The future is speaking – listen up

Sabrina McFarland

by Rosina Ghebreyesus

More and more youth are stepping up to get their families counted in the 2020 census. Talking with a few young Frisco natives, new perspectives are gained on the dynamics of growing up in hard-to-count communities. 

For most born and raised in some of San Francisco’s brightest communities, they often became some of the most neglected. Yet, that experience makes you step up before your time, while molding you to be a go-getter. 

In 2019, Visitacion Valley native Sabrina McFarland became the National Youth of the Year for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. This honor is no easy feat. It’s her grit and the way she used her story to uplift herself that got her where she is today.

Discussing her experience with the census, Sabrina said: “I remember when my mom filled it out when I was 10, and I just remember being like, ‘What is this?’ And I think at the time actually there was a whole scandal because there was a scam going on with people sending fake U.S. census forms to steal information. And I remember being so wary of that, and I was just like ‘Don’t ever fill out those papers.’” 

McFarland explained how experiences like these deterred folks altogether from getting counted in the census. The fear of providing your personal information was far too great a risk for already vulnerable communities. 

Funding from the census goes directly into addressing the needs of hard-to-count communities all over the city. Whatever you wish your district had more of, y’all can have it.

“Especially what I realized was that a lot of people of color, especially like Black people, they don’t trust the government at all and that lack of trust has fed into a lot of things that I feel like are more detrimental to the Black community. But at the same time, these numbers are very important to really get a sense of what is needed, and who is there. 

“You only get that one chance every 10 years, so it’s very important to get that information. But I just know a lot of people don’t trust the government. Historically, they have every right to not trust the government, especially the US government.” 

Familiar faces always bring a sense of peace, and it’s those friendly faces that can be the difference in boosting counts in hard-to-count communities. McFarland brought up a great point to invest in the people already doing the work. 

“A lot of grassroots organizations, a lot of community people who are already in those communities – like really reaching out and connecting with people – can help numbers. I feel like people trust community leaders a lot more than they’re going to trust the US government. 

“So if you’ve got community leaders on board and they’re like, ‘Look, we need y’all to do the census. We need people to fill this out. This is going to in the long run really help the government allocate funds or be able to assist us.’” 

Honing in on the community supporting the community is an investment worth pursuing in the effort to get an accurate count and resources out to the people. In searching for guidance and information on any topic, you seek those you trust – it’s the same here. 

Funding from the census goes directly into addressing the needs of hard-to-count communities all over the city. Whatever you wish your district had more of, y’all can have it. It’s just about knowing how to acquire what’s out there. 

If McFarland could put census funding to work in Visitacion Valley, she’d allocate it toward “the need for a space for teen and youth outlets, and safe places to go, I think that’s super important. Especially so kids don’t have to get caught up in any type of non-productive or non-positive activities. 

Now is the time for discussions to be had about concrete methods of putting actual resources in hard-to-count communities. Politicians don’t have the answers – the community does.

“Even jobs, there’s a lot of people out here doing community work, but people don’t wanna see it. It’s not like your regular corporate job or it’s not your regular manual work job, but in a way you’re still contributing to the community. 

“And I wanna see people getting paid to do that work now – normalizing it more and not fitting this standard of what our society tells us is a form of success or what we should be doing.” 

Now is the time for discussions to be had about concrete methods of putting actual resources in hard-to-count communities. Politicians don’t have the answers – the community does. It’s about listening without talking, it’s about acting on the information given. Bright minds and ideas live in these communities. If we want a better city and a better world, it’s time we fund them. 

Leya Elias is a first-generation Eritrean-Ethiopian San Francisco native. She has always been a kind-hearted soul, with a fierce passion for the justice and economic growth for all Black people. Interning at IMPACT and in then-district Supervisor London Breed’s office, she continues to grow as a young Black woman shaping change in her community. 

Leya Elias

While making a home at Stanford University working on her degree in psychology with two minors in political science and Black studies, she was selected as a Truman 2020 scholar. She’s a force for change. 

Speaking to her experience with this year’s census, Elias said, “My supervisor, Shamann Walton, has been sending a lot of emails reminding me to get counted and I got counted with my household in the city. That’s been the extent of my experience really. 

“I just know that it’s very important for my family because we’re Black to get counted in San Francisco, because I know there’s already a lot of Black people not being counted in the Bay Area because of housing. So, given that we have the security of having a home, we should definitely be getting counted.” 

Revisiting the idea of how important understanding the value of the census is, Elias said, “Even now, unless you’re looking, it’s not widely as clear that being counted in the census as a Black person in the Bay Area is very important. I think in 2015 it definitely wasn’t either. 

“The only reason I think now it was more clear is that while the Black Lives Matter stuff was happening a few months ago, and conversations were happening around redirecting funding to the Black community, I think there’s lots of misconceptions around, ‘Oh! are there even Black people in the Bay Area?’ There is this first level of not knowing that Black people even are in the Bay Area and the second level of knowing who are the Black people in the Bay Area and what are their needs.” 

Both McFarland and Elias pointed out that knowing who lives in these severely undercounted communities and what their needs are is the first step to knowing how to get them counted. Understanding the circumstances of why someone isn’t doing something can you tell you more about how to get them active by addressing unmet needs. 

As this census count comes to a close, it’s important to get counted as soon as possible online, at my2020census.gov, or over the phone, at 844-330-2020.

“I think the census is the first step to being able to provide the community the support that it needs. Like, knowing that we’re there, knowing where we are, is the first step to being able to provide us the support that we need. So that was on my mind, and I think that’s just been on a lot of people’s minds and that’s been a big reason as to why I was really making sure that our family filled out our census,” said Elias. 

We live in a time where it is common to see youth ages 13 and above very active in politics, social justice reform and human rights issues. It’s no surprise that young folks in the Bay Area and nationwide have a stance on how the census can perform better. 

This census year, the organization United We Dream led census workshops discussing the importance of the census using Facebook Live’s question desks, going on to craft strategies for how more youth and people from hard-to-count communities can get counted. 

Graphic: United We Dream 

United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country, and in February they used their platform to educate and discuss getting counted with young people. They opened up the conversation via Twitter and Facebook to extend even further into their community. This type of outreach is a great model for how hard-to-count census tracts in San Francisco can be aided and educated about an otherwise overlooked opportunity for greater economic development. 

Elias agreed that social media is a great tool to wield when trying to inform people from various demographics of what the census does. She said, “I think commercials, social media, flyering at worker unions, like SEIU local union chapters, and schools are necessary. I think hard to reach communities are around these worker unions, and they’re around schools.” Targeting these communities can have a great influence by planting much needed seeds. 

Common themes that have arisen across all conversations regarding the census include a deep distrust of government. While advertisements on buses are motivating folks in all communities to get counted, it seems the message they need to hear is that their information is safe. 

Having conversations, educating each other and holding events catered to the community’s needs can steer folks on the path to getting counted and acquiring overdue resources.

Elias added: “The lack of clarity also leaves more room for distress, right? There’s like all these reasons – like ICE being at the courthouse, ICE telling San Francisco, ‘Oh well, we have more power than y’all so we’ll be here.’ 

“There are a plethora of reasons as to why people would not want to give their data over. The Bay Area census just needs to do a better job of giving people more reasons to give their data over. Right now, those reasons aren’t clear.” 

As this census count comes to a close, it’s important to get counted as soon as possible online, at my2020census.gov, or over the phone, at 844-330-2020. In this next decade leading up to the 2030 census, implementing these strategies adopted by our youth and community members can make the difference in eliminating fear around the census. 

Having conversations, educating each other and holding events catered to the community’s needs can steer folks on the path to getting counted and acquiring overdue resources. If these months in a pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t wait any longer. The time is now. 

Rosina Ghebreyesus is a Mills College undergrad studying journalism. She was born and raised in San Francisco, where she lives with her four siblings, mother and grandmother. Her family moved to San Francisco from Eritrea, East Africa, in the ‘80s. She can be reached at rosinag626@gmail.com.