In summary

Partnerships with community organizations to reach Californians in the Census speaks to the desire to improve our outcomes.

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By Lanae Norwood, Special to CalMatters

Lanae Norwood is the creator of My Black Counts and the strategic communications director for California Black Census and Redistricting Hub,

This past year, we’ve faced more than we thought we could.

We’ve been enveloped by so much in 2020 – a pandemic that has resulted in an economic crisis, families contained in their homes, social unrest, the fight for equality, political change and – on top of all that – a Census that only happens every 10 years.

Black Americans have been systematically undercounted from the very first Census, disadvantaging Black communities and neighborhoods, and silencing our voices.

That’s why we formed My Black Counts, a Census education and awareness campaign of the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub, which works with a partner network of more than 30 Black-led and Black-serving organizations across the state.

We began our work by deploying in-person help through door-to-door canvassing in the hardest-to-count communities. Then, in mid-March 2020 – our best-laid Census plans came to a sudden halt because of COVID-19.

Education fairs became car caravans, and online events and peer-to-peer conversations became relational organizing in digital forums.

Getting Black Californians to care about something beyond the immediate crises was no small task. Plus, there’s historic and generational trauma – problems that make the Black community hard-to-count, including increased rates of housing instability, industrialized incarceration, homelessness and even lack of internet access. And a deep distrust of government and concerns about privacy only make things worse.

But in many ways, the ability to respond online – this being the first Census that went digital – worked to our advantage as we explored new tactics and communicated digitally. Our engagement happened on screens, phones and signage, all at a 6-foot distance or more.

We worked with community-based groups, organizations, faith based congregations, philanthropy, businesses, and when it was over, more than 1 million more Californians responded on their own to the Census in 2020 than in 2010, and nearly 2 million more Californians responded compared to 2000.

The final U.S. Census count for California won’t be released for some time, but our self-response rate shows that we all accomplished a phenomenal task – nearly 70% of Californians, around 10.5 million, self-responded. Among those, an estimated 58% did so online. We can be proud of our collective efforts to drive up the self-response rate in the state to support the most accurate count possible.

Now, where does that leave the next months or years?

We’ve seen a brighter light at the end of the tunnel and results that speak for themselves. There is finally change where there’s often been stagnation and transparency where there historically hasn’t been. 

Californians who’ve been underrepresented in the past now participated in droves, making a difference for their families. Their inclusion in the Census helps ensure more community programs and representation for them.

This change in how government partners with community-based organizations to reach Californians speaks to the desire to improve our outcomes. Government strategies that utilize trusted messengers can and must work for underserved communities.

We must continue to use this model if we want to continue to honor and celebrate the unique individuality and humanity of all Black people, including the voices of immigrants and those who are native-born; cisgender, non-binary, non-conforming and transgender; children, millennials, boomers and seniors; of all faiths and backgrounds.

As our country considers how we must spur innovation to help bring us out of this year, the Census effort can offer lessons for educating, motivating and activating California’s communities, by using the power of digital tools, delivering in-language messages using trusted messengers on the right platforms.

Our democracy relies on accurate data collected during the Census to make sound decisions that reflect our country’s needs. An accurate representation of our communities in the Census allows Black Americans to have a greater influence over resources and representation and the ability to hold lawmakers accountable. Let’s continue to seize this moment.

Now is the time to think different, be innovative and strive for positive change. Let’s work together.

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