CENSUS 2020: How can journalists and community leaders collaborate to ensure all are counted?

Video by Kaylee Fagan, Renaissance Journalism

On August 21, Renaissance Journalism and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) co-hosted a lively conversation among 40-plus Bay Area journalists and community leaders about the 2020 Census. We challenged these “trusted community messengers” to brainstorm creative ways they could work together to increase participation in the census, particularly in “hard-to-count” groups, such as immigrants, racial minorities and the homeless.


All agreed that the stakes are high in California. Census data is used to guide how much money the state receives for federally funded programs and services, such as health services, nutrition assistance, highway planning and construction, early childhood education programs and housing assistance.

Census data also determines the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes a state gets. Manuel Santamaria, SVCF’s vice president of community impact, warned that an undercount in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties could result in a significant reduction in federal funding and the loss of a congressional seat.

“The census is our most democratic and accessible tool,” said Sonny Lê, a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau and longtime census organizer. “By participating in it, you are saying, ‘I belong here. I count.’” He added that those who are not counted are often rendered invisible—and, therefore, powerless—in this country. “We need to make those who are invisible visible.”


Yet, despite its importance, the community leaders expressed deep concerns about low census participation, particularly among immigrants, non-English speakers, low-income households, those experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, and communities of color. They described some of the barriers to participation, such as language accessibility or not seeing their racial or ethnic group listed on the census form. And many anticipate, in light of the current administration’s immigration policies, that a major obstacle to participation for immigrants will be fear—fear that filling out the census could result in deportation or closer scrutiny by the government.

“People are scared,” said Anne Im, immigration program officer for SVCF. She observed that many immigrants are afraid to sign up for public benefits because of the recent “public charge” ruling restricting immigrants’ ability to obtain legal residency based on whether they have received government benefits. As a result of this and other immigration policies, many are “staying off the grid” and will be hard pressed to be counted in Census 2020, according to Im.


To overcome these barriers, all agreed that outreach and education are paramount and, to be effective, must be done through “trusted community messengers”—local and ethnic media, community events, teachers, churches, etc. The meeting organizers then asked the journalists and nonprofit leaders to brainstorm collaborative storytelling ideas related to Census 2020. For many, both journalists and community members, it was their first time working collaboratively with the other sector. “This is an experiment in many ways,” said Jon Funabiki, executive director of Renaissance Journalism, “but we always like to ask, ‘What’s possible?’”

The group came up with many new and creative ideas, including journalists training community members in storytelling and reporting; a multimedia piece that recounts America’s history through diverse and multicultural perspectives; and a traveling “community microphone” that would go to churches, libraries and community events to record people’s stories, among other projects.  “This is just a start,” said Funabiki, adding that Renaissance Journalism, with support from SCVF, will continue to work with Bay Area journalists and community leaders to encourage and facilitate collaborative reporting and storytelling projects for Census 2020.