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From 2010 to 2020: Understanding the Longstanding Barriers to Collecting Census Data

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Full recording of the "Fair Representation for an Equitable Democracy" breakout session at SCG's 2021 Policy Conference: Build Anew



The census comes around every ten years, but ensuring communities are represented equitably happens every day in between. Lifting the voices of underrepresented communities, bringing together diverse groups, building capacity, and amplifying coalitions through the work of nonprofit organizations are essential to the ongoing process of fair representation for all Californians. 

At the 2021 SCG Policy Conference, we invited a panel of experts to help funders connect strategic funding to work happening on the ground floor. Among the panelists was Jonathan Paik, Executive Director of the Orange County Civic Engagement Table, who transforms the collective power of communities throughout Orange County. Christopher Wilson, Associate Director of Alliance San Diego, leads with the belief that people can achieve their full potential when communities are engaged in the civic process. Finally, spotlighting the relationship between community leaders and philanthropy, VY Nguyen, Director of Special Projects and Communications at the Weingart Foundation, ties census and redistricting work to democracy in action.In addition, by

Now that California has lost a congressional seat, it is time to reckon with the long-term barriers to collecting census data and the groundwork needed before a single map is drawn. As our speakers emphasized, supporting local organizations working with and for the communities they represent is crucial for building long-term, equitable solutions that will ensure higher accuracy in future counts.



The 2020 census counted 331,449,281 Americans, a 7.4 percent increase from the 2010 census. While the 2020 demographic data is not yet released, data from 2010 indicated an undercount of historically hard-to-count groups (HTC), including Latinos, African Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, and renters. History has likely repeated itself as we observe California and New York’s lost congressional seats in 2020 and the unrealized projection of gaining a seat in Arizona, despite a significant Latino population gain of 766,000 people since 2010.

For California in particular, the loss of a seat is a surprise considering the state leaped from a $24.7 million in 2010 to a $187 million outreach budget to ensure an accurate census count in 2020. However, outreach still fell on the shoulders of community organizations who faced long-stand problems, especially when it came to hard-to-count communities. Additionally, an unfriendly administration toward immigrants and people of color and altered timelines have heightened challenges to getting out the count. 

As our sector plans for the implications of California’s lost seat and the work ahead, it is important for funders to better understand the processes and history behind a fair count. 



Long before a census form is completed, community leaders and organizations assess how their communities can ensure an accurate count at the local level. Before conducting a national census, organizations are meeting their communities where they are through various community engagement activities to aid in completing benchmark local activities like the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) - conducted to confirm residential addresses. This process alone can take approximately two years for urban cities like Long Beach, with a hard-to-count population of nearly 500,000 residents. 

The next phase includes determining the best ways to communicate with and engage with hard-to-count groups. These activities are rooted in relationship building, education, and access, thereby giving us only a glimpse of the length of time it can take to build trust – a critical component of counting people who continue to face systemic inequalities. While it can take a mere few minutes to complete a census form, community organizations nurture constituents 365 days per year. 
Now that census data has been collected, population shifts determine how we will draw new district maps for municipal offices, congressional, Senate, and Assembly seats. The continuum of census work is redistricting. The relationships built through the ongoing exchange between community organizations, leaders, and communities pave the way for a redistricting process that puts communities first. Philanthropy can help by championing the entire process, not merely the outcome. Funders can use their platform to elevate and support the work of communities working between census counts. Like any relationship, it takes an ongoing commitment that does not end in a single season.



In Orange County and San Diego alone, with a combined majority-minority population of 6.6 million, 40 cities, and several shared State Assemblymember and congressional districts, the physical ground to cover to ensure community engagement efforts is monumental. Looking at hotspots can be a way for organizations to prioritize all of the work that needs to be done. Determining where to allocate time and resources for specific goal areas like advocacy work, communications, or evaluating systems newly including a process for community participation in council meetings, etc., can be fundamental to successful community engagement work. In contrast, looking at hotspots reveals gaps where organizations and alliances can establish new efforts to set momentum over the years ahead. Other organizations can better understand who is doing what and when has also proven to be a strategic regional move – by dividing up the turf, individual organizations can do more. 

Now that CA has lost a congressional seat, organizations like Orange County Civic Engagement Table and San Diego Alliance are ready to face the implications head-on. Because of their tactical approach, robust, introspective application to community engagement, the process of redistricting this time around has the potential to be revolutionary in many ways. In addition, building a new foundation can set a precedent for how we can accomplish how census and redistricting work.  



Panelists from the Fair Representation for an Equitable Democracy program and the final reports issued by the bureau emphasized that meaningful community engagement strategies as critical components to building long-term, equitable solutions to addressing barriers within the civic process– including census and redistricting work. For example, the Orange County Civic Engagement Table named language barriers as a prominent barrier to participation. By centering language justice within community spaces and public hearings, communities of interest can feel empowered to walk into city council meetings with a sense of belonging, knowing they are welcome to receive information and contribute to the discourse within their neighborhoods. By sharing experiences across communities and neighborhoods, monolingual communities shift the power dynamics beyond representation through demographic data. 



Communities, by and large, are not equipped, nor do they have the knowledge or resources to use industry-standard technical tools needed for map drawing effectively. In 2010 the city of San Diego provided a free public mapping tool effective in helping communities draw their maps. Today, San Diego is investing in the expertise of Mapping Services and Demographics Consulting for their communities through an RFP process. With the cost of creating three maps in 2017 coming in at approximately $5,000, we can get a sense of the impact on a majority-minority region with nearly 3.5 million people. One way for funders to support map drawing is by providing unrestricted grants to help organizations access training and professional services required for map drawing. Without appropriate map drawing, communities fall at risk of accessing services vital to the wellbeing of all Californians. 



While a tumultuous political and social period continues to sweep the country, the US census and its ramifications are taking shape. It is imperative that funders draw the lines between census and redistricting work to systemic change while also providing a strategic vantage point for using funds most effectively. If representation is the core of a democratic process, acknowledging the systematic inequalities within systems that have not been inclusive can help communities feel in partnership with philanthropy. 
Philanthropy California recently released a statement on the New Apportionment Data and Redistricting with immediate actions funders can take to tackle the challenges for a fairer and more equitable count in the future. 



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