Brian Ettling
8 min readOct 14, 2020

Thoughts from a recent 2020 U.S. Census worker

Recently, I wrapped up my job as a U.S. Census Bureau Enumerator. This operation is closing out in the Portland OR area. It was quite an interesting adventure.

I took this job as my patriotic duty to help complete this once in a decade U.S Constitutional requirement to count all persons living in the U.S. to determine total population. This helps us have a better understanding of the demographics of our nation and then Congressional representation. Even more, the once a decade U.S. Census count determines local funding for schools, roads, hospitals, senior centers, parks, etc.

It is a requirement by law that all U.S. households participate in providing an accurate count of persons living in there household. However, very rarely to never is any person held criminally responsible for refusing to cooperate with the U.S. Census. Therefore, participation in the U.S. is ultimately voluntary.

My job from August 1st to today was knocking on the doors of residents to complete Census interviews for those folks who did not complete their Census questionaire mailed to their households last Spring. I could only politely ask for their help and cooperation. This made for an interesting job because I had no idea how I was going to be received once I knocked on someone’s door.

Many people were extremely helpful when I knocked at their doors, some even let me inside their homes. Others were extremely hostile and angry beyond any other behavior I had witnessed in my life.

This was an eye-opening experience for me because my previous job working for the U.S. government was when I was a seasonal park ranger at Everglades and Crater Lake National Parks from 2003–2017. In those jobs, most people were extremely thrilled and happy to see a park ranger. I felt like a Disney mascot at Disney World. I received so much love and adoration as a park ranger that it did seem a little artificial to me, even though I absolutely loved that job. It was the best job I ever had. However, I always felt like though that being a park ranger in a national park where most people tell you all day how much they love you is not how the real world operates. Therefore, I wanted to get other job experiences oustide of that when I left the seasonal park ranger life in 2017.

The rude and very nasty response I received from a number of individuals when I was very meekly requesting their help to complete a constitutionally Census beyond floored me. I never had a job where I had so many doors slammed in my face and individuals saying very nasty and ugly things to me. It stung bad and there was a number of times where I would go back to inside my car to cry my eyes out.

I will admit that I am a very sensitive person so the rejections really did weigh on my soul. People can say ‘It’s them no you,’ ‘don’t let it bother you,’ and ‘that’s the way people are.’ However, it still does not take the sting away.

I wished that more people could see that I am a human being, just like them. I am just trying to complete a job. That talking in a rude manner does hurt. I imagine that many of those folks were church going individuals too. I remember Mother Theresa once saying that ‘In every situation, we should think of an encounter with another person as Jesus meeting Jesus.’

I had amazing apartment managers who went out of their way to help me. Other apartment managers would be very hostile and non-cooperative. I never said it, but I wanted to say to some of these resistant apartment managers: ‘I live in this community and my wife and I sometime talk about moving to another apartment complex. Right now, your attitude is showing me that I would never want to live in this housing complex. As a potential renter, you are not selling me on your property.’

Another reason took this job because I love living in Portland OR and I care about my community, especially in NE Portland. I want the federal dollars going to schools, roads, hospitals, senior centers and parks flowing to my community. Thus, it hurt when people refused to cooperate. I would try to explain that a good Census count helps us locally with funding for their kids’ schools, the local hospitals when they need it in an emergency, our roads, senior centers, parks, etc. It was sad the people who just didn’t want to hear it when I would try to explain this to them.

Even more, the demographics of the United States and the Portland OR area are changing. We are moving towards a minority majority country. I believe strongly that Black Lives Matter, immigrants are to be celebrated, refugees are to be welcomed, migrant and undocumented workers are to be appreciated to the valuable work they contribute to society and they should be treated as citizens. I wanted to count as many people of color, immigrants, women, seniors, and non-citizens as possible to get the most accurate population count for the 2020 Census.

