By Khalil Abdullah, TriceEdneyWire.com
Jeri Green’s passion for the census is still sunrise bright. An outspoken champion of the concerns of African Africans and any people who have been diminished, marginalized or systemically undercounted, she is an enthusiastic and determined advocate for how participation in the census can contribute to healthier communities and a more equitable America.
“Let’s talk about the need for public education,” Greensaid. “We know African American children continue to be undercounted everycensus and likely will be so again in 2020. Same for Latino and Native Americanchildren. When we say, ‘Count every child in your household,’ it means justthat. Grandchildren count, foster kids count, play cousins count. Unless thismessage is delivered and repeated over and over, families will miss receivingresources that are rightfully theirs.”
“And, quite frankly, why can’t we do a better job of countingformerly incarcerated Black men? We already know they are a disproportionatepercentage of the over 650,000 individuals coming back to our communities fromjails and prisons every year. They are returning citizens and we should be ableto design ways to make sure they show up in the census as well.”
During her 20-year career at the Census Bureau, Green coordinatedvisits by congresspersons, the General Accounting Office and the InspectorGeneral’s personnel, among others, to census field sites. “Individuals whohave oversight responsibility or whose agencies conduct audits to make suretaxpayer dollars are being well spent, have a right to inspect and observe, butthose visits have to be scheduled and conducted in a way that doesn’t interferewith the enumeration process or the public’s right to privacy.”
In 2017, she retired as Senior Advisor for Civic Engagement toformer U.S. Census Bureau Director, John Thompson.
“He had left the Census Bureau and returned after a decade asa political appointee. He asked me to help him get reacquainted with the issuesand concerns of the Civil Rights community, to establish some outreach.”
Green’s experience made her ideally suited for the task.
“When I started full-time, I was working on the advisorycommittee level,” she recalled. “In addition to serving as theliaison to the technical advisory committee, I was responsible for the fiveethnic stand-alone advisory committees: Black; Hispanic; Native American andAlaskan; Asian; Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
“Back then, each committee had its own chair and vice chair.My job was to understand their needs, engage with them and get to know andunderstand their issues. I just thought I could automatically do this, that itwas just a natural fit for me because – I’m Black! And I know all these issues.Wrong, wrong, and more wrong,” she said laughing.
“You cannot just assume, because you’re a person of color,that you understand another culture. It took time to talk to Native Americans,to understand the road they traveled and their customs. It was the same foreach of those committees. It was a very humbling experience that made me astronger employee and a stronger translator for the Census Bureau. I had todevelop a level of trust that the Bureau didn’t have with thesecommunities.”
Regarding her decision to resign, she said when Director Thompsonopted to leave in 2017, “I followed him out the door. It was time.”
Her 10 years of prior employment in the District of Columbiagovernment counted toward federal retirement eligibility. Reasons for leavingwere personal and professional. For one, the politicization of the CensusBureau, under the Department of Commerce’s then new Secretary Wilbur Ross,carried some weight.
Green opposes Ross’s efforts to add a question on citizenship tothe 2020 form. She concurs with other experts that doing so would likely reducethe number of survey respondents and thus undermine the government’sconstitutional mandate to count all residents. But, the citizenship dispute,soon to be decided by the Supreme Court, was just one factor in her decision.
Despite the Census Bureau’s growing emphasis and reliance ontechnology for the 2020 count, “we are still going to need human capitaland the funds won’t be there,” Green said. During the Obamaadministration, the Republican-controlled Congress mandated that 2020 Censuscosts be held to the life-cycle costs of the 2010 Census. “Who in theworld can buy 2020 groceries on a 2010 budget?” she asks. In her opinion,already, and as a direct result of insufficient funding, there have been otherconsequences that may negatively impact census accuracy.
Between imagining how her daily work might be constrained and whatshe would do with more time to herself – continue practicing andperforming with D.C.’s own KanKouran West African Dance Troupe or devotinglonger hours to genealogical research – the idea of retirement began to fitlike a favorite garment. She didn’t see the phone call coming, but she heardthe message loud and clear.
“Marc Morial dialed me up on my cell phone right after Iretired from the Census Bureau and said, ‘We need you,'” Green recalled.As president of the National Urban League (NUL) for over 15 years, a two-termmayor of New Orleans, and a former Louisiana state legislator, Morial knows andunderstands how census-derived revenue pours into county and city coffers tofund infrastructure projects and social service programs.
