Don’t Let COVID Count Us Out

Posted on July 1, 2020 | Ed Reed, Fair Count

Webster County Bus Stop March 9, 2020

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 over the course of the grant period.

At Fair Count, we strive to achieve a fair and accurate census count in Georgia and throughout the nation. Through partnership programs, faith outreach, technology innovations, and data driven approaches to education and mobilization, our work can all be traced to one central goal– building long-term power in historically marginalized communities to increase civic participation and strengthen our democracy. The line between our work and the communities we serve is most vibrant in our field program.

Having hired a new class of organizers who are from the areas we target, our field program is diverse, dynamic and the members of it know their communities better than anyone. During training, we sought to share national best practices and to prepare our organizers for anything. During role plays we prepared them for dealing with speakers who fail to show at events, power outages, inclement weather, we even had a training module that involved an event location falling into a sinkhole.

None of those scenarios could have prepared us for a global pandemic, yet the skills our team has, the nimbleness by which they approach problem-solving, and their refusal to concede the power of civic participation during a public health crisis have allowed us to continue our work with barely an interruption and in innovative ways.

Right before the reality of COVID-19 hit, we launched our “I Count Bus Tour.” Scheduled to visit more than 60 counties with lower participation rates, our team built events, community picnics, block parties and more– all in the name of Get Out the Count (GOTC) mobilization. We hit the road for one week before the effort went dark, and our team has been working remotely since March 13th. We had no choice but to go back to the drawing board and shift our plans for the spring, summer and, ultimately, indefinitely.

First our field organizers checked in with our more than 400 partners statewide, gathered information on the health and safety of the communities they were in, and asked where we could be helpful. We quickly learned that the more than 130 internet installations we had conducted were not just largely still operating, but they were saving lives. Leaders of the faith community used the installations—particularly in Southwest GA where rates of infection soared to some of the highest in the world—to move their worship services online, providing respite for congregants who otherwise may have been compelled to still attend church in their time of crisis. We received reports that some locations were seeing more than 40 families a week pull up in their cars so that their children could tap into the wi-fi and complete their homework after schools closed down.

Efforts of new engagement did not cease. Our field team has made tens of thousands of calls to people in our target universes and have, as of today, sent more than 100,000 text messages. Beyond traditional phone banking, our Black Men Count program hosted a Tele-Town Hall with former Attorney General Eric Holder, Urban League National President Mike Morial, Nevada Congressman Steven Horsford, and the CEO and National President of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity Dr. Gregory Vincent. We reached more than 60,000 households from more than 25 different states and answered questions on the importance of the census for Black men.

We launched a complimentary campaign, Sisters for the Census, created several live webcast series, and built a statewide letter to the editor program. We capitalized on new opportunities, like providing census information in more than 20,000 food distribution bags, and we provided both Spanish language census information and PPE to the frontline workers in our state’s poultry plants, as they suffered an inequitable share of the disease. We built a partnership with Comcast, ensuring our television ads, Piece of the Pie and Sisters for the Census, would receive regular PSA time—across the nation—until the census is complete. And most recently we have launched the “I Count Bus Tour: Remix,” a virtual version of our bus tour whereby we flood targeted communities with virtual events, text messages, phone banks, media assets and more.

We know that a fair share of resources and political power for communities that have been left behind, ignored or silenced is crucial to a thriving democracy. And now, we know that when our nation finally emerges from the grasp of COVID-19, that equitable distribution of power will be more important than ever before. Now is not the time to let up on any effort; rather, we must commit every day to double-down on our work so that no community is erased from the future of our nation.

Ed Reed currently serves as the Program Director at Fair Count, Inc, based in Atlanta, Georgia. At Fair Count he is the staff liaison for the Black Men Count initiative, cultivates relationships between Fair Count and community-based partners, and supervises the faith, technology, and field programs.

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