Calling All Census Nerds: Our Communities Are Counting on Us

Posted on December 9, 2019 | Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean, Fair Count

Fair Count recently installed a laptop, two tablets and a Wi-Fi hot spot in the basement of St. Mark AME Church in Lumpkin, Ga. (Stuart County).

In 2019, the Weissberg Foundation created the Marvin Fund in honor of our founder Marvin Weissberg’s commitment to strengthening our American democracy. The theme for our inaugural 2019-2021 Marvin Fund grants is “A Fair & Accurate Census 2020,” and our two grantee partners are Fair Count and Virginia Civic Engagement Table. We will feature stories from each in our blog several times over the next two years.

Fair Count has a 20-year history of effectively working with disadvantaged communities in the Deep South and a strong track record of developing community-based models to engage, employ and build capacity within local communities. For the 2020 Census, Fair Count’s goal is to facilitate and ensure a fair and accurate count of Georgia citizens, particularly hard-to-count groups that are difficult to locate, contact, persuade, and interview.

I’m a nerd. Actually, as an evolutionary biologist, I’ve been a nerd for a long time. But over the past year, I’ve become a different kind of nerd—a Census nerd. As the Vice President of Fair Count, a nonprofit organization that is committed to delivering a fair and accurate 2020 Census while building pathways to civic participation, the Census has become an integral part of my life. I eat, drink, and breath the Census. I find ways to weave the Census into conversations. I only read counting books to my kids (I’m only kind of joking). I want everyone to know how the Census impacts our lives and how important the 2020 Census will be to our families and communities over the next decade.

The Census steers $1.5 trillion for critical services like health care and education, guides the drawing of lines for political districts and school zones, and informs businesses and employers about opportunities for economic development. Historically, the results are skewed, with an overcount in white, homeowning populations and an undercount and extensive omissions in what the Census Bureau refers to as hard-to-count (HTC) communities (e.g., populations of color, low income persons, LGBTQ persons, young children, ethnic minorities, undocumented persons, renters, and those in very rural areas). These inaccuracies cost communities millions of dollars and reduce people’s political power a decade at a time.

Census results are at the very core of our democracy, and when the numbers are inaccurate due to inequity and disenfranchisement, every other aspect of our democracy is threatened. Just this year, active forces attempted to silence entire communities under the auspices of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form and through the underfunding of the 2020 Census process. Unfortunately, our most vulnerable communities—those that consistently experience intimidation and disenfranchisement—suffer the most, leaving little trust in a democratic system that was not built to serve or count them to begin with.

To combat the challenges associated with the 2020 Census, we must double-down on participation. Fair Count is working to expand participation by using the Census as a means of both engagement and activation. We employ a robust team of organizing and technology experts, and we partner with community groups and faith institutions with the cultural capacity to identify, engage, and turnout HTC communities. We’re hiring locally-based field organizers for deep-dive organizing efforts, and we’re providing free Internet access and devices to communities with limited or no access at least through the end of 2020, providing lasting community resources. Our partnerships and strategies afford an opportunity to collaborate and maximize our reach into HTC areas in Georgia while propelling us to a place of active and immediate mobilization with our national partners.

To truly grasp the challenges faced by HTC communities as the 2020 Census approaches, look at Stewart County, Georgia, which is home to the nation’s largest ICE detention center. The county is more than 50% African-American and roughly 25% LatinX, and around half of the homes lack reliable Internet access. Our field team found that the library in the county seat, Lumpkin, was closed due to black mold, so the only place people could get free wi-fi access was the courthouse—and no one, understandably, wanted to go there. Armed with this information, we placed our first two Internet installations in Stewart County, and we’ve continued to inform these communities about how the 2020 Census will impact their lives. We may not be creating more Census nerds, but our efforts will lead to an accurate count and revived engagement in some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities.


Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean serves as Fair Count’s Vice President. Jeanine is a highly skilled researcher with over 15 years of experience designing, managing, and implementing population-based studies and projects. Jeanine graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in Biology, and she earned a doctorate in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University of Texas at Austin. While at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she applied her expertise in computational biology and population research to advance public health initiatives. She has extensive project management experience as well as work in community organizing.