06/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tales From the Census Trail: Lara's Bit

I applied for the Census Bureau several months ago, shortly after Christmas. I had settled in Chicago after the holidays, hoping I'd find a place in the anti-human trafficking movement there. One organization told me they'd love to take me on but didn't expect to have the funding to hire anyone for at least two years. I applied to several non-profits, with no luck. I had taken the LSAT at the last minute, before realizing I'd already missed the application deadlines for this year. After that bungle, I set my sights lower by taking the Census Bureau skills test alone in a church preschool, an experience that affirmed I could at least read a map.

KT and I have applied for a variety of jobs, but we waited all spring for word from the Census Bureau. After displaying my alphabetizing prowess in the skills test, I was told by my local office that I'd be a shoe-in for an early hire but that everything depended on the needs of the particular residential district in which I had applied. Apparently, my district didn't need me. The feeling was mutual, I guess, since I ended up moving to a different neighborhood shortly thereafter, giving me a shot at a new district.

I registered myself in my new area and again was told I was "at the top of the list." But still no call. Like spurned lovers, KT and I complained to each other about the calls we never got from the Census. "What is wrong with us?" we moaned to each other. "Why doesn't the Census want us?" Last week, I was out doing cold calls in a far suburb. It was one of the first beautiful days of Spring, and I had already nailed one sale. Since I loathe sales and purport to be anti-commercial, I was quite satisfied with my mediocre performance, even if it doomed me to a meager commission. Faced with the choice of reciting an embarrassingly gimmicky sales pitch to total strangers for an entire afternoon or enjoying the sunshine, I'll always choose the latter. Channeling Ferdinand the bull, I plunked down under a tree on someone's lawn, played with some twigs and leaves (hope the homeowners weren't freaked out when they discovered my twig-town on their front lawn), and decided to give KT a ring.

We exchanged stories about our respective job searches and commiserated about how the Census Bureau wouldn't show either of us the love. In the middle of our conversation, KT's mother interrupted to tell her she had a phone call. I heard KT try to brush her mom off, saying she was already on the phone, but after some muffled talk she asked me to hang on so she could take the call. As she took the other phone, KT broke out Katherine Boyle, veteran professional. Her voice suddenly urbane, she informed the other person on the line that yes, she was still interested in the position. Ooo, a job offer! I was giddy with the vicarious thrill of hearing someone else obtain employment. As it turns out, while we were in the middle of griping about not getting jobs from the U.S. Census Bureau, they called KT to offer her one.

When the Bureau called me the next day, I was thrilled at the prospect of trading door-to-door sales for door-to-door Census work. I'm excited to participate in this important nationwide tally, and I hope my participation in the Census gives me an insider-perspective on enigmas such as, "In this day and age, why is the word 'Negro' included as part of the race question on the 2010 Census form?" It is a question at the forefront of so many people's minds that the Census Bureau posted its official answer to the question on its own blog, The Whole Story: Real People, Real Questions, Real Answers. The Census Bureau claims the wording of the race category is based on research that showed a segment of the population still identifies itself as "Negro." Interesting, since there is another segment of the population that identifies itself as gay but are still fighting to "Queer the Census" (see here also) and see their category listed on the form. The best the Bureau says about the bad-vibe-term "Negro," is that it apologizes for offending anyone and is testing its removal from the form so it may or may not still be included on the 2020 form. Is that really the whole story, fair Bureau?

In his interview last Wednesday with my favorite anchor, Jim Lehrer, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves didn't touch the race category controversy, though he did give a nostalgic response to the question of counting immigrants by telling the story of the Census' birth in 1790 and praising the founding fathers' insight about our "country of immigrants." I hope to explore this and many more issues as my training as a Census Bureau Crew Leader begins.