You would be surprised how many immigrants, refugees, and undocumented residents were very helpful and supportive of my work. Yet, it made me sad when people of color were distrustful of me. I don’t blame them at all because of the systematic racism and oppression in our country. I always tried to approach anyone I met with an open heart full of love. At the same time, I often wondered if the U.S. Census would have had more success with some people of color if an individual from their community who looked like them was engaging them. At the same time though, I think some of the people who were leery of me might have still been leery of a Census employee from their own community, thinking that Census employee is just a sell out to the system. It’s really tough to say. The bottom line is that sometimes we can become so suspicious of people we don’t know that we end up losing out to getting to know good people who genuinely do want to help us and look out for our best interests.

It’s a good challenge for all of us to be open to get to know and engage with people who don’t look, sound, or believe like we do. Love others, no matter who they are.

Finally, I wish more Americans thought through what it means to truly be a patriotic American. It’s not just waving the American flag, standing for the national anthem or The Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not just voting for your favorite political party every 2 to 4 years. It’s not just proclaiming your love for America out loud love to friends, on bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc. It’s not just listening to your favorite American political pundit to tell you how to think how America.

If you love America, it’s about voting in every election and supporting free & fair elections. It’s about rolling up your sleeve to get involved in political campaigns for candidates and issues that you care about. It’s about participating in your child’s school board meetings to make sure your child and all the children in your community are getting the best education. It’s making sure the local fire, police, social services departments have all the resources they need to serve out communities. At the same time, it’s holding public officials and police fully accountable when they trample upon the rights and freedoms of people of color, women, seniors, children, immigrants, and the most vulnerable of our society.

Loving America also means assisting and helping public servants like temporary U.S. Census employees, not slamming the doors on them, giving them hostile comments, or even threatening them with guns. Yes, public employees might show up at your door when you are eating dinner with your family, intensely working remotely at home with your job, putting your baby down for a nap, making dinner, trying to get home repairs done, etc. Yes, it’s frustrating when they ask for your help when you are in the middle of something else. We get that. We feel terrible encountering you in an awkward moment. At the same time though, sometimes we have hundreds of cases and we can’t return at a more convenient time for you.

For some of those individuals who did treat me in a very negative way, I never had any doubt that if I had been seriously injured or any reason in front of their home, they would have come running out to help me until the paramedics came. They would have dropped everything, including family dinner, making dinner, putting the baby down for a nap, a pressing task at their job, an important home repair, etc. to help a person in need. Completing that Census interview would have taken just a few minutes and they could have easily gotten back to that precious family time, making dinner, keeping their boss happy, getting their child to lay down for a nap, etc. Refusing to help a Census worker only meant that our computer system was going to log an unsuccessful attempt to interview a household resident. It meant we there then going to have to return to that residence probably another inconvenient time for that resident.

If you did take the time to read all of this, my challenge for you today and always is to love everyone. Yes, it is easy to love your family members, friends, celebrities, and people working in jobs that you admire, such as park rangers. All religion whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. all take about loving one another and welcoming the stranger.

If you are not religious but are patriotic, you can’t say you love America and then treat government workers in a demeaning way. If anything, this COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 taught us who the essential workers are (grocery store, truck drivers, EMTS, teachers, police, doctor’s office staff, etc). We have got to treat them like gold. They are risking their lives everyday so we can have the food and services that we want and need. Please be kind to people who are just trying to make a living. Even more, call out others around you when you see that they are not being kind.

Even if you are not American reading this, we are one human inter-related family. Our DNA is all basically the same. Do a DNA test and you will discover that we are all cousins going somewhere back up the human family tree lineage. We should be kind to each other no matter who a person is and where they live on the planet.

A wise person once said: ‘Be kind because everyone you meet is facing a hard battle.”

I also love the quote: ‘There is no greater wisdom than kindness.”

Thank you so much for reading this and allowing me to share these thoughts with you.

Brian Ettling

Originally from St. Louis MO. Brian Ettling now lives in Portland OR. He is a former seasonal national park ranger and now a climate change organizer and writer