In 2010, I was 27 years old and had just embarked upon a new chapter in my life: a Master’s degree program, my recent marriage to the love of my life, and a new career. I was not, nor had I ever been, truly concerned with issues related to politics or my own government. I failed to realize how important my involvement in issues that impact our everyday lives is. The time-consuming, tedious business of participation in a census did not register to me as an important aspect of my busy life. The census seemed insignificant at the time compared to what I considered my priorities.
In the decade since the 2010 census, I have learned the vital importance of civic engagement for myself, my Okie Muslim community, and for each and every individual regardless of ethnic or faith background.
A friend of mine once told me, “if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you are probably on the menu.” Another friend took it a different route and related that “if you don’t have a seat at the table, then bring your own chair.” I believe when it comes it minority involvement, especially that of Oklahoma Muslims, at all levels of government both statements are quite accurate.
Prior to establishing the Oklahoma Muslim Day the Capitol six years ago, my community had very little presence and minimal voice in state government. Evidence of that can be seen in the 2010 passing of the anti-Shariah amendment to the State Constitution, the rise in anti-Muslim hate rhetoric from the likes of former Rep. John Bennett, and the banning of an Imam from giving a prayer on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Now, with a regular presence and increased engagement with our elected officials, I can say with certainty that Oklahoma Muslims have removed themselves from the menu, pulled up a chair, and found a seat at the table — even when some people went out of their way to prevent us from doing so. We have found our voice. We are fully taking part in the fundamental rights that define what it means to be a citizen of this great nation. We have learned that we can take pride equally in being American and Muslim, combining the best of what it means to be both to bring benefit to our state and country.
When I got the invitation to be a part of the Governor’s Complete Count Committee for the 2020 Census I did not hesitate to accept; in this opportunity, I saw a way to ensure that my community was represented and in this case, counted.
But why the census? What is the big deal? Why should people care, especially minorities that have felt marginalized for years in their own country?
The first reason is that participation in the 2020 Census is an extension of our civic engagement work over the years. To be civically engaged as a Muslim in Oklahoma means that you have to take any and every opportunity presented to you to participate and be recognized. We see it as our duty to participate as American citizens.
Secondly, the Census helps even the playing field in providing fair representation for each state. Census data is what ultimately determines representation in Congress, state legislatures, counties, school boards, and all electoral bodies that use geographically defined membership.
Third, the Census is safe and confidential. No citizenship question was added to the 2020 Census after being permanently blocked by federal judges. The answers we provide are shared with no one, not the FBI, IRS, ICE, or any other governmental agency.
Last, and perhaps most important, the Census data will determine how more than $675 billion in federal funds will be distributed to the states throughout the following decade. Given Oklahoma’s recent struggles with our budget deficit, loss of social services, and lack of education funding, every dollar counts. In fact, it is estimated that each person counted is worth $1,675 in federal funds per year or a staggering $16,750 over the next decade – not a number to be taken lightly.
The truth of the matter is that when everyone counts, everyone wins. This is true of all communities, but exponentially more important for people that are often times overlooked, attacked, and not given the respect we deserve in our own country. The table is expanding to reflect the diverse experiences and needs of our communities, and it is time for us all to take a seat.
Adam Soltani is the executive director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.