In This Issue

#CountMeIn: An Arts-Based Initiative for the 2020 Census 

Lancaster, CA USA


IN 2018, ROBERT BENITEZ, PROGRAMS COORDINATOR at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH), attended a Los Angeles Regional Census Table about the 2020 Census. Community-based and other non-profit organizations around the county were just beginning to educate themselves on the critical necessity of an accurate count, and to consider what role they might play. Two things stuck with Robert from that meeting. First, he learned that Los Angeles County is the hardest-to-count county in the United States, and that the census blocks closest to the museum were among those contributing to that low response score. With many residents living in low-income senior or family housing, a large “transitional age youth” population, and a significant number of homeless or housing insecure, these are the very people who would benefit from a comprehensive count. Second, he heard the phrase “Change happens at the speed of trust,’’ and had an epiphany. Could an art museum, as a trusted community steward, play a role in bringing about the needed change?

Thirty miles across the Antelope Valley, I was doing public practice work in Littlerock, where I direct the creative place-keeping initiative Real93543.1 We had recently mounted Positively Littlerock, a series of oversized black-and-white photographic portraits pasted on exterior walls along the Pearblossom Highway, foregrounding the everyday people who work the small businesses along that dusty commercial corridor. The striking images by Austin LaCroix were geo-located in an online Story Map Tour2 and linked to audio stories—celebrating local history, unearthing individual narratives, and reflecting community identity.

Community at Que Paisa wall for Positively Littlerock kickoff. Photo: Kent Wilson.

Robert was familiar with my work as he developed a census-related proposal for California Arts Council’s Artists in Communities grant program. His idea was to embed artists in the community to help break down barriers to census participation, with the end goal of increasing downtown Lancaster residents’ responses to the 2020 Census. I was put forward as Lead Artist. We named the initiative #CountMeIn.


EVERY TEN YEARS SINCE 1790 when Thomas Jefferson led the first Census, all United States residents are asked to stand up and be counted: for fair Congressional representation, and for the allocation of federal funding where the needs are greatest. But what happens if a large number of us, including the historically disenfranchised in our midst, have not thought of ourselves as functional members of our community? What if we believe our voices don’t matter? That civic life proceeds without us?

How citizens respond to the call for census participation is an example of what civic agency activist and scholar Harry C. Boyte would call “everyday politics.” Against the common understanding of politics as a factionalized tug of war for power, Boyte’s writing and life’s work locates everyday politics in a buried democratic tradition that has at its center a vision of community collaboration on a human scale. “This different kind of politics…is rooted in local cultures, not only geographic but also in institutions where people encounter each other on a regular, face-to-face basis.”3  

INSTAX WIDE PHOTO, Cedar Center for the Arts, Lancaster, CA.

Barriers to census participation in the thirteen-by-ten block neighborhood surrounding MOAH included: a generalized mistrust of government; the eventually abandoned but still feared immigration status question; insufficient language support; ramifications of insecure housing on residency; and the “digital divide” in technology access and proficiency while the government’s plan called for online self-enumeration as a first resort.

To overcome such barriers artists, as trusted truth tellers, would offer new perspectives, using arts-based engagement as a catalyst for change. The same strategic concept at the heart of Positively Littlerock—centering diverse community members together in common space—would propel #CountMeIn. Recognizing ourselves as integral parts of a larger whole—whether through artistic output by our own hand or made about us—can have enormous impact on our sense of belonging. Belonging leads to stewardship of community assets.


THE CALIFORNIA ARTS COUNCIL’S ARTISTS in Communities program supports artistic residencies in community settings “as vehicles for community vitality.”4 I would spearhead a team of three Artists-in-Residence to develop and facilitate a varied series of engagements over the coming year that would raise awareness and build trust ahead of the count.

The plan was to reach people right where they are: at the senior center, the local church, the dance studio, the cultural centers, the barber and beauty shops, the affordable housing