Empowering Pacific Islander Communities logo for census on Facebook

When John Ena’s mother discovered via Facebook the video he did urging Samoan residents of the United States to participate in the 2020 U.S. census, he knew it was going viral.

He also realized that online methods of communicating the importance of the census were going to be a vital part of reaching Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations — even before the novel coronavirus pandemic led to stay-at-home orders for millions of Americans.

“We know that social media is definitely where all of our folks are at, including my mother — who is 75,” said Ena, program director at the Samoan Community Development Center in San Francisco.

As a trusted voice of leadership in the Samoan community, Ena is featured in two public service announcement videos urging people of NHPI descent to participate in the country’s decennial population count.

One of the videos was produced by Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, or EPIC, a Los Angeles-based civil rights and research organization, which also produced seven other videos in different Pacific Island languages aimed at NHPI communities living in the continental U.S.

YouTube video

The fact that the videos are in Fijian, Tongan, Hawaiian, Samoan, Marshallese, Chamorro, Chuuk and Palauan is critical, since none of the 59 languages in which the U.S. Census Bureau provides information are from the Pacific Islands.

Also, the census form itself is only available in 13 languages, none of which are NHPI.

“It was also really important to create something that reflected the diversity of our Pacific Islander communities,” said Tavae Samuelu, EPIC’s executive director.

Some of the original materials intended for census awareness campaigns only featured hula dancers, for example, which as Hawaiian cultural symbols aren’t shared by the wide variety of people the messages were intended to reach.

Others didn’t show people at all, Samuelu said.

The EPIC videos, by contrast, feature NHPI people in everyday environments, like living rooms, churches, community centers, parks and libraries.

The messages are delivered by people from the communities for which the videos are intended and are tailored specifically for those populations.

“Our participation in the 2020 census will confirm our population as Fijians and allow our voices to be heard and our needs known,” says narrator Taniela Vuniwai of the Fijian United Methodist Church of Petaluma in one video.

“There are some that will discriminate and try to divide us. They’ll want us not to participate in the census,” Viniwai says over images of Fijian women preparing a large communal meal in the church kitchen.

“Our participation in the census is a way to stand up and support our getting counted and defying discrimination,” he says.

In another video, a female elder, Sermong Omar of United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance in Portland, Oregon, asks Palauans to fill out the census forms to help Micronesian communities take full advantage of federal funding and resource allocations, which are based on the count.

“We have a responsibility much like the role we play when we engage in our community improvement projects back on our island nation,” Omar says.

The videos have a strong documentary feel and provide fleeting — each video is only about one minute long — but authentic images of NHPI families and individuals.

“You want to make sure that people see themselves and the power that they bring,” said Jean Leasiolagi, the videographer who filmed the Micronesian PSAs.

YouTube video

“It was really beautiful to be invited into folks’ churches and into folks’ homes,” Leasiolagi said.

Organizers hope that the messages will inspire as many people as possible to participate in the census so that NHPI populations, which have experienced significant undercounts in previous efforts, aren’t overlooked.

“In the past, folks didn’t know what the census was. It wasn’t a conversation that people were having,” Leasiolagi said.

It’s critically important that NHPI communities are fully counted despite the language barriers and stay-at-home orders that might weaken census outreach efforts, since they are among the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population.

According to data compiled by EPIC, the NHPI population grew 29 percent between 2000 and 2010 and a U.S. Census Bureau population estimate put California’s NHPI population at over 340,000 in 2013.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders live throughout the state, with the largest populations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Alameda and Orange counties and some of the fastest-growing populations in Riverside, San Bernardino and Contra Costa counties, according to a 2014 EPIC study, “A Community in Contrast: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in California.”

EPIC Executive Director Tavae Samuelu.

As part of EPIC’s census outreach strategy, the videos are being distributed to state and national community-based organizations and are intended to be shared widely among NHPI communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders and social distancing directives implemented across much of the country, however, have seriously hampered long-planned census outreach efforts.

“We were relying on annual cultural events to reach the NHPI community, so since the newest COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings we’ve had to make a significant pivot to a digital strategy,” Samuelu said.

“The in-language videos are important content, and we’re leaning on them even more now as tools in our outreach efforts,” she said. “They don’t, however, replace the trusted messengers and the relationship building work we have to do to make sure they’re disseminated beyond our usual networks.”

And while the U.S. Census Bureau has modified some its own deadlines in response to the pandemic, it’s still under pressure to provide the data to the federal government by December.

“We’re also grappling with the challenge of making the census feel urgent and relevant in the midst of a pandemic,” Samuelu said.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.