Running the Minnesota census operation is a once-in-a-decade opportunity. It entails myriad challenges, and no chance for a do-over if something goes wrong. The two people in charge of Minnesota’s census, both alumni of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, are up to the task.
Susan Brower (MA ‘00), Minnesota’s state demographer, and Andrew Virden (MPA ‘11), director of the office’s census operations and engagement, have been preparing for the 2020 census, which officially launched on April 1, for the past two years.
Minnesota has a lot riding on the outcome, with the size of its congressional delegation hanging in the balance.
“The margin of error for our state is very, very small. In 2010, Minnesota held on to its eighth congressional seat by only 8,739 people,” Brower says. “Due to current population projections, once again we’re right on the bubble. So having as complete a count as possible could be the difference that we need to keep that congressional seat.”
In addition, Minnesota’s share of federal funding, currently more than $15.5 billion a year, is allocated based on its population. So part of Brower’s responsibility is to make sure the Census Bureau has complete and accurate data for Minnesota communities.
The other part of the office’s work focuses on community engagement—making sure that Minnesota residents know what the census is, why it’s important, and what they need to do to fill out their census forms. That’s Andrew Virden’s job.
Community is key to census success
Over the past many months he has established and maintained connections with dozens of local government agencies and organizations around the state—such as church groups, chambers of commerce, libraries, and other nonprofits—to help them spread the word about the importance of the census and encourage people to respond.
“Folks have been coming to us for information about the census, asking how they can get involved, what they can do to ensure a better count,” says Virden. “Some of those are on a geographic basis: ‘How do I make sure my neighborhood or my city gets counted?’ Others are more culturally or linguistically based [in immigrant communities]. Susan and I have traveled all over the state, speaking to a wide variety of groups about the importance of full participation in the census.”
They’ve also developed written materials like posters and postcards, as well as explanatory videos that are produced in a variety of languages, to reach all Minnesotans through the “trusted voices” in their communities. That’s essential to a successful census count, says Virden.
“The messenger is as important as the message itself. I have a lot of information about the census but since I’m not Somali, I may not be the right person to convey that message in certain communities,” he says. “It works better when it’s someone at Friday prayers, or someone from your neighborhood group, or who lives in your building, who says, ‘This is important. You need to do this,’ as opposed to hearing an announcement from the government.”
Of course, the extensive planning for Census Day didn’t count on the coronavirus outbreak and its limits on in-person interaction, so plans for door-knocking and community gatherings had to be scrapped in favor of text messages and phone calls. In addition, the Census Bureau is delaying some of its in-person activities and data collection deadlines in response to the restrictions.
Inspiration from the Humphrey School
Brower and Virden say their biggest challenges have involved the demands on their time and attention, especially as unexpected issues like the coronavirus have come up. Virden, who joined the state demographer’s office two years ago, likens it to “building an airplane while flying it.”
“At the Humphrey School, I learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was asked to do a lot of new things, and I used parts of my brain that I had not used before,” he says. “[Preparing for the census] has been like the ultimate group project, something that the Humphrey School really emphasizes. Everyone’s coming from different places, everyone has different objectives, different funding levels and interests. How do you balance all those, how do you keep the relationships happy?”
Brower, who has been the state demographer for the past eight years, says it was her studies at the Humphrey School that really sparked her interest in demographics; she described it as a "life-changing experience." After completing her master’s degree, she went on to earn her doctorate at the University of Michigan.
“Many people think of demographics as collecting facts on people—their ethnic or racial background, what languages they speak, how old they are, and so on,” she says. “That’s a part of it. But the part that drew me to the field is figuring out how that information shapes our social and economic worlds in ways that seem invisible.”
Indeed, when it’s not census time, that’s exactly what Brower does as the head of the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
“A lot of my work involves talking to leaders about what’s happening in the state with respect to our demographics—the social and economic trends that we see in our analysis, and how they impact the state on many different levels.”
That analysis informs a myriad of statewide and local decisions, such as where to build new schools and health care facilities; how to predict future transportation needs; how many people will be attending college in the future, and the like.
A number of Humphrey School students have worked in the demographer’s office in recent years as interns and permanent employees, and many alumni find employment with state government or community organizations. Virden says that’s a good thing.
“It speaks to the mission of the Humphrey School, that we believe in the common good,” he says. “I enjoy running into people that I met at the School. It’s really cool to see all the great organizations that people are working with. We’ve already been through the ‘getting to know you’ phase of the relationship. So we just roll up our sleeves and get to work.”