SAN FRANCISCO — Many months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives and took hold of our collective psyche, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) was approached by independent curator and activist Amy Kisch. She had been commissioned by San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) to develop an arts-driven campaign around the 2020 US Census — a once-a-decade population count that plays a fundamental role in our democracy. Her idea was to enter into a unique arts and civic partnership with YBCA, a center for art and social change, to amplify and expand this work. As CEO of YBCA, myself and my colleagues at the center eagerly agreed to collaborate. Together we planned a historic new broad-based coalition called Art+Action, spanning the art, creative, community, business, technology, philanthropy, and government sectors.
Critically, census data is used to ensure fair political representation and to determine the distribution of billions of dollars for crucial federal programs and resources, ranging from healthcare to education, for our communities.
Even before the days of social distancing, we understood that our current social and political conditions pose grave challenges to the census’s ability to count every single person living in our country. These conditions include government underinvestment, misinformation campaigns, and (failed) efforts by the Trump administration to include a citizenship question. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey looking at those who may not participate, roughly a third (34 percent) of adults say feel the census asks too much personal information. A similar percentage of adults say they might not participate because they don’t trust the government to use the information properly. Among adults younger than 30 years old, 40 percent say a major reason they are not likely to participate is that they don’t know much about it. Now, the distrust in the federal government and general fear which have grown over the past few weeks, along with increased isolation, only exacerbate these conditions. Indeed, the 2020 US Census could be a quiet catastrophe waiting to happen.
We also know the census has unique obstacles for the more than five million of us working in the arts and culture sector. As a field rich in diversity, many of our members belong to inherently “hard-to-count” communities that are at risk of being under-represented in the data, and therefore under-resourced. Oftentimes we are itinerant — traveling for teaching or residencies, or simply moving between studio spaces — which creates opportunities for us to fall through the gaps. Estimates from the 2010 census demonstrate that Black communities were undercounted by nearly 10 percent, showing that artists and arts workers of color are at significant risk of being left out.
And yet, in addition to shaping fundamental issues like political representation, the census will impact the professional lives of us all. The 40 percent of the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget allotted for state arts agencies is determined on a per capita basis. The education funding derived from census calculations impacts the quality of arts education children receive, and opportunities for arts educators. Businesses make decisions on where to locate based on population trends reported by census data, bringing with them opportunities for individuals working across the arts, from designers and painters to filmmakers and dancers.
These mounting obstacles call for artists to lead the way in ensuring an accurate census. In these uncertain days, we must quickly mobilize to reach people where they are and guarantee that they are not only safely counted, but that they know that they matter, and that they have power. As many of us know, the strongest art has the ability to affirm our existence and encourage a sense of belonging.
To these ends, YBCA is quickly moving to digital to reach San Francisco’s hard-to-count communities in the coming months and engage them in the 2020 census. Pivoting from outdoor festivals, public panels, and exhibitions during the pandemic, our artists have adapted nimbly to operating in online spaces as part of Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America?, a digital art and civic experience.
For instance, artist and writer Dorothy Santos has designed a web-based game examining the census questions and their impact on communities. Both a cultural history and educational text, this game offers a critical look into the style guidelines of the census.
Meanwhile, artists and former YBCA Fellows Lukas Brekke-Miesner, Chris Hamamoto, and Takeshi Moro have transferred their project Breaking ICE to an interactive website. Loosely based on the 100 questions that US Citizenship and Immigration Services uses to test aspiring citizens, the project replaces the queries with political, personal, and philosophical prompts. Online viewers explore the idea of citizenship as a sense of belonging rather than a legal status. The site will be available in four languages: English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Traditional Chinese.
Also, artists Ana Teresa Fernández and Arleene Correa Valencia will bring their SOMOS VISIBLES / WE ARE NOT INVISIBLE project online with step-by-step videos showing how to create high-vis neon sweatshirts at home bearing the same declaration, encouraging those from traditionally underrepresented communities such as undocumented folks, immigrants, and laborers to claim their fair share of resources and political representation.
If we have ever needed to catalyze the public imagination to help us all believe that we are not alone, it is now. We have to organize and believe there is a better, more just, and more equitable future. Artists, we know many of you are struggling, but we need your vision, voice, and ideas. We are here to support you and your communities in advocating for the resources we all deserve.