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Tuesday, September 12, 2000
The Chatanooga Times & Free Press
By Carolyne Park

Whitfield Praised for Latino Inclusion
in Georgia`s Census

DALTON, Ga. -- Whitfield County set an example for the state and the nation through the community`s efforts during Census 2000.

That is why members of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, in its first post-Census meeting held in Atlanta Monday, heard testimony from two local census officials.

Phyllis Stephens, vice president of Community Services for the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce, and Rafael Sanhueza-Bazaes, executive director of Centro Latino Inc., participated in the meeting via video conference from Dalton State College.

Census representatives from Atlanta and Valdosta, Ga., also participated in the conference.

"I think Dalton is the future, to some extent, of many of our communities in the state and the nation," said Joe Whitley, congressional appointee to the Monitoring Board, which has four members named by Congress and four by President Clinton. "Dalton defies any stereotype," he said.

In the South, which has a reputation for being "married to the past," Dalton has set an example in looking toward the future, Mr. Whitley said. The city has experienced a lot of change with a constant influx of immigrants coming to take advantage of plentiful jobs in the area`s thriving carpet industry. Dalton has been very proactive in addressing that change. "There is a positive feeling in Dalton toward the immigrant community," he said. Steps taken to reach out to that segment of the city`s population for the census are a prime example.

Congressional co-chairman and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell said Georgia communities are cureently facing challenges that will soon be faced in cities throughout the nation, with the "waves and waves" of immigrants coming in. Latin American people, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians have all been historically under-represented, and reaching out to them is one of the biggest challenges of the census, he said.

For its first post-census meeting, the board chose to meet in Georgia because of the efforts made here. "We knew that the challenge that we are working on throughout the country... would be manifest in Georgia," Mr. Blackwell said.

He said the state also set an example for the rest of the country through strong cooperation at the state and local levels. "Georgia is a leader in that regard," he said. The accuracy of the census count will be enhanced through the "old-fashioned, community-based" organization that served as the foundation for the effort, he said.

Gilbert Casellas, presidential co-chairman of the board, said Georgia`s high response rate to this year`s census was significant because it is the state that has had the largest funding loss because of an inaccurate census count in 1990 -- estimated at $272 million.
Overall, Georgia had a 63 percent initial response rate to this year`s census, with a target rate of 70 percent. Murray County beat its 61 percent target rate with a response rate of 62 percent. Whitfield had a response rate of 57 percent, with a target rate of 65 percent, and Dalton had 58 percent from its target rate of 63 percent.

Ms. Stephens, with the chamber of commerce, said despite the aggressive census effort in Whitfield and Murray counties, the counts still missed many with post office boxes, apartments and some new developments.

However, extensive cooperation from local governments, local businesses and other civic agencies helped reach out to the area`s immigrant population. Ms. Stephens said efforts to educate residents about the importance of the census included a three-week, 1,080-spot radio ad campaign, eight billboards, magnetic signs displayed on the back of all school buses and local government vehicles, and various posters and banners in both English and Spanish that saturated the community.

There was little guidance to local officials on how to proceed with the census effort, which began in January of 1999, Ms. Stephens said. But cooperation throughout the community and the help of more than 350 volunteers helped. "We had to start from scratch," she said. "We knew our community so we adapted to our community."

This census is particularly important for the two counties because they are trying to get status as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, which would mean more governmental assistance, greater state representation, and greater attraction for new business and development, Ms. Stephens said.

The help of leaders in the area`s Latino community was a tremendous help, Ms. Stephens said. With the help of Centro Latino Inc., they were able to reach out to the immigrant population on a familiar level. Stressing the importance of the census to the provision of local services such as schools and health care, and the privacy of information gathered apart from law enforcement agencies, were also important.

Being counted is not a new thing to the Latino community, which face similar things in their own countries. "They were very proud to be counted," Ms. Stephens said.

Estimates of the Latino population in Whitfield and Murray counties range as high as 50,000. Initial results of census 2000 will not be in until December.

Mr. Sanhueza-Bazaes, with Centro Latino, also participated in the conference, and said that assistance from local media, and outreach census drives at area churches and schools also were key to reaching out to the Latino community. He estimated about 90 percent of the Latino community was counted.

Tracy-Ann Nelson, spokesperson for Gov. Roy Barnes` office, said such efforts were essential in overcoming the language and the fear factor in counting a segment of the population.

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