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Unpack the History of the Census at Brooklyn Historical Society

It happens once every 10 years, and it’s just a month away!

The Census is the largest non-wartime activity that America takes on, and so many things in our day-to-day life are determined by the data it collects—from how well-funded our local schools and public transportation system are, to how many representatives a state sends to Congress. 

The Census dates back to 1790 and has evolved over the centuries. The headquarters for the first Census was on Broadway in Manhattan. One hundred and eighty years later in 1970, Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley A. Chisholm put on an enumerator’s badge to show that the Census could benefit local communities once they were counted.

History also tells us that higher income and white residents have been overcounted by the Census. Low-income, Black and Latinx, older adults and young children, and people with disabilities are most at-risk of being undercounted. In New York state, Brooklyn is considered the hardest-to-count county. 

For Census 2020, we’re partnering with Brooklyn Historical Society on Unpacking the Census, a series examining the incredible impact the Census has had on shaping our nation, and affirms how important it is that we ensure all Brooklynites are counted this time around. 

Here’s a look at just a few of the events in the series. Sign up for BHS’s newsletter for updates and additions to the schedule: 

Unpacking the Census: Melissa Nobles and Why Being Counted Counts: On March 26th at 6:30 p.m., Melissa Nobles, MIT Professor of Political Science, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and author of the book Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics, and FiveThirtyEight census reporter Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, will have a conversation about what being counted means, how census information is used, and the ramifications of not participating.

The Fight for a Fair Count: Keeping the 2020 Census on Track: On March 30th at 6:30 p.m., Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Adriel Cepeda Derieux of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project; and Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, will have an important conversation about the efforts to guide the 2020 Census Count safely through troubled waters. Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic, leads this discussion.

Adventures of a Census Detective: or, Learning to Love Data for the Secret Stories that It Holds: On March 31st at 6:30 p.m., Julie Golia, curator of Brooklyn Historical Society's exhibitions Waterfront and Taking Care of Brooklyn; Dan Bouk creator of the website, Census Stories, USA and associate professor of history at Colgate University; and Kubi Ackerman, curator of Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, will look at how historians and artists sleuth through census data to paint pictures of the past and present day.

Hyphenates – Americans’ Mixed Identities and the Census of the Future: On April 2nd at 6:30 p.m.Maria Torres-Springer, Vice President for US Programs at the Ford Foundation and former head of NYC Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, NYC Economic Development Corporation, and NYC Department of Small Business Services; journalist Meredith Talusan, whose upcoming memoir Fairest describes her experiences navigating intersections of gender, race, and other identities; and Lurie Daniel-Favors, Interim Executive Director and General Counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, will explore who we are, how we classify ourselves, and ultimately who counts as American.

The Unscientific Science of Categorizing Race: On April 6, at 6:30 p.m., Paul Schor, professor at the Université Paris Diderot and author of the ground-breaking book, Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation, will lead a fascinating examination of the slippery business of racial labeling, and what the census’ wildly changing racial categories reveal.

Census 2020

Mars Ikeda

Communications Intern
Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley A. Chisholm put on an enumerator’s badge to show that the Census could benefit local communities once they were counted.