Stacey Abrams Partners With Stars to Boost Census Participation: "We Can't Be Left Out of the Story"

politician Stacey Abrams -Getty - H 2020
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

Stacey Abrams is on a mission on behalf of the U.S. Census. 

The politician, lawyer, voting rights activist, author and former minority leader in Georgia's House of Representatives has partnered with America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama and Ryan Piers Williams' nonprofit Harness to help reach as many people as possible and get them to fill out this year's census count by the Oct. 31 deadline. The partnership hits very close to home for Abrams as she founded her own organization, Fair Count, and has long made fair and accurate representation and equity part of her political and social platforms. She even devotes an entire chapter in her book, Our Time Is Now, to the census and all of its implications for a more just future. 

Abrams and the trio behind Harness have linked up just as Harness, in partnership with NowThis, has debuted a pair of PSAs (one in English, one in Spanish) to help promote the #BeCounted campaign to encourage more residents to fill out census documents by the Oct. 31 deadline. Per today's announcement, it is "aimed to reach hard-to-count, minority communities that are notoriously undercounted." Those featured in the PSAs include Abrams, Ferrera, Valderrama, Adam Rodriguez, Alfre Woodard, Amy Schumer, Connie Britton, Cornelius Smith Jr., Daniel Dae Kim, Darren Criss, Emily Wickersham, Eva Longoria, Fawn Sharp, Gloria Calderón Kellett, Joaquin Phoenix, Justin Timberlake, Kelly Ripa, Kenny Leon, Kerry Washington, Meryl Streep, Queen Latifah, Rooney Mara, Rosario Dawson and Sandra Oh, among many activists and organization leaders. 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Abrams by phone to discuss the importance of this year's census, how it can be used to advance racial justice, and how Hollywood can continue to help boost participation. 

What is the biggest challenge in an accurate census count, and how will this initiative #BeCounted contribute to fair representation?

There are twin challenges in this year census. One is the misinformation campaign that was unfortunately part of the Trump administration, which attempted to include a citizenship question, and that served, intentionally, to disincentivize immigrant communities and families that have mixed documentation status from participating. Even though we were able to defeat that question, the rumor persists that it somehow will harm families of mixed documentation status. The concomitant challenge for the Black community is the rumor that it can be used to somehow investigate families. Given the mass incarceration challenge we have — particularly for Black communities — that has also served as a disincentive. So, misinformation has been one of the key challenges that we were designed to overcome, and then what got layered on top, of course, is COVID-19, which blocks the enumerators, people who would do door-to-door knocking, because it's difficult to do that in this moment. The hardest-to-reach communities are the ones who most often rely on the enumerators and because they have not been deployed at the scale that they were supposed to, the very communities we were most afraid of not participating now become even more heightened in their jeopardy of not being included.

How can the census be used to advance racial justice?

We have to recognize that the census does two things: It allocates economic resources, and when you think about systemic inequities that often are visited upon communities of color, this is critical, and it's critical namely for those communities that traditionally are not only racial minorities in our country but are economic minorities. We have seen again in the wake of COVID-19, the most under-resourced communities have been communities of color. The resources being utilized in part to respond to COVID are based on the 2010 census, when these communities were undercounted. That's why we saw a deep cry for support by the Navajo community that covers three states by the African American community. You're seeing rising rates among Black communities, and we know that there are pockets of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities that also go undercounted. There's this economic investment that is critical if we want to break these systemic inequities. On the other side is the political power. The census allocates the numbers that are used to determine every single level of representative government — from the school board all the way to Congress. If the numbers do not reflect the communities, especially the racial dimensions of those communities, then there is a dilution of their power to participate because the lines are drawn to divide them as opposed to support their participation in our democracy.

#BeCounted brings you together with Hollywood activists America Ferrera, Ryan Piers Williams and Wilmer Valderrama and their Harness organization. How influential can Hollywood be in this census push, and what can others be doing between now and Oct. 31?

I am so proud of the partnership that we have between Fair Count and Harness because we know that actors, actresses, influencers and artists are trusted voices in their communities who have the ability to cut through what sometimes can be seen as partisan conversations about what's happening. They can truly be seen as truth tellers. More importantly, they are examples of what is possible when we harness our full political and economic power. That is why I was so proud to be in that closed-door conversation with Kerry Washington, and why I'm so proud of America, Wilmer and Ryan for pulling Harness together, and why I'm delighted that so many of these artists have agreed to step up and be a part of it. We know that this is the most diverse our nation has ever been, and we know that diversity can either be used as fuel for our progress or as an excuse for continuing the systematic racism and systemic injustice that so many are lifting up their voices to decry. I want these voices included because that's how we create change. We have to demonstrate in the streets. We have to march on ballot boxes. We also have to be counted because we get our economic and political power in no small part from who is seen as being here in America. That is only a story we tell every 10 years. We can't be left out of the story for this decade.

It was just reported that your voting rights documentary was acquired by Amazon. How was the filming process and were there any surprise moments that caught you off guard?

I'm just honored to be in partnership with Story Syndicate. Our filmmakers are Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes, and Dan Cogan is a co-producer as part of Story Syndicate. It was exciting to me to be able to tell the full arc of not just voter suppression as a historical challenge that we faced from the inception of our country, but to really contextualize what current-day voter suppression looks like. As we watch the protests, the anguish that is pervading our country, the fallout from these extrajudicial killings, the devastation being reaped across communities of color by COVID-19 because they are disproportionately likely to both contract the disease, but also to be affected by the economics of COVID-19, what this documentary lets us do is put all of this into current context to show why voting matters. We cannot presume that a single vote will change the world, but we know that the persistence of voting is the only way we have ever been able to gather and maintain change. That progress is what we need.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.