Community Engagement For Impactful Public Health

Community for public health concept
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Community engagement is at the core of good public health. Every successful public health project I’ve been a part of has had community voice at the core of every aspect of the work. Leading with community voice assures that equity is not only a discussion point, but a value.

In a project to assure a fair and accurate census count in diverse Michigan communities, I collaborated with local organizations to reach the hardest-to-reach populations and managed a project that improved community voice and power.

Background: The Census in Michigan 

Everyone Counts, Everyone Wins. That was the message of the nonprofit community campaign that was put in place in late 2018 to assure Michigan not only achieved a fair and accurate count in the 2020 Census but reached (and counted!) the hardest-to-count community members.

Typically, the once-a-decade count of the U.S. population conducted by the federal government undercounts many people in our communities: people of color, people who have experienced incarceration, people who are undocumented, and people who are low-income. Missing these populations is a huge miss for communities, as census counts determine community power and funding for vital programs.

The hypothesis of the Be Counted Michigan project was: leaning on trusted, local organizations to help educate people about the census and provide opportunities for them to take it would mean higher numbers and a more accurate count, and, therefore, more funding and a stronger voice for local communities. When communities can come together in a project like this, it means empowerment, involvement, and a win for everyone.

Key Project Elements 

This state-wide campaign included four key elements:

  1. Focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  2. Leveraging nonprofits and community-based organizations as trusted voices in diverse communities; having these organizations leading projects and advisory councils.
  3. Providing grant funding (distributed in each county) for local nonprofits, coalitions, neighborhood associations, colleges, and cities and towns.
  4. Creating a marketing campaign that centered around communications that were culturally sensitive and reflective of the communities where the work was being done. This was accomplished through online, print, social media, TV, and radio communication.

Barriers and Equity Gaps 

Many barriers already existed that prevented fair census counts and access to being counted. It had already been shown in every previous census that communities were undercounted, particularly communities of color and low-income areas. These barriers were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased government distrust, and the possibility of the addition of a question that asked about U.S. citizenship (a question that had not been included in the census in decades).

As a result, multiple Michigan counties were at risk of being undercounted. Further, this was the first census that would be online-first, meaning those without internet access or those who were transient were at risk of not being counted. All of these factors made for a challenging environment that took creativity to overcome.

Local Highlight: Great Lakes Bay Region

The Great Lakes Bay Region (comprising Saginaw, Bay, Midland, and Isabella counties) sought to address the many barriers and assure its communities were counted. This region experienced the most community engagement around the census that had ever been seen previously. Unique ideas flourished and community members were engaged with the ultimate goal of reaching the hardest-to-reach neighbors.

One example of the excellent outreach that took place as part of this project is in the city of Saginaw. Multiple community partners came together to throw the block party of all block parties. Grant dollars covered a mobile census unit (a city bus, wrapped with a locally designed Be Counted! logo and a DJ on the bus spinning hits). The bus was equipped with volunteers and iPads and went to neighborhoods all over the city, providing an opportunity for community members to take the census and ask questions. The party continued at City Hall, where grant funds covered food, music, games, and prizes, along with more opportunities to be counted in the census and interact with local celebrities.

Thousands of people were counted that day, with volunteers celebrating major victories and inroads with communities. It was rad to see. This is one example of over 50 grant projects in the Great Lakes Bay Region and shows how communities came together to reduce barriers, improve community knowledge, and work together for a positive outcome.


Michigan finished eighth in the country for census self-response rate and exceeded its 2010 self-response rate. Unfortunately, despite achieving a higher count than expected, a seat in the House of Representatives was lost. But what was gained is of huge importance. This project showed how to work with communities, how to engage local organizations, and how to build something together to make sure everyone is included.

The gains in trust that were made in local communities can’t be counted. People felt part of something and empowered to push for improvements. Networks of partners grew and developed, and this project laid the groundwork for similar endeavors going forward. It showed that when communities are valued and engaged in culturally sensitive ways, long-term and sustainable changes can happen. Now that is good public health!

Man on laptop enjoys summer while working full time

There you are: sitting on the beach, covered in sunscreen, reading your favorite book, drinking your favorite drink under the cool shade of an umbrella. Life doesn't get any better than this. Suddenly, a door slams, a phone rings, a printer turns on. You jolt back into consciousness. You're at work, sitting in your cubicle, without even a hint of sunshine streaming in from outside.

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