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Don’t Let Us Disappear From The Census Say Youth Contest Winners

At a time when San Francisco lags behind the statewide average in census response rates, youth artists and writers have a special message for those who have not yet filled out their forms: “Don’t let us disappear.” 

The young people spoke at a June 3 virtual awards celebration honoring winners of a Census contest for 14-21 year olds dubbed “Why My Family Counts.” The contest drew over 100 contestants working in several mediums, including watercolor, charcoal and pencil sketches, as well as poetry, essay, spoken word and video. The contest was designed to engage youth in the process of ensuring an accurate census count.

The celebration opened with a panel of civic leaders and census experts who drew direct connections between young people insisting on being counted and nationwide protests over racist violence.

 “Our communities of color and particularly our black community are in pain,” noted Adrienne Pon, Director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Community Affairs which sponsored the contest. “Today’s event is about more than an art contest.  It’s about celebrating the voices and creativity of our youth who choose to express themselves … in ways that give us reasons to hope that tomorrow will be a better day, that black lives matter, that we ALL count.”

Currently, San Francisco has a response rate of 58% compared to the state average of 61%. The Bay Area overall has a 68% response rate. Last week, the county hit a plateau, registering an increase of only 1%, noted Robert Clinton, OCEIA’s project manager for the 2020 Census. Clinton noted that tracts of the city which reported high rates of COVID-19 infections also had low census participation rates, as did neighborhoods with the lowest income levels.   

Clinton said that the census “is one of the many tools that our federal government has to make us seen as a people but also to erase us as a people.” He referenced the long lengths of time people wait on the phone to reach a census operator as well as limited language options.

“The language of the census doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to people who are limited English proficient who are under educated or who have been marginalized in many other ways,” Clinton said.

Stephanie Kim, Director of United Way Bay Area, described the census as a tool of empowerment that “gives communities a say in who leads the political institutions that have the power to protect or to harm us.”

“Our communities deserve to thrive, not just survive. The same racism that permeates our justice system and sanctions police brutality also has robbed many black communities of the resources they need and deserve,” said Kim.

David Tucker, a census expert with the state complete count committee, pointed out that since 1980 California’s black population has had a below average participation rate. “We need to use this opportunity that we are under siege for social injustice to speak out. While I know we are getting exhausted, I am encouraged and excited by the messages you are sending out to your families and friends. The census is the thread that binds us all.”

Sonny Le, a specialist with the  Census Bureau, announced that the Census Bureau wants to activate youth leaders who could become census enumerators in their own communities. Le, who  grew up as a refugee from Vietnam in a Tenderloin apartment with three other families, noted that  “For me, the census is  personal. Some of my relatives are still facing the same problems of access and services I did in the 1980s.”  

Youth speakers followed the census advocates with personal stories echoing the importance of the census as a tool of visibility and empowerment.   Angelo Gerard Ubas, 14, said “I  painted a family of birds standing on a tree branch looking at the city skyline which was blurry. I know the census doesn’t count animals…but the census will sharpen the image of the city, of who lives here, and help government know what they have to do to improve.”

Maygie Li, 21, said her family immigrated from China and moved to Montana where her grandparents helped build the railway. She is currently a student at California College of Arts. In drawing the face of  a woman etched against a map of Native lands in Montana, she aimed to uplift an invisible population, and show “how we are all connected and need to be counted.”

Elijah Ladeki, 18, recited his poem entitled “Counted Out” which he wrote “as an opportunity to help my community.” The poem, excerpted here, describes “all my life” living in housing projects.  “I will look  at my single mother and wonder why she is stressed/I can’t miss out trying to give us a mention/It’s been way too long putting our rights on layaway.”  

Jesse Martin, 15, shared his video of a Thanksgiving meal celebrating his large family which he calls “a mix of different ethnicities which are the foundation of San Francisco. If we don’t get counted, we get silenced.” 

Bobbi Brown, 21, recited her tribute to the 2010 census, “No one should disappear/Everyone should count/community and fear/that out/2020 Census include all of mine …”

For full texts and paintings by these and other winners, please go to https://ethnicmediaservices.org/myfamilycounts/







Don’t Mess With Texas!

The changing face of Texas

Asian Americans are the fourth largest and the fastest growing ethnic group in Texas, but a census delay could leave them out of the reckoning in the final census count.

Since 2006, Texas – the second largest state in the union – has been adding 1000 people a day to its population count says Dr. Lila Valencia of the Texas Demographic Center.

At an EMS tele-briefing on May 20 to understand what the delayed census count means for Texas and its immigrant population, Dr. Valencia pointed out that Texas now is the second most populous state in the country after California.

Domestic and international migration have contributed to the population explosion, she said, but, non-whites and minorities make up a significant proportion of the evolving demographic.

While 26% of the population are from non-white backgrounds (53% are of Hispanic origin), Asian Americans are the fourth largest and the fastest growing ethnic group in Texas.

Migration patterns show that the ‘face of the Texas immigrant is changing,” notes Dr. Valencia, with about 19% of new immigrants now arriving from Asian countries.

How the delay impacts Texas

Earlier in April, the US Census Bureau announced that they would delay operations till end October, a move that experts say will worsen the challenge for minorities trying to self-respond to the census. Studies show that self-response rates are lower for people of color due to economic hardships – pay gaps, poverty rates, and lack of insurance contribute to reduced civic engagement among minorities. The delay will exacerbate the undercount in low response populations says Katie Martin Lightfoot, a census community engagement coordinator at CPPP.

Working families, many from minority communities, rely on resource programs such as workforce assistance and healthcare which are funded by data derived from the census.

But, in the COVID era, many of these low response, hard to count families may be lost to an undercount perpetrated by the proposed delay.

Though more than half of households have self-responded to the census in Texas, the remainder of non-respondents are located in hard-to-reach counties that include children (under 5s), renters and non-English speakers in their ranks.

No longer can the census rely on enumerators knocking to doors to make sure that non-responders are included in the count.

Instead, outreach efforts will have to be reinvented due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, because in a pandemic with an extended deadline, hard to reach communities remain harder to count.

What’s at stake for Texas and its minorities?

The delay means losing momentum, potential funding and the safety net that these communities depend on for political representation, quality of life and public health and human services.

An undercount means that 300 million will be lost per year and “that’s a conservative estimate,” says Martin Lightfoot.

Fast growing counties and minority communities need representation; a delay could adversely affect their chances of being included in the 2020 Census, getting critical federal dollars and having a voice on the national stage.

“The count still matters for Texas,” she added.

What Texans are doing about it

Census champions are learning to “pivot and rethink,” as traditional activities and strategies are being redesigned and redeployed to beat restrictions caused by the pandemic, say experts on the EMS panel.

Increasingly, the message to stand up and be counted is being entrusted to ‘trusted messengers”  embedded in communities across the country.

For example, the Census Bureau is delegating messaging to local media and nonprofit organizations, especially ethnic media outlets serving minority audiences.  Media consumption is up and people across these communities are getting their news and looking for answers from media sources they trust.

In a fitting example, India Currents was selected by The United Way of California to disseminate culturally sensitive census messages to its Indian American audience. The hope is to reach the traditionally undercounted – for example, households with seniors, children or undocumented residents – using non-traditional methods to achieve a fair and accurate count.

A ‘Pivot and Change‘ strategy

In Texas, nonprofit organizations are innovating and mobilizing to get out the count. The Census Bureau’s announcements about delays have caused confusion in some communities, so it’s critical to reinforce the message that the ‘Census is still on’ says community organizer Chris Valdez of Houston in Action.

In some cases, people in rural areas do not have mail delivered, and as the census does not deliver to PO boxes, many of them have not received the census forms or even heard a census message.

New response efforts have dramatically altered the way that message is being delivered. The response is being built around a multi-pronged digital effort involving social media, radio and TV, and empowering local leaders and trusted messengers – faith-based institutions and school districts to get the message out.

New outreach campaigns now feature ‘virtual activations’ like webinars and online Instagram Live parties to engage people nationally, attract and educate the younger generation and draw their parents in. In one such live event, the social justice organization Muslim Women For held a free Census Party on Instagram Live with ‘DJ Kiran and the Justice for Muslims Collective’ to “fill out census questionnaires in real time, answer your questions and jam out.”

The NCBCP Unity Diaspora Coalition which includes partners like The National Urban League organized a social media initiative called Count Me Black! to engage Black communities to focus on being counted in the 2020 decennial.

Weekly podcasts that highlight the importance of the census and signage at grocery stores are now integral elements of the campaign effort.

Among minority groups like MENA where limited English puts people at a disadvantage, communication about the census is being channeled through social media (texts and WhatsApp groups), and ethnic media outlets.

In-language phone banking efforts are helping seniors, especially those without internet access, to complete the form.  Schools are delivering census information with their school lunches.

Mosques and Islamic centers are holding events, once a week online programs and other ethnic media broadcasts, as well as food banks, to promote the census.

Civic engagement efforts include a get out the count campaign competition with a $1000 prize.

Nabila Mansoor of Empowering Communities Initiative  says that around 1.7 Asian Americans  have been undercounted for decades putting families, communities and neighborhoods at a disadvantage.

Empowering minority communities to participate  in the census  is a challenge that must be met,  or Texans will be living the consequences of an undercount.

The old school census outreach program has created a digital divide between people who enjoy seamless broadband connections and disadvantaged people in communities of color who have limited or no Internet access.

The new style census communication outreach is narrowing that gap .

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.


Image credit: Glen Carrie on Unsplash