Engaging the Census through Dialogue: A Campus Example from St. Cloud State University

February 3, 2020

Campuses are increasingly using dialogue and deliberation to address complex public issues with both students and the broader community. The 2020 Census has proven an issue well-suited to this approach given the questions of mistrust and privacy that travel alongside the census’s far-reaching implications for resource allocation, research, and political representation. Beginning in 2018, Iowa & Minnesota Campus Compact have been supporting campuses in organizing dialogues on such issues through the Constitution Day Dialogue Initiative. In 2019, we partnered with students at Metropolitan State University to develop “We All Count. But Will We All Be Counted?” a census dialogue guide.  As we learn from campuses’ experiences, we’d like to share those examples so we can all learn and deepen our impact together.

Here are five takeaways from St. Cloud State University’s work on the 2020 Census with a focus on deliberative dialogue as one key strategy, among others. Thanks to the SCSU community for doing this work, with particular thanks to Beth Knutson-Kolodzne, associate director of the Department of Campus Involvement, and Marla Kanengieter-Wildeson, faculty in the Department of Communication Studies, for their leadership and reflections.

    1. Use events as anchors for ongoing programming, rather than as individual one-offs.
      • SCSU launched the year’s census programming on Constitution Day (9/17/19) with a student information session and a mini-dialogue, followed by a series of dialogues throughout the year, along with other programming.
      • Knutson-Kolodzne brought Census Bureau recruiters to campus in the fall, raising awareness of the many well-paying temporary jobs now available with the census. 
      • In December, the campus hosted a dialogue and training for faculty and staff in December with information on how to engage the census in curricular and cocurricular settings in ways that align with tenure and promotion requirements, thanks to work by Adrienne Falcon and the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
      • In January, they hosted a training for faculty and staff during convocation days.
      • On February 25, 2020, they will host census dialogue open to the full campus and St. Cloud community, with invitations extended to the mayor’s office, police, city council members, and others. Kanentgieter-Wildeson’s Theories of Persuasion students will be moderators at the event after learning the ropes through training in her class.
      • On February 27, 2020, they will also work with the US Census Bureau staff based in MN to host a Census Open Innovation Lab (COIL) event – which engages students in creating messaging and promoting the Census among Hard to Count populations and areas.
    2. Build bridges across campus and community.
      • Many of the activities are possible because of partnership across student life & development and academic affairs, including co-sponsorships with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL).
      • They’ve been strategic about engaging multiple messengers: CETL can inform faculty, the VP of student affairs can reach key staff, and student government has been reaching out to students. 
      • They’ve also collaborated beyond the bounds of campus. SCSU Residential Life is now connecting with the St. Cloud City Complete Count Committee to support a complete census count across St. Cloud. 
      • Knutson-Kolodzne and Kanengieter-Wildeson shared resources with the St. Cloud Volunteer Committee to help mobilize local community-based organizations to get out the count. Community organizations have been particularly interested in this Counting for Dollars resource that outlines how federal resources for key programs like SNAP and Pell Grants are allocated based on census counts.
    3. Build skills for work, life, and citizenship.
      • Panels can be a good fit when you want to hear from experts or people who have lived experience of an issue, but that’s really different from getting people to engage with one another that is relevant to them in some way.
      • Students are hungry for conversation about real issues that impact their lives and families. They want to talk, and they want to be engaged in practicing careful listening. 
      • Deliberation builds civic capacities that are important to employers. They want to interview students who can articulate what they know and how they know it. Practicing showing up in public through dialogue exercises this muscle.
      • A bit on distinguishing dialogue, deliberation, and discussion: Dialogue and deliberation both create a structure for conversation, which is what makes it different from informal discussion. Whereas deliberation is about weighing trade-offs or ways to approach a problem, dialogue is more an exploration, asking ourselves, “What do I think about that?”
    4. Connect the dots between voting and census participation.
      • This year’s census programming is part of a larger commitment to civic learning and engagement at St. Cloud State University. Kanengieter-Wildeson does ongoing work with deliberative dialogue including using the format to explore immigration in the St. Cloud community in partnership with the Economics Department. They’ve offered lunch n’ learn sessions for students on free speech and the political process, and next year, the campus plans to build on this year’s efforts by transitioning to dialogues on voting in the fall of 2020, possibly adapting prompts from the Living Room Conversations “To Vote or Not to Vote” guide
    5. Don’t recreate the wheel.
      • St. Cloud State University laid the groundwork for its census program by participating in the 2020 Higher Education Census Planning Institute organized by Adrienne Falcon of Metropolitan State University, Debby Walzer-Kuntz of Carleton College, Lena Jones of Minneapolis College, and Sinda Nichols of Minnesota Campus Compact. The institute included census training by the State Demographer’s office, planning time, and mini grants made possible by Bringing Theory to Practice. All of these partners and others enable the work.