How Action Builder powered We Count L.A.’s census organizing efforts

Jeff Dugas
Powering Progressive Movements
7 min readDec 10, 2020
A screen grab from We Count L.A.’s Census Explainer video (source)

The world looked a lot different the last time the United States Census was taken in 2010. There was no option to fill out the Census online, so respondents completed physical Census forms and mailed them in to be counted. President Obama had just signed the Affordable Care Act into law. Donald Trump was just a cartoonish TV show host spouting fringe, racist conspiracy theories (okay, maybe that hasn’t changed much). And, perhaps most notably, there wasn’t a devastating pandemic keeping whole communities distanced and in their homes.

The 2020 Census could not have come at a more chaotic time, but it has also never been more important.

Taken every ten years, the census is a count of the population of the United States and its territories. Maximum census participation is crucial, as the results determine how many representatives each state will have in Congress for the next ten years and how much federal funding every community in the country will receive towards infrastructure, schools, housing, and social programs.

Despite its enormous importance to communities, many obstacles have contributed historically to undercounting, which has affected urban, majority-minority communities the most. Per the California Community Foundation, Los Angeles County is the nation’s hardest-to-count region:

“Nearly half our residents meet the hard-to-count criteria, including racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, mixed-status families, young children and the homeless. For the first time, the census will be principally administered online, creating major concerns around privacy and digital literacy. The proposed citizenship question leaves many immigrants communities suspicious of how their information will be used.”

A graphic from SELA Collaborative showing the cost of a census undercount in Southeast L.A. County (source)

To address these factors head on and increase census participation in L.A. County, the California Community Foundation launched the We Count L.A. 2020 Fund dedicated to creating and implementing the most effective strategies to ensure that no Angeleno goes uncounted. The Fund distributed grants to community-based organizations throughout L.A. County to empower their census organizing work, convened regional census tables to drive coordination, planning, and outreach, and launched an integrated communications campaign to support the organizations’ census promotion efforts across the region.

The We Count L.A. 2020 Fund also turned to Action Network for help, utilizing our powerful organizing tool Action Builder to help build their program.

Census organizers recognized that increasing census participation would require fostering the trusting, organic relationships between community-based organizations and community members — and identifying leaders to help scale the organizing work — and many of the We Count L.A. project’s partner organizations saw that Action Builder would be hugely valuable in their census work.

A sample view of the Wall Chart in Action Builder.

Action Builder is a powerful, mobile-first organizing tool built by organizers, for organizers. It incorporates the time-tested tactics that organizers have used for centuries — including one-on-ones, assessments, wall charts, and more — and puts them in the palm of your hand to help identify leaders and build power.

Especially as the Trump administration toyed with deadlines and misinformation (eventually succeeding in ending the Census count abruptly on October 16), organizers needed a flexible, mobile-first tool to make the largest possible impact in the community. Every one of the hundreds of community-based organizations enlisted in this project brought different strategies, approaches, and organizing tools to the project, and they found creative ways to incorporate Action Builder into their preexisting systems.

At Antelope Valley Partners for Health, a We Count L.A. partner in northern L.A. County, census organizers fit Action Builder seamlessly into their community engagement programming.

“For us, we’re visual learners, so we were ecstatic to see everyone’s addresses on the map,” Jeylee Quiroz, an organizer with AVPH, told me earlier this month. “The fact that it’s so easy to use and so easy to input client info made it really easy for our staff to pick up on it.”

Organizers with Antelope Valley Partners for Health (source)

Pre-Covid, organizers at AVPH used Action Builder to track event attendees’ phone numbers and emails for census follow up later on. They also tracked attendees’ addresses and the location of the event where they met each attendee, which made it easy to identify areas that needed more engagement.

“We compared the areas where we saw a lot of engagement on the map, which helped us to know where to set up a table next time or who to do outreach to,” Jeylee continued. “For example, what school district should we partner with to reach people in this area?”

“The fact that it’s so easy to use and so easy to input client info made it really easy for our staff to pick up on it.”

