Making the Census a Community Joy

This is a guest post by Rashad Robinson, President Of Color of Change

Even though the census asks me my name, asks me my race, and asks me about my home, I have never thought of the census as being about me. It’s about us.

Across our history, my whole family struggled to be visible, to be counted. They came from the South to the North during the great migration, along with six million other Black people during those years. They fought to be heard at every step, and to get what all people deserve. They wanted their children and grandchildren to be counted. When I think about getting counted by the census, I think about how my grandmother and grandfather’s lives are being counted, even though they are gone. My role in the census is really about their role in history.

As an individual person, the census is one way of saying, “I exist.” It is a powerful statement to make. Especially for people of color. And especially in light of how those who are mandated to count us in 2020 are actually scheming to avoid doing so — to avoid recognizing that we exist.

Yet, standing up to say “I exist” is also risky and dangerous for Black people and other marginalized groups. In our history — America’s history — Black people have been counted in order to be controlled and exploited. We’ve been punished for merely existing. If not by active punishment, then by being ignored: cruel and systematic neglect. Many feel that saying “I exist” will not lead to anything good. So it’s no small thing to say it. The mere registry of our existence is essentially a political act.

As an individual person, the census is one way of saying, “I exist.” It is a powerful statement to make.

Part of the problem with the census right now is that each of us must say “I exist” all alone. There is no communal, collective experience of the census, which you get with electoral voting — standing in lines together, wearing the sticker together, watching the results together, knocking on doors together. We must make the census experience a collective one, a cultural ritual.

Much like the long and consistent history of voter suppression tactics aimed at Black people and others, put in place to prevent us from being counted, to alienate us from rightful influence in our own country, there are many barriers to census participation.

Hours-long lines of people waiting to vote on election day, time many working class people cannot spare without facing consequences from their employers, is just one example of the result of corrupt policy decisions about how to access the ballot — consistently applied pressure on people to give up and leave.

It’s the same with access to the census: the digital divide is a barrier; you saw “Negro” on the form the last time around and felt discouraged, depressed and disgusted — another barrier; you have a white enumerator at your door, and it’s alienating — another barrier; you see that you don’t count among decision makers in Washington, so you cannot believe that you’ll count by filling out a form — that’s a barrier, too.

Part of the problem with the census right now is that each of us must say “I exist” all alone. . . .We must make the census experience a collective one, a cultural ritual.

Many communities face these or other barriers, often knowingly set in place to serve a political agenda — whether students, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, those living in sparse and rural areas or dense and urban areas, and others. And if you are part of more than one of those groups, not only do the barriers compound but the consequences of being left out do, too.

Have we given people a strong enough reason — or enough power and protection — to withstand those pressures and overcome those doubts? Is anyone fighting the people who created them? We can remove these barriers if we invest in making our communities powerful enough to break them apart. If we make the census about “us,” which is far more powerful than making it just about “me.”

My organization, Color Of Change, along with others, has showed the field of civic engagement what it really looks like when we bring Black people together for civic engagement, on our own terms. To center Black joy in any gathering. To more effectively help people become leaders in their community, and ultimately create unstoppable momentum toward participation. Including being devoted to helping other people participate.

It requires serious listening to our communities. It takes groups and leaders that people believe are there to help them be powerful as individuals, as a community and as a people. It requires building culturally aware and viable onramps to participation, especially for older people and Millennials.

It requires an online-to-offline field program to connect with people; in-person events that can be unapologetically “us”; digital advertising that is targeted, authentic and savvy; digital storytelling that makes the census a genuine moment in people’s day and the life of a community.

This approach isn’t just about census participation in 2020. It’s about how we win the fights over what the administration of the census is going to look like in 2020 through what we do right now in 2019.

For any marginalized group, the census is nothing more than the story that we exist, as a people. Those who are tapped into communities and know how to organize can tell this story best — in more places, more convincingly and with greater effect. Black-led organizations can drive the census count for Black communities in a way that no one else can. The census can become a powerful symbol of being counted in society if we invest in those who can infuse a greater sense of purpose in it.

That is what will truly drive more people to participate in the census than ever before, despite the barriers, yet while also breaking some of them down. And we will say, “Yes, we exist.”


Rashad Robinson is President of Color Of Change, a leading racial justice organization driven by more than 1.4 million members building power for Black communities.

Rashad leads Color Of Change to design and actualize winning strategies for racial justice, among them: moving over a dozen prosecutors and prosecutor candidates to reduce mass incarceration and police violence; forcing over 100 corporations to pull out of the secretive right-wing policy shop, ALEC; forcing corporate leaders to stop supporting Trump initiatives and white nationalist groups; framing and winning net neutrality as a key civil rights issue; changing hiring practices and representations of race in Hollywood; moving Airbnb, Google and Facebook to identify and implement anti-racist initiatives; and forcing Bill O’Reilly off the air.

Rashad is a sought-after keynote speaker at events across the country, and appears regularly as a quoted source, interview guest and opinion writer in major media. Under Rashad’s leadership, Color Of Change was named twice in the top ten of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list — in 2015 and 2018 — and was profiled by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. He is the proud recipient of awards from organizations as varied as ADCOLOR, the United Church of Christ and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation. He serves on the boards of Demos and the Hazen Foundation. Previously, Rashad served as Senior Director of Media Programs at GLAAD.

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

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A network of foundations and funders committed to civic engagement and democratic practice. Visit our publication at: medium.com/office-of-citizen

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.