Dr. Claire Nelson has spent the past 16 years working on behalf of Caribbean-Americans on issues ranging from education and advocacy to public policy.
Now, as the 2010 Census draws closer, she wants to ensure their voices are counted.
Nelson, who is founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based Institute of Caribbean Studies, will serve as a national profile partner of the U.S. Census Bureau to increase participation among Caribbean and Haitian communities.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in individual community interests and we lose sight of the bigger picture,” said the Jamaican-born Nelson, who will act as a liaison between the U.S. Census and
Caribbean and Haitian communities. “While we all want to have individual messages, we also have to bring all of our voices to the table.”
Nelson said her partnership with the U.S. Census is the first of its kind.
“We were the first Caribbean organization to reach out to the Census in that way,” she said. “They see me as a bridge for all immigrants, not just from a Caribbean point of view. As a nation of hyphenated people, how do we tell that story? It's a wider issue of America going forward.”
Census numbers, tallied every 10 years, determine how money is directed for education, healthcare, housing, transportation and other public programs.
During the 2000 Census count, fewer than 40 percent of questionnaires mailed to high immigrant populations were returned. In Florida, an estimated 190,000 people were not counted.
Nelson is hoping to correct misconceptions about the U.S. Census that are prevalent in Caribbean-American communities.
“Caribbean people have a reticence of answering questions,” she said.
“Documented or not, educated or not, it's a cultural thing of ‘I don't want to answer these questions. This notion of having a voice is not necessarily something they believe in. It's not ingrained in them. It requires a little bit more education about democracy."
The Institute of Caribbean Studies is a nonprofit established in 1993 dedicated to issues impacting Caribbean-Americans. It's billed as the first community organization in the D.C. area devoted to the successful inclusion of Caribbean-Americans in U.S. policies and the development of the Caribbean region. It has developed partnerships with several local and national organizations, including the NAACP, the African American Unity Caucus and the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce.
Nelson said she formed the organization so that people from the Caribbean could give an accurate portrayal of issues affecting their communities.
“Often times, pundits were talking about problems in the Caribbean basin, but I never heard from Caribbeans. I was wondering why we didn't have a voice,” Nelson said, explaining the inception of the organization.
“We are the ones who understand what is wrong at home and we needed to have a space where we could become more involved in U.S. policy. That's how we got started.”
In 2006, Nelson also worked with the Caribbean Heritage Organization to establish June as National Caribbean American Heritage Month – which earned her praise from President Barack Obama.
In a June 2007 letter he wrote to the Caribbean Heritage Organization, Obama, then an Illinois Senator, said: “I want to commend [Nelson] for her pioneering work. No one in this country has been more tireless – or more effective – in making the Caribbean-American community heard in Washington, D.C.”
The Institute of Caribbean Studies has also developed a network of more than 50 Caribbean-born elected officials who can provide insight from a local level.
Among them: State Rep. Hazelle Rogers.
“As we become more linked in to what is happening in Washington, we're plugging that information back into the fields,” Nelson said.
For more information about the Institute of Caribbean Studies, visit www.icsdc.org.