After the start of the Covid pandemic, Action Builder helped Jeylee and AVPH shift to outreach via phone banking.

“Action Builder made it really easy and clear for our staff to input any data we had,” said Jeylee.

Another We Count L.A. partner organization, El Nido Family Centers, also used Action Builder to power phone banking efforts out of its San Fernando Valley and South L.A. locations.

A Census graphic from El Nido Family Centers’ Facebook page (source)

“El Nido Family Centers does more in-person case management, so they’ve never actually had a social or community agenda to reach large numbers through phone banking,” explained Lacey Morgan, a census organizer with El Nido. “This was their first time really using 21st century technology to do outreach. Before February 2020, they’d never used anything.”

Lacey and her team used Action Builder to reach over 30,000 people through phone banking. They took advantage of Action Builder’s flexible Fields functionality to accommodate English and Spanish speakers alike.

“Because I had some Spanish speakers, I was able to place English and Spanish in the fields myself,” Lacey continued. “I was happy about that.”

And when Action Builder introduced Auto-Turf earlier this year, it simplified the process of assigning phone banking lists significantly.

“Prior to Auto-Turf, I was manually cutting turf myself,” explained Lacey. “When Auto-Turf came into play, I didn’t rely heavily on the addresses anymore, which wasn’t a bad thing because at a certain point the team became cohesive enough that I just wanted to manage the amount of calls.”

Lacey and her team at El Nido Family Centers used Action Builder to reach over 30,000 people through phone banking.

Overall, with the flexibility of the tool and improvements over time, Lacey sees plenty of uses for Action Builder after the census work wraps up.

“There are a lot of features on Action Builder that I can see working in other areas,” Lacey told me. “I see how it could really work even on a case manager level, so my colleague and I want to continue using Action Builder.”

Not all of the We Count LA partners are tasked with doing Census outreach directly. Some organizations, like the Southeast Los Angeles Collaborative (SELA Collaborative) focus on strengthening the capacity of the nonprofit sector and increasing civic engagement with community-based organizations at the regional level.

“Babies and toddler count, too!” A census organizer distributes 2020 Census materials in Southeast L.A. (source)

As one of eight regional co-conveners of the We Count LA campaign, “the SELA Collaborative serves as regional coordinator and co-convener of community-based organizations, municipal staff, elected offices, small businesses, and grassroots groups,” said Cynthia Cortez, Associate Director of the SELA Collaborative. “Our role is to oversee the coordination, collaboration, and communication efforts of diverse partners and collectively develop a comprehensive strategy that ensures residents in our hard-to-count (HTC) region complete their Census forms.”

A sample view of Assessments in Action Builder.

To track engagement among the dozens of community-based organizations (CBOs) the SELA Collaborative partners with through the Census project, Cynthia came up with a clever workaround: Using Action Builder’s Assessments feature to evaluate organizations and measure how much they engage with the SELA Collaborative.

“To gauge a partner’s level of connection to our regional Census campaign, I reflect on different indicators of engagement,” Cynthia explained. “For example, ‘How many meetings have they come to? How often do we engage with one another on either a one on one basis or group setting?’ Factors like this influence the assessment scale.”

Cynthia uses Assessments to identify the strongest organizational partners, which will inform the SELA Collaborative’s work after the census project as well.

“An assessment of 1 means that the SELA Collaborative and this partner engaged through explicit resource sharing and continuous communication,” said Cynthia. “I believe that organizations classified as 1 or 2 [on the assessment scale] will continue to engage with us in meaningful ways and, I predict, for the long term. This regional civic engagement campaign was not only about the 2020 Census — it was about uplifting the SELA region through strengthening our regional network.”

At Action Builder, we are so proud to have supported the work that Jeylee, Lacey, Cynthia, and hundreds of other census organizers have done to ensure that everyone in L.A. County is counted in the 2020 Census. We applaud them for their crucial work to ensure representation for everyone in L.A. County.

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