Census 2020 has been a critical civic engagement campaign in southeast Los Angeles. The region was identified to be “hard or very hard to count” given its demographic profile. Having low broadband, being limited English speaking, identifying as immigrant, being low-income, and being a renter, amongst more, are connected to low response. However, SELA stakeholders made the commitment to conduct meaningful community outreach to ensure that every person gets counted.
A lot has been learned around what civic engagement in SELA needs to look like and sound like. From the bilingual charlas in 2018 to educating our region on Census 2020 serving asthe regional co-convener for the Los Angeles Regional Census Table (LARCT) to actively coordinating diverse SELA Census outreach within the We Count LA campaign, the SELA Collaborative seeks to uplift what we learned around civic engagement and how these lessons can strengthen collective power in the region.
SELA Census Civic Engagement Insights
- Community voice should frame how issues are discussed, explained, and understood
- Charlas revealed messaging should address the proposed citizenship question
- Direct engagement revealed messaging needed to address how the Census would impact daily living
- Information must be accessible
- Trainings, flyers, social media content, presentations, and meetings should be available in English and Spanish
- Issues must be explained in everyday language and easily understood by residents – “Census is connected to funding such as school lunches and Medi-Cal” resonates more than “Census helps allocates millions in funding to California.”
- Explain the process of how community can get involved and actively engage
- Educating residents on the three forms of participating in the Census – internet, phone, and paper form allows them to identify which one they prefer
- Explaining the 9 questions on the questionnaire and US Census Bureau privacy rules allow residents to raise their concerns and feel confident in getting counted
- Build in ample time to engage the community in any civic engagement campaign
- There are many details around Census 2020 that all community members need to understand – from education to activation to participation – it’s the constant messaging that helps push response rates
- Different types of messaging modes helps reinforce regionwide commitment to the issue and encourages participation
- Whether in active (conversations, trainings, presentations, dialogues) or passive forms (postcards, billboards, signs, etc.), the more our region receives consistent and clear messaging around the Census, the higher the likelihood of their participation. People are not necessarily activated to act at the 1st touchpoint, especially if a topic is new to them.
- Integrate messaging in other community engagement opportunities such as the Census commercials in the SELA Arts Festival
- Allow for diverse and underrepresented perspectives to be a part of the discussion
- Our Living and Working in SELA survey revealed that younger residents may have more hesitancy in completing the Census. It then becomes our responsibility to understand the complexity of why and respond to it – not dismiss and exclude it.
- Recruit a wide and diverse coalition of advocates for the issue
- Community-based organizations, cities, elected offices, grassroot groups, small business, and governmental agencies all helped push the importance of Census 2020 in southeast LA. Each had their unique contribution given their bandwidth – the significance comes in knowing that Census is actively being discussed and promoted.
- Elevate success and contributions regionwide
- Highlight various contributors to the campaign to remind stakeholders of the wide range of work being done and the innovation involved in reaching community members. This helps with moral, regional awareness of other stakeholders, and builds a sense of connectivity.
Strengthening SELA Civic Engagement Capacity – Context
- Gather continuous feedback from campaign partners
- In order to make sure decisions are made in response to contextual realities use surveys or employ a listening tour to your most active partners to understand the challenges they face and opportunities that can be leveraged. This helps design the regional meetings and ensures that learning is disseminated to everyone in the network.
- Extend grace for unexpected challenges and proceed swiftly with partnership-based innovation
- The global coronavirus pandemic caused the SELA Census outreach stakeholder community to shift their planned outreach activities to engage community remotely. This required learning how to connect with residents using digital tools while also responding to urgent community needs around food, healthcare, and housing.
- As a result, a significant amount of insight has been gained on nonprofit capacity, amount of resources to serve the SELA region, and how the digital divide significantly hampers direct community engagement. However, this has also come with unprecedented call to partner to leverage each other’s’ resources and effectively engage the region.
- Embed continuous learning in the campaign
- From Census operational timeline changes to the best messaging for hard-to-count communities to resources available for outreach, continuous and constant education must be provided to all active stakeholders to learn and respond effectively. We Count LA, CA Complete Count Committee, Census Counts, and NALEO and Advancement Project all provided timely updates on the Census campaign with expertise and insights to help guide regional stakeholders towards effective engagement.
- Build the capacity of trusted messengers to carry out the work and connect with community
- Community-based organizations were identified as trusted messengers, making this group the most influential in Census participation for hard-to-count populations
- The We Count LA campaigned helped build communication and data literacy capacity for Census outreach stakeholders
Civic Engagement Moving Forward
Civic Engagement activities must resist the trend of being “structured to gather consent for initiatives supported by those with wealth and power rather than a vehicle for community facilitation [of] the expansion of civic power among everyday residents.” – Equitable and Inclusive Community Engagement
Census 2020 has provided a critical opportunity to increase our regional capacity to learn about a community-level issue, disseminate information widely across SELA, provided insights on what deep and inclusive community engagement entails, and the importance of having resources to implement with work intentionally and meaningfully. It is important to continue to tackle distrust, apathy, and inequity in current civic engagement efforts while improving the quality of relationships being built, how community voices are heard and responded to, and empower all residents to act proactively to cultivate community wellbeing.