It was a chance conversation three years ago with Kyla Fullenwider, the then chief innovation officer at the U.S. Census Bureau, that inspired Colin Maclay to get involved in reinvigorating the census with twenty-first-century thinking. “I immediately saw it as a digital transformation story,” said Maclay, research professor of communication.
The decennial census, which was conducted in 1790 and was led by Thomas Jefferson, is run every 10 years across the United States and is critical to funding education, healthcare, schools, public safety — and determining congressional representation. “More than 1.5 trillion dollars a year in federal funding flow into states and communities based on census results,” Maclay said. “And the folks who most need accurate census representation are the least likely to understand what the census is and why it's relevant to them.”
Maclay first started working informally with the Census Bureau in mid-2017, when he volunteered to host the first census create-a-thon through the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AnnLab), of which Maclay is director. “We organized folks from nonprofits, along with content creators across the nation to brainstorm engaging with hard-to-count populations,” Maclay said. From this session and subsequent ones, the group helped develop a model that is now being used across the country to invite communities to find creative ways to get the word out about the census.
The AnnLab also created the Count the Nation initiative to educate and inspire Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, to get involved in supporting the census. Key grants from the MacArthur Foundation and National Conference on Citizenship, among others, enabled them to engage students and alumni in building this movement.
J’Net Nguyen, a creative director, who earned her master’s in communication management in 2015, was one of the alumni who was happy to volunteer. She first helped out on a PSA that showcased diversity in languages for the census and was then brought on to executive produce another aimed at the LGBTQ community. “I was interested in civic engagement and wanted to do something that directly impacted marginalized communities,” Nguyen said. “A lot of my friends are young, they're nomadic and they're hard to count. Their parents are immigrants, they may be LGBTQ, so I wanted to do something that made a difference that we could actually see and that really affected us for a long time.”
In this interview, Maclay explains why the AnnLab chose to focus on Gen Z to help drive communities to a more complete count.
Why did you target Gen Z specifically?
It quickly became apparent that the massive governmental census infrastructure and other organizations working on the census hadn’t focused on Gen Z — yet it’s the most diverse generation; it’s the largest generation; and it’s a generation driving change tough on issues like climate change and gun violence and immigration.
Plus, across different demographics and socioeconomic status, this population is highly connected via digital and social media. They have a real stake in the future and a lot of them are understandably frustrated. Some can’t vote because they're not old enough, others because of citizenship status, and this gives them a way to participate.
How are you involving Gen Z in marketing the census?
Last summer, during the Annenberg Youth Academy for Media and Civic Engagement, where we bring in 26 local high school students for four weeks, we talked about the census and challenged them to use digital media to raise awareness in their communities. They were totally jazzed and rose to the occasion. I have found similar enthusiasm and capacity among the young people we’ve worked with since. This thing that initially seemed kind of boring and nerdy and not relevant to them, reveals itself to be super exciting and important – and a place where they can make a difference. For me, that was like the light bulb going off. We prototyped it with them and since then, we've continued to work with a variety of youth, both high school and college-age, who’ve been really into it.
Now we are working with the Los Angeles County Office of Education on a contest. California created census curricula, and while a lot of kids learn about the census, they don’t have anywhere to natively share their knowledge. So, we invited them to create something fun. It can be a TikTok dance or a meme or a video, and then we ask them to pair their content with why the census matters to them, their school or their community. It was initially aimed at Los Angeles County students, but communities across the nation are now participating in a range of ways. Check out our Instagram page to see what some of the youth have created.
We’re also tapping into our community to create a lot of materials for youth. A renowned illustrator, Alex Puvilland, who works for DreamWorks Animation, designed an awesome comic, The Count, about the census. We’ve also been able to bring in actors such as Skai Jackson, Ariel Winter and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, who engage with the Gen Z audience to help get the word out. We’re in constant conversation with influencers, celebrities, companies, non-profits, government and many other remarkable communities who are making a difference in the count.
How might COVID-19 and the lockdown potentially change the way the census is run this year?
Invitations to take the census went out in mid-March, and the count normally continues until the end of July. Because of the lockdown in many cities, they’ve already extended the count by two weeks. Then, usually in the beginning of May, they send enumerators to start knocking on people’s doors to get their count if they haven’t responded. Because of the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of local and national nonprofit organizations that support the census are unable to help people and remind them to follow up on the census. It just got more complicated. On the bright side, you have three different ways to respond, and none of them require you to interact with another human physically. People can respond by written form, online or by phone, and the phone is enabled for 12 different languages.
It’s especially important for college students to respond! People living in university housing (or other “group quarters”) are typically handled directly by the university, but students who live off campus need to respond for themselves and any roommates. Even if they are temporarily living their parents, the Census Bureau has asked them to respond where they normally live (off-campus housing). If they are unsure whether their roommates have done the census, they should err on the side of duplication – rather than being missed.
Every 1 percent change in a response — increase or decrease — has an implication of over a hundred million dollars, so the more people that self-respond, the more money we as a nation save. And the fewer people that self-respond, the more it costs us.
What are your goals for this initiative?
The census is far from perfect, but it’s an invaluable tool for both communities and the nation’s health, economics and democracy. I want us to have a great count despite all the headwinds we are facing.
For me, the long-term win would be having a generation of people who, while they might not agree with another’s politics or clothing choices, realize that isn’t as important as how we are all connected. That those shared priorities and the way we work and engage with each other matters for our collective health and well-being.
In this moment, we’ve all been reminded about the importance of community, the challenges that we face, and our interconnectedness locally and nationally. And this is easy to get lost in that shuffle. But, to me, this is another very clear example of how we are tied to one another and how what we do in our most local way also connects us up the chain.