Completed every ten years, the United States Census is a constitutionally required count that aims to record every individual living in the country. These numbers are then used to determine political representation and federal funding for such essential services as affordable housing, health care and public transportation. Historically, however, the Census Bureau has struggled to establish an accurate record of the nation’s population, often failing to count certain groups while overcounting others.
Many projects and campaigns intended to increase participation in the 2020 census—marked yesterday, April 1, by Census Day, or “the day that determines who is counted … and where they are counted”—have been interrupted by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. One such initiative, the San Francisco-based Art + Action coalition’s Come to Your Census campaign, has now pivoted online. By working with more than 40 artists and community groups, Come to Your Census hopes to spur participation among Californians who have long been left out of the count.
“It’s important that our arts structure across the country understand[s] the value of what we can bring to this and figure out how to do it,” Deborah Cullinan, director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where Art + Action is headquartered, tells the Art Newspaper’s Tess Thackara. “If you want to make change, you need to work with artists. Artists will be able to reach people who are hard to reach, to get people engaged around the issues, to connect people and guide them away from dystopia.”
Households that fail to respond to census notices receive postcard reminders, and at the end of May, census takers usually start knocking on doors to survey people in person. Despite these measures, many communities were undercounted in the 2010 census. As Michael Wines reports for the New York Times, the national undertaking double-counted 8.5 million people and missed 16 million people. While non-Hispanic white people were overcounted, minorities and young children were undercounted.
“A successful census is one that counts all communities equally well,” census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal tells the New York Times. “With the challenges the coronavirus is presenting, I’m worried about the consistency of census operations and level of effort across states and communities.”
Adds Lowenthal, “[T]hat is a fundamental factor in evaluating not only whether the census is acceptably accurate—but whether it is fair.”
For residents of San Francisco, participation in the census translates into about $20,000 per person in public funding for community programs—a potential grand total of more than $17 million over the next ten years, according to Come to Your Census. Art + Action initially planned to host art festivals, public panels and exhibitions. Now, the group is offering an artistic toolkit people can use to spread the word about the census in their online communities. The kit includes posters in English, Spanish, Chinese and Tagalog.
“If social distancing becomes the norm because we have to quell the spread of this virus, we must find new ways to connect with one another,” Cullinan tells the Art Newspaper. “We know that isolation contributes further to our lack of trust in institutions. We know that people are more and more scared to engage.”
The toolkit offers dozens of free posters stating, “Come to your census.” Currently, the materials focus on the Bay Area, but Art + Action plans to soon offer customizable templates that allow users to input the names of their own communities. The font used in the posters, created by artist Tré Seals, is based on the posters used by protestors striking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968.
“While in the original ‘I AM A MAN’ posters, the ‘AM’ was highlighted, in the campaign, YOUR is emphasized, inviting viewers to action by communicating that completing the census is something you rightfully deserve and by which you are empowered,” writes Art + Action on its website.
Artworks featured in Come to Your Census include the video and photo series Beautiful by Night and an interactive questionnaire, Con•sense•us in the time of Dis•sense•us, that pairs census questions with cultural context.
“You can take a panicked road—this is the end of days—or you can be future-forward,” says Amy Kisch, who coordinates the project in San Francisco, to the Art Newspaper. “It helps to envision a positive outcome for the next ten years. Participating is an act that helps us to reclaim some kind of power.”