As Census 2020 rolls out, community groups seek to turn ‘panic into power’

By Jon Funabiki

Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia is a writer, poet and activist who describes herself as a “poverty scholar” because she and her mother used to live on the streets.

She has a pointed message for both journalists and U.S. Census bureau officials concerned about how so-called hard-to-count demographic groups may get overlooked by—or simply choose to evade—the 2020 U.S. Census.

“I don’t trust corporate or independent media because our stories are told about us, without us,” said Gray-Garcia at a media briefing organized recently by Renaissance Journalism. “I don’t know that my (Census) information won’t become a part of a body of information that is going to further enhance my criminalization, incarceration or citation, the way it happens every day.”

In just a few words, Gray-Garcia crystalized two themes–trust and oppression–that frequently came up during the Feb. 28 program that brought together journalists, Census representatives and community leaders. The daylong conversation sparked rich insights and reflections about the backgrounds of immigrants, Muslims, American Indians, the homeless, rural residents, and others who may get undercounted for one reason or another.

Census Bureau representatives stressed that the count–conducted every 10 years–is important because the data shapes the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding for more than 100 programs–Medicaid, Head Start, supplemental nutrition, etc.–as well as the number of congressional seats allocated to each state. With funding and political power on the line, California and local governments are investing millions of dollars for outreach activities designed to persuade residents to participate.

“The Census is a family portrait, and if you’re not counted, you’re left out,” said Sonny Lê, a partnership specialist with the Census Bureau.

Joshua Green, a Census Bureau media specialist, stressed that data about individuals is confidential and cannot be divulged to ICE, local police or other agencies, and yet speaker after speaker pointed out that many people have direct experiences that cause them to mistrust the government. Some experiences, such as the federal government’s harsh treatment of American Indians, the separation of their children, and the seizing of tribal lands stretch back two centuries. Multiple speakers pointed to today’s raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers as reason enough not to trust the government.

“The ICE crackdowns are creating more fear,” said Reina Canale of California Rural Legal Assistance. “It makes it scary for people to get involved. It brings back fears of ICE coming in and tearing up families.”

“Of course, immigrants are understandably skeptical of the government asking for their information,” said Aliza Kazmi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “We have to understand people’s day-to-day experiences.”

“There is no question that our democracy is under siege,” added Hong Mei Pang of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Since Trump’s inauguration, we are being terrorized. The play book of the administration is to stoke fears in the immigrant population.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that people who live in tents and make-shift shelters are justifiably skeptical because they are so often rousted by police and have their property confiscated. This year, the Census Bureau hopes many residents will respond to the survey via online services, but Friedenbach noted that this will be difficult for many homeless people. “We have to do one-on-one contact,” she said.

The 2020 Census creates a dilemma for local organizations that recognize that an accurate count could lead to valuable dollars for programs that help their communities. “For the past years, we have told immigrants not to open their doors to ICE,” said Pang. “But now we have Census enumerators planning to come. It’s an equity and inclusion issue.” For Pang, the challenge is: “How do we transform this panic into power?” She said Asian immigrants who have children are responding positively to the argument that the Census data helps the schools and other programs receive their “fair share” of government dollars. But she said the message must be given in a culturally sensitive way by people who are trusted by the community.

An example of this is how, after years of neglect, the Census Bureau has finally developed materials specifically for Pacific Islander communities, said John Ena of the Samoan Community Development Center.

A highlight is the slickly produced music video, “2020 Census This is Me,” featuring prominent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander singers and dancers, including Eno with the center’s choir. “We’re proud to see that they’re acknowledging our communities,” said Ena. “It’s OK to be counted because all the power comes back to you.”

For many of the journalists in the room, the concerns seemed to mirror the news media’s challenge to build trust with the communities they serve. For some, this translates into experimenting with new reporting practices and trying to redefine news from the people’s perspective. “Don’t think you know what the people want–ask them,” advised Madeleine Bair, founder of El Timpano, a local reporting lab in East Oakland. “People are tired of attacks on the community, that makes them turn away from the news. They want information that helps them take action.”

Given the hostile anti-immigrant environment, people are behaving rationally if they distrust the Census, said Edgar Avila of KBBF, a bilingual public radio station in Santa Rosa, where many undocumented immigrants live and work. The station is developing a program to help immigrants understand that participating in the Census is in their interest.

“We have to tell them that this is an exception,” Avila said. “This is a loophole that can actually help you.”

Watch our video of the Census 2020 News Briefing: