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How Colleges and Communities are Organizing for Census 2020

Policy and Advocacy Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Public Policy Division
March 2, 2020 Marcus Rodriguez Occidental College

In her Inside Higher Ed article, Getting Out the Count, Greta Anderson depicts the ways in which higher education administrators are encouraging students to participate in Census 2020. While offering a portrayal of various campus initiatives, she explores what community engagement looks like for students and stakeholders alike. Recognizing that relationship building is an integral part of organizing for Census 2020, let’s examine local efforts in a major metropolitan area—Los Angeles.

For almost two years, student affairs professionals have been working with the U.S. Census Bureau to design outreach and involvement strategies for campuses nationwide. In Los Angeles, this led to the formation of the Complete Count Committee (CCC) which then created the Higher Education Sub-Committee (HESC), a group comprised of administrators from public and private colleges and universities, related student governments, and representatives from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Los Angeles Mayor's Office and the County of Los Angeles Chief Executive's Office.

The HESC was charged with creating Higher Education Toolkits for Administrators and Student Organizations that provided recommendations to institutions developing Census Strategic Student Engagement Plans. While developing these resources, the group also identified recurrent responses from students surveyed about Census apathy and indifference. Similar to findings in the 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study Survey Report, these responses included:

 “I don’t think the Census has any impact on my life.”
“I don’t feel comfortable sharing my information.”
“I don’t have time to fill out the Census.”
“I think my parents will do it for me.”
“I might have trouble completing a Census Survey form.”  

While the HESC began crafting responses to be included in the toolkits, the conversation about hard-to-count populations expanded from just students on campus, to stakeholders in the local community. The HESC concluded that, in addition to motivating students to participate in Census 2020, they should recognize the connections students had, or could have, with local non-profits and neighborhood councils. Many of the institutions holding membership in the HESC were located in areas that, based on demographic, socioeconomic and housing characteristics, had been identified as hard-to-count districts. 

Discussion about supporting the local community led to the creation of a template Resolution in Support of Census 2020 for neighborhood councils. This effort also inspired outreach to local nonprofits representing the interests of traditionally marginalized and underrepresented populations. With more focus being placed on these targeted neighborhood efforts, the HESC concluded their work and disbanded in anticipation of forming new localized groups.

Occidental College now holds membership in the Northeast + Eastside Census Complete Count Committee (NECCC), a body comprised of public policy institutes, neighborhood councils, local non-profits, and most importantly, student activists and student government officials. In addition to creating targeted messaging (e.g. We Count LA), the NECCC has been catalyst to building a sustainable coalition that will continue to support community stakeholders well beyond Census 2020.

By introducing a community engagement aspect to student participation in Census 2020, administrators are finding additional support from faculty, staff and student governments already focused on service and community-based learning. Additionally, student organizations have gravitated to this initiative as an act of resistance to what they perceive as the Trump Administration's continued marginalization of hard-to-count communities—college students, undocumented and legal immigrants, non-English speakers, and low-income people of color.  

How the Northeast + Eastside Census Complete Count Committee, and community groups like it, will evolve to address local social issues after Census 2020 remains to be seen. But, at this juncture, these interests seem to align with the NASPA Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement plan which offers a support system centered on developing students into engaged and active community members of tomorrow.


Marcus A. Rodriguez is Director of Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement (SLICE)

at Occidental College in Los Angeles.