Morial chaired the 2010 Census Advisory Committee, an entity notreconstituted by the Trump administration for the 2020 Census. The committeefocused on Hard-To-Count communities and had become part of Green’s portfolioduring Morial’s tenure. Green now serves as senior advisor to the NUL on the2020 Census and is a key participant in the NUL’s Census 2020 Black Roundtable,but her path to the NUL began long before.
Just as the Morial family can trace part of its lineage to theWhitney Plantation in Louisiana, Green’s folk, on her mother’s side, aredescendants from formerly enslaved laborers on the Worsley Plantation nearRocky Mount in Edgecombe County, North Carolina.
Green was born in Washington, D.C., a descendant of part of theAfrican American Worsley migration that eventually settled here. “Mygrandfather used to make me and my little sister hoe-cakes. He couldn’t read orwrite, nor could his mother, who was a formerly enslaved woman.”
After Eastern High School, Green pursued her undergraduate degreein Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. At thetime, there was no rapid public transportation linking her Washingtonneighborhood to the College Park campus as the D.C. Metrorail system had notbeen built. Without a car, the bus ride stretched out interminably. Travel timeproved less a barrier than the social climate she encountered.
“Yes, it was only 15 miles, but it was like going to the DeepSouth, culturally and otherwise,” Green explained. “It was a realeye-opener for me. The whole blackface thing with Gov. Northam in Virginia?That was nothing. We saw blackface all the time at College Park in the 70s, aland-grant university built by formerly enslaved people.”
At College Park, she also encountered the Pan Africanism of KwameTuré, the former Stokely Carmichael. “He made regular visits out there andwould encourage us to be active and to fight injustice. We were the ones whofought for tenure for Black professors, for African American studies programs,and for the establishment of the Nyumburu Cultural Center, which provides aphysical space for meetings and activities and is still there today.”
“African Americans are struggling to deal with policebrutality, voter suppression, gentrification, and access to health care … sogetting them to turn their attention to the census takes time andcommitment.”
While earning her master’s degree in Urban Planning and UrbanAffairs at Washington University in St. Louis, Green had her first prolongedencounter with “reams and reams of census data.” Job opportunitiesbrought her back home where she worked for a few organizations before beinghired by the D.C. Department of Public Works. It was a sprawling agency thatGreen recalls “was responsible for almost anything in the city withwheels, from public transportation to trash collection” before its dutieswere parceled out in a city government reorganization. Most of her time was spentworking out of the mayor’s executive office. She served under Mayors MarionBarry and Sharon Pratt Kelly.
A mentor encouraged her to apply for openings at the Department ofCommerce during its recruitment drive to staff the 2000 Census.
“I left a full-time job at the District government to jointhe Census Bureau as a temporary employee in 1997,” Green said.
The practice of bringing former temporary workers aboard after adecennial year is not unusual, those workers’ skills and performance havingbeen subject to evaluation by Census Bureau staff who can then make full-timejob offers to the best prospects.
Green is a veteran of three censuses. “I worked on the run-upto the 2000 Census; through the 2010 Census; and for the run-up for the 2020Census when I left the Bureau in 2017, and I’m still working on 2020 issueswith the National Urban League.”
“African Americans are struggling to deal with policebrutality, voter suppression, gentrification, and access to health care,”she observed, “so getting them to turn their attention to the census takestime and commitment. But when you look at the issue of Black men being countedwhere they are incarcerated instead of where they reside, and how that affectspolitical representation and the electoral process, what we at the NationalUrban League call prison-based gerrymandering, and then you also count theper-person census dollars lost to their communities because, again, that moneystays within the communities not their own where they are imprisoned, we cannotremain silent.”
Green still bristles as she talks about the first census in 1790when African Americans were not counted as full human beings – Native Americansnot counted at all. And she has found, within an analysis of the 1860 Censusdata – and, due to the Civil War, the last census that recorded a captivepopulation – names and information on some of her forbears in North Carolina.She knows full well, however, that most Africans Americans won’t be asfortunate in their quest for family, kinship, and identity.
“Instead of being defiant and not participating in thecensus, be defiant and let America know we’re still here,” Greeninveighed.
Looking to the other side of the 2020 Census, Green envisions more time with children, grandchildren, and, she said, quite frankly, “I’m trying to be on somebody’s beach.”
Khalil Abdullah is a contributor for Ethnic Media Services. This story is one in a series of Ethnic Media Services profiles of leading advocates for the 2020 Census.