The deadline for completing the 2020 Census is September 30. It can be completed by phone, by mail, or online. Respond to the Census here.

Civic engagement organizations working to build collective power at the local and state level envision the 2020 Census as more than an opportunity to ensure communities receive necessary funds and resources. If it wasn’t clearly understood before, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the case for making sure communities are accurately counted.

Noting the importance of having resources to support communities and infrastructure, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice Ashley Shelton stressed the value of building collective power for people of color. “A piece for us was really thinking about, especially when you do people centered work, how do we build a pathway of power for people of color in our state,” Shelton said.

Building community capacity and political power through census campaigns

Prior to the pandemic, Power Coalition staff spent time engaging with community members through face to face conversations about the 2020 Census and its impact on everyday life. The pandemic posed a unique challenge for civic engagement organizations like the Power Coalition, as many of the hardest hit communities are the same ones organizers are trying to engage.

Acknowledging the stressful impact the pandemic has had on communities they organize in, Shelton pointed to the resource gap in many communities hard hit by the pandemic as a reason for completing the census.

“Disaster dollars [are] directly connected to the count and who’s living in, you know, who’s living in your state and in these communities,” said Shelton. Shelton also pointed to a coalition-led policy demand process focused on capturing what would be necessary for populations rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve just been trying really hard to be as innovative and positive, but also trying to ensure that people are educated about what’s at stake,” said program manager Janea Jamison. Jamison said the Power Coalition even issued a challenge to local elected leaders to get their constituents involved in completing the census.

Similar to the Power Coalition, the We Count Oregon campaign has adapted its approach to census organizing in a way that is both transformational and restorative. ”Our campaign has been trying to weave that connection between the census as a civic duty with the social opportunity for us to connect with other people in our community,” said campaign manager Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett. “We wanted to use this time to have people feel supported and connected.”

Both efforts depend upon a network of coalition partners and deep community relationships to reach communities beyond urban centers. Rural communities are less likely to have consistent access to the internet, posing a challenge for the reliance on digital outreach. Organizers have tapped into their networks in rural communities and are relying on old school tactics like using the phone.

“It was designed with people of color led organizations who wanted to show that we could do campaigning differently in Oregon,” Tervalon-Garrett. “Oregon campaigns that are statewide are generally led by white cis men, and the campaigns are very transactional with people of color and organizations led by communities of color.”

Being counted is crucial to righting the wrongs of democratic process  

Tervalon-Garrett called hard to count communities the underdogs of the census campaign work. She challenged the assumption that non-white led campaigns were somehow less capable particularly if they center and focus on race.

“Our campaign is unapologetically focusing on race, in a state that doesn’t want you to ever talk about race,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “We are starting and leading with race. We’re not just talking about money and good government, we’re also talking about power. We’re talking about shifting the narrative of Oregon, of who we are and what is possible because of the amazing communities that live here.”

We Count continues to push forward in making sure everyone living in Oregon is counted regardless of citizenship status. For Tervalon-Garrett, part of serving and working with hard to count populations is also making sure all communities served and engaged feel supported.

“If the strategy was to make us invisible, then the antidote is for us to stand up for [ourselves and] understand this process,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “We are talking with folks about righting the wrongs of the democratic process.”

Ensuring that people are able to participate in the process with clear and accurate information is also a part of democracy. While a recent White House memorandum has challenged the counting of undcoumented people for Congressional apportionment, Tervalon-Garrett and team have been pushing forward in counting everyone possible. As previously reported by Prism, “the memorandum’s effects extend beyond congressional appointments and harm communities by undermining the ability of the census to collect fair and accurate counts, which depend on the participation of documented and undocumented immigrants.”

“The We Count Oregon campaign is committed to unpacking myths and tactics by supporting Oregon’s vibrant and diverse immigrant and undocumented communities critical to our economy and culture in being counted,” said Tervalon-Garrett in an email statement.

Population shifts in Oregon could lead to a sixth congressional seat allocated to the Beaver state. Citing redistricting concerns and the loss of a congressional seat in 2010, Shelton said the Power Coalition has the census a “critical center point” of their organizing. “As the South is Blacker and browner, we need to make sure that we understand where our folks are, so that it’s harder for them to draw our voices out of out of districts,” Shelton said.”They’re going to have to really contend with drawing districts in a better, more thoughtful way.”

A fair and accurate count provides a better picture for allocation of federal funds and resources, but also informs decision-making at the state and local level. Even with census staff leveraging various tactics to engage all households, completion of the census depends heavily on nonprofits and grassroots efforts to ensure hard to count communities are accurately counted. These efforts are especially vital in light of the Trump Administration’s decision to end the census count a month earlier than previously announced—on August 3, the U.S. Census Bureau released a statement noting that field data collection would end on September 30, rather than October 31.

“Our power comes from meeting people and the vulnerability of humanity,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “It’s political, and it’s powerful. And I think it’s helping us to move the census in a way that is more than a transaction for the humans participating in it, and is hopefully transformative for civic engagement and democracy in our country.” 

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.