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December 21, 1999
She Has The Numbers
As she is about to light the cigarette, she gives in to her instincts. Her eyes sparkle as she calls over the bartender.
Could she post a Census 2000 poster, she asks him. The poster is asking for people to will help out in the Census, for $ 14 an hour -- nearly three times the minimum wage. The bartender is skeptical that anything will come of the poster. But Abichandani has made up her mind.
Another day, another scenario.
Abichandani is at the South Asian Youth Action's Annual Art Show in Elmhurst. As she maneuvers her way through the hustle and bustle of teen activity, she makes it clear that she wants to talk to the young boys and girls about Census 2000. Many of them are not sure what it is and who is going to benefit from it.
But Furhan Ahmad seems to know something. He had heard the census was hiring people "to tally up other people". He isn't completely clear what it is about but he is prepared to learn about the census -- and he could also help.
"We are trying not only to recruit the children but also their parents," Abichandani notes.
Abichandani, now four months into her job as census co-ordinator in New York, is aware that many people do not understand the importance of the census, and that many illegal immigrants are afraid their status will be reported to the immigration authorities.
It is her task to assure them that the census information regarding immigration status and other related issues cannot be shared with any other government agency. The information gathered becomes anonymous statistics.
Abichandani will also have to assure them that undercounting will lead to serious and substantial cuts in federal and state money allotted to each city and town.
"Answering the census is the only way you can secure the federal funding for your kids, for your families, to the schools, the hospitals and community boards," says Abichandani. Often she addresses the South Asian community in English but she will also use Hindi, and maybe a few Bengali words.
"This is where the funding is going to come, from these numbers," she asserts.
Abichandani, who migrated to America from Bombay 15 years ago, is one of the more visible community activists in New York. She is involved with Census 2000 through an organization called Partnership Program of the Census, which is determined to make sure that every individual is counted.
In the last census millions of people were not counted either because they were afraid of the Census process or the Census takers ignored them. The American Bureau of Census started the Partnership Program to encourage the historically undercounted population, including immigrants, to participate in the process every 10 years.
As a partner specialist, 30-year-old Abichandani is responsible for the South Asian communities in the five boroughs of New York, the Long Island and the 10 counties in New Jersey that have a high concentration of immigrants from South Asia.
She goes to temples, mosques and churches to create awareness about the Census. Bars, schools, youth centers and community events are also a must for visitations.
Reaching out people comes naturally to Abichandani.
She has been active in half a dozen high-impact community organizations, including the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Association, the Youth Against Violence and the South Asian Women's Collective. A few years ago, she was also employed as the Fair Housing Specialist with Asian Americans For Equality, a non-profit group founded in 1974 which serves an estimated 20,000 immigrants in New York annually. Her tasks involved educating south Asian tenants about their rights and ensure that landlords did not exploit them.
Census 2000 is her biggest challenge.
As a social activist, there were times when she had confronted some of the more conservative members of the community.
Even before she took up the Census job, she knew she had to deal with some people she had argued and exchanged words. She was prepared for the challenge -- and she looked forward to it.
"But this is far important," she says. "We need to be counted first, we can argue later."
For more details about the census, check www.census.gov.
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