I remember when the Census form came to my house 10 years ago. I was 14. My mother and father, both immigrants from Samoa and living in our low-income American neighborhood, were focused more on shopping for bottled water, flashlights and survival kits. The Y2K scare was more popular in my house than any survey could ever be. That is what the Census was to them: just another survey to be thrown out.
But now, a decade later and 24, that survey is my way to re-write history for me and my community. What my parents didn’t realize is how the Census defines all the things we cared about but felt we had no control over: how many elected officials we needed, what programs and services we needed funded, the bus routes we used.
My generation, 16-24-year-olds, particularly minorities, is one of the hardest to count populations for the Census. As a result, our issues, concerns and voices remain excluded when people imagine the larger vision of America.
But for me, a Pacific Islander, convicted felon living in a housing project, 2010 will be the first time someone in my family voted, and voted for ourselves at that. Because that’s what the Census is. It’s like voting for yourself, being counted in a country that sometimes makes you feel like you don’t matter if you are young, low-income, or have a record.
For youth, immigrants, and felons the Census is our way to participate in a political process that decides our fates in things like elections every four years. Even in the last presidential election, which voted in Barack Obama, many of us applauded from the sidelines. To be disenfranchised is to not be fully American, but the Census includes us as well, and puts us in the game.
Growing up, the government was only the embodiment of “the man,” the one responsible for all the opportunity, equality and security that I felt my family and I were denied. And as a young poor woman of color, nothing is worse then when your disdain for that “man” can coax you to be convicted of a felony, as it did with me. And with that conviction, sometimes you can no longer vote. A lot of my family is in the same boat. And even for the ones who can vote, elections seem distant from our lives, rather then the immediacy of what the Census promises. Want a hospital your Auntie can go to? Want money for schools for your cousins? This is the chance to be heard about all these aspects of our lives.
I am working through New America Media and Silicon Valley De-Bug to change youth of color from the least counted to the loudest advocates for the Census. By doing workshops at schools and community colleges, we are getting youth to write letters home to their parents about why the Census is important.
And this time around, when the Census arrives at my parent’s home, it will be familiar. For the first time in history, the Census is being translated into Samoan, the language of my family. In my household, and similar families across the country, the translations of the forms will give comfort to people who never quite understood how to count in a country when they barely could understand the language. And it will be their children who will translate its importance.
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