Well, right now, we’re talking about what folks in Gateway cities are doing to be part of the solution. Molly Teece is a UMass Lowell student and president and co-founder of the school’s 3-D Printing Club. As campuses like UMass closed, classes moved online. Molly and Club co-founder David Barry sought ways to help those on the frontlines combating the virus, beginning by 3D printing masks and later face shields and ear savers. Molly is with us remotely to tell us more about her and David’s work. Molly, thank you so much for being on Gateways today.

UMass Lowell’s Molly Teece on 3D printing masks for local hospitals

Molly Teece, UMass Lowell student:  Hi. Thank you for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Tracy: Let’s start at the beginning– campus just closed. And you wanted to do something to help, and you have the ability to 3D print. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you started on this project?

Molly: Yeah. So myself and David, we really felt like we were sitting on our hands. We were really frustrated that school had gone online or club was just starting to grow and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. And we heard from a research student that we work for. And he mentioned Lowell Makes to us, which is a local nonprofit, makerspace in Lowell. And he said that they were 3D printing masks and other forms of PPE. And so we meet we went on to their website where they detailed all of the different PPE that they were making & all the supplies that were needed. And they also included the 3D printing files. So we immediately started with masks. And then we later transitioned to both ear savers and face shields.

Tracy: Excellent. So, you know, I know I read a lot about 3D printing. I’ve seen a lot about 3D printing, I’ve even seen one actually printing. But how does it how does it actually work?

Molly: Yeah. So 3-D printers essentially take the 3-D file of an object, for example, say a cube and it slices that object into as many sizes as you choose, depending on layer height that you select. If you have a really small layer height, your object will be very clear and have a good resolution. But if it has a much larger layer height, it will be very stepwise and kind of chunky. And so if you were to want to print a cube, it would essentially slice your cube into as many squares as you choose. And so it would just print a square each time as a layer. And then every time your layer shifts up, eventually you have a cube. And obviously, depending on your object, each layer would have a different shape.

Tracy: It’s like making a really tall layer cake. Yeah. Okay. Okay. That that that helps. And so it’s kind of fascinating. You know, you’re kind of putting these layers. But what is what does that material come from? I mean, here we are. We’re talking about, you know, we have the shortage of protective gear across the country. But, you know, how can you just kind of like create these materials out of thin air? Where’s it coming from?

Molly: Yeah. So the main material is going to your 3-D printer filament. The most common of which is  poly lactic acid. It’s a type of plastic. It’s actually sourced from corn. So it’s biodegradable. And so 3d print your film. And it’s actually really common just to get it online. But because of the disruptions in the supply chain and issues with lead time for shipping, we actually were able to purchase in person from microcenter in Cambridge. So we’ve been driving almost every weekend– it’s about a 45 minute drive from Lowell to Cambridge where we picked up. So we’ve got a lot of filament from there. So we’re all set for filament now and then the rest, the materials are just sourced from places like Home Depot and Lowe’s, the big box stores. So you need different types of filters. So we did have to get crafty because of course, if you’re trying to create a mask and master in short supply, what kind of filtration media are you using? And so we were actually using merde filters. It’s like the h vac filter that you get in your home when you need to replace that for your air conditioning system and such. So we had to actually take those apart and cut them to have access to that filter and place it into the mask.

Tracy: So you mentioned the makerspace. I mean, have you been coordinating with other groups or organizations? I mean, you know how you’re creating all these materials, but where did they go and how are you coordinating kind of getting them to the people who need the most?

Molly: Yeah. So the main organization we have been working with as Lowell Makes they started out the coordination of kind of the supply chain of all the donations they were choosing which hospital to donate to. They were physically bringing them there. But in addition to that, when you three 3D separated from printing masks and moved into more your savers and shields, we had the freedom to choose from our own connections, personal connections, who we want to donate to in terms of hospitals. So we’ve been going through like, oh, my friend’s mom was a nurse and she works at Mass General. She said her floor really needs heresay version. So I would just give her a box and she could bring it to hospital herself.

Molly and Tracy’s conversation continues on the Gateways Podcast, Episode 56 at 00:04:51

2020 Census: Reaching hard to count communities during COVID-19

Begins at 00:08:51 

Ben Forman, research director, MassINC: Today, we venture out to the frontlines of another fight. The battle to get an accurate census count with all the Trump administration’s moves to suppress the counties cities, census leaders were already gearing up for an epically challenging year. And then came Coronavirus, creating the perfect storm with isolation advisories, putting door knocking and public gatherings out of the question. The task of communicating to the public and getting everyone counted before the deadline has gotten monumentally harder.

Ben: Joining me today via Zoom to talk about how Gateway Cities are rising to the census challenge, are Beth Huang, director of Massachusetts Voter Table, and Michael Moriarity, executive director of OneHolyoke Committee Development Corporation. Welcome to you both. Great.

Ben: Beth, why don’t we start from you. I think most of our listeners know why the census is important, but it’s always good to remind folks why groups like yours work so hard and hard to count communities to make sure that people complete their census forms.

Beth Huang, director of Massachusetts Voter Table: Great. Well, thanks so much for having us. The reason why the 2020 census is so critically important is that it forms the data infrastructure for determining how resources are allocated in the next 10 years and how our and how our political system works. We are fighting for an accurate count in the 2020 census so that. Are there enough classrooms for kindergarten students so that there are enough resources for a public health system? One of my first job out of college was organizing EMT and paramedic. And we have figured out how many ambulances were at each station based off of population count. In this time of a public health emergency, I want to ask everyone, you want enough ambulances to be in your community, ready to be dispatched?

Ben: Yeah. I mean, Michael, on the ground in a city like Holyoke. You know how important these resources are to the health and well-being of the community. I gather folks in Holyoke didn’t feel like they got a fair count the last time around.

Michael Moriarity, executive director of OneHolyoke Committee Development Corporation: Not at all. And in fact, we slipped under forty thousand people in population for the first time since the 1890s. We were never built. Forty thousand people. We just undercounted severely up for a wide variety of factors. And the consequences were just devastating. We had two Congress people representing our area. We were in District 1. We’re right next to Springfield. District 2. So we lost representation in Congress that we really needed. But also the cost to us because we’re so dependent on title one educational funding, because health care and housing allocations are based so much on population. And for a lot of competitive grants, grants are designed around certain populations. So there’s ten thousand increments matter. A great deal slipping under forty thousand dollars had some very real consequences for what was available and appropriate for the city of Holyoke. So we just jumped in with both feet for 2010, committed to not seeing that happen a second time. But it does have a disproportionate number of hard to count census tracts for a city of such a small population.

Ben:  Yeah. So, Beth, I know from having a lot of conversations with you throughout the fall that you guys were gearing up to do the best job you possibly could to get everybody counted this year knowing it was gonna be difficult with all the anti-immigrant sentiment and the ice raids and so forth. You want to just give us a sense of how you were preparing and how how you’ve had to shift course.

Beth: Sure. So at the Massachusetts voter table, we’re conveners of the MassCounts Coalition to get out the count in the hardest to count census tracts across the state. We’ve worked with over 100 community partners in the past two years to prepare nonprofit partners in particular, and really all trusted community leaders for it. An accurate count. We were dependent on in-person events and on knocking on doors to get out the count. Unfortunately, we cannot open any of those hundred or so questionnaire assistance centers. But we’re planning on holding and public libraries, community centers and more. Instead, we are shifting to a phone banking, tech, banking and digital advertising strategy. We are holding weekly phone banks on Tuesdays and Thursdays and likely adding in Fridays and Saturdays. So far in the past three weeks, we’ve generated about 15000 calls across our partner organizations. We are texting through some of the hardest to count cities, which unsurprisingly are gateway cities like Chelsea and Lawrence and Brockton, so that we can get the word out. Even in these really challenging and uncertain times that the census really matters to our everyday lives in the next 10 years.

Ben: So, Michael, you you’ve been involved in some of those phone banks and other efforts. Can you just talk a little bit about your strategy and response?

Michael: Absolutely. Personally, I have not had enough to do that, but a staff of mine has. You’ll find me on there before to run our strategy. Really dead center on a boots on the ground door-knocking visibility campaign in particular. We mapped out very clearly where the hard to count areas were last time. What’s anticipated this time and have been drawn on our networks within the city of Folio. Other organizations, landlords that we know. Business owners, you know, right down to the folks that own the two and three family homes in these very, very specific locations. And the whole idea was lead with postcards, try to get as many numerators that live in the neighborhood as possible and then advocate so that they get hired and then deployed right in the neighborhoods where they live. Because the biggest barrier that we know exists is trust. And in Holyoke, the trust issue is not centered on immigration, which is actually relatively smaller issue because so much of our next population is Puerto Rican. But instead, it’s because of things like doubled up families and folks who are distrustful because of past bad experiences with government and with law enforcement. And so you really need to have a trusted face and someone culturally familiar coming to the door. So we held many job thanks. We’ve tracked to see that people were getting accepted the jobs. And unfortunately, now, you know, they’re not realizing any revenue because they can’t send enumerators out. At this point. Trainings have been stalled or curtailed. And so, you know, the reward for the folks that we reached out to has we don’t think it’s been denied, but it’s been deferred. And so a lot of our strategy really has been severely impacted by this.

Ben: On the enumerators point, as your organization allows those folks. Are those census workers?

Michael: Oh, no. They’re hired by the Census Bureau. They’re federal employees. All we’re able to do is reach in to our networks, make space available, help people apply online, help them with some guidance as far as answering unfamiliar, uncomfortable questions that might be in the application. And so we did that on multiple occasions.

Ben: Huh. So, you know, in terms of the resources for this effort, Beth, do you have the resources you need, especially now that you’ve had a change your strategy in midstream?

Beth: That’s a great question. There are many foundations that have very generously given to the efforts to get out the count in the 2020 census. In particular, the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund have done a phenomenal job of raising over 1.3 million dollars in resources for nonprofits to get out the count. However, we are very mindful that our best estimates showed that we needed 13 million dollars to get out the count in the 2020 census to reach all hard to count households across Massachusetts. As Michael was saying, we have a lot of we have a lot of overcrowding in housing. We have a lot of renters. We have a lot of immigrants and a lot of students. Those are all hard to count and historically undercounted constituencies. And that’s why we advocated for the state legislature to invest in a complete count in the 2020 census. They invested just shy of four million dollars. About 2 million of the 3.9 million dollars has gone out to to dozens of nonprofit organizations and a couple of public libraries. However, the secretary of state has allocated just half of the resources available for a complete count in the 2020 census. In particular, just twenty five thousand dollars of the 1 million dollars for municipalities to get out. The count has gone out. I mean, if you can imagine how visible, vocal public officials are in this particular moment, they have such an important platform right now to share with constituents why the census is so important. We know that the state and federal governments sometimes are not the most trusted, incredible messengers in low income communities of color. And so that’s why we need grass roots leaders and local public officials who are more important than ever to have the full range of resources at their disposal to get out a full account.

Ben [00:19:14] Yeah, so I mean, let’s let’s talk about that. I mean, I see the opportunity of public officials being out there and communicating to people about the coronavirus crisis and how they stay safe. But that’s complicated, right? And at the same time, they need to talk to them about the census. You know, is that just too much to expect people to digest and act on it? Michael, from a housing standpoint, you talked about doubled up crowded housing. We need to talk to people about not coming home if they feel sick, where we’re gonna house those people and so forth. How how challenging is that in in Holyoke at the moment and are you able to do both work with people on housing issues and public health issues and census issues all in one conversation.

Michael: So we are struggling on both fronts simply because we really have to reinvent a lot of the ways we do business, reaching out to both our tenant base and our constituencies in the neighborhoods we serve. And in some ways, we’ve lost our direct connection to many of the constituents which we serve. It’s based on tabling events and going out to them, not waiting for them to come to us. And they can’t. And so, you know, we’re trying to ramp up our phone outreach. Our social media outreach is one venue, but it’s only as strong as the number of connections we’ve made before. All of this happened. This is a very difficult time to expand that outreach. So, you know, we do the best we can, but we know there are a lot of challenges on the housing side, of course. You know, there’s two kinds of issues. What? One is that we want to be communicating with our tenants very clearly and frequently because we know they’re going to have trouble getting the rent paid. We know we can be really helpful with things like reaching RAFT resources faster than folks who aren’t working with that affordable housing nonprofit.

Ben: RAFT, so folks know, is emergency assistance to help you make the rent.

Michael: Exactly. Which has just received that very good infusion of additional funding. But second to last for a long time and at a moment when people have suddenly had the bottom fall out of their income, about a third of our tenancy, or people who are working poor, they don’t have Section 8 certificate or subsidies of any kind. They live on a very small paycheck, paycheck to paycheck, and it’s gone. We’re not evicting anybody, but we can’t send inappropriate messaging out. We have to send very precise messaging. We’ll work with you. But don’t take yourself in a hole you can’t get out of. Make sure you come with us. Clearly, we’re not as well built for that as we thought we were on the front end of this. And so overlaying census on top of that message, we think we can get there. We’re not there yet. There’s there’s a ramp up that we’re in the process of trying to accomplish.

Ben: Got it. And Beth, have you seen your sort of grassroots partners get distracted and from the census message by responding to the crisis in other ways?

Beth: Right. So response to the crisis has been the paramount priority in the past couple of weeks. We work with a lot of organizations in places like Revere, Chelsea, Everett, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury, which are among the places that are absolutely hardest hit by COVID-19. We have seen that many of the grassroots membership based community organizations have been combining wellness calls with census assistance. So people are asking members of their organizations whether they are facing housing instability, whether they need food assistance, if they need food or supplies delivered to their house, if they’ve been able to access testing and more. And overlaid with those conversations are asked about whether someone someone has filled out the census for their household and more. So we are integrating the public health message with assistance to fill out the census. And I really want to lift up something that Michael said, that we are only as strong in our response as the networks four days before the public health emergency. Our census efforts have only have always only been as good as the depth of the trust with communities that have been historically undercounted.

Ben, Beth and Micheal’s conversation is continued on Gateways Podcast, Episode 56 at 00:22:24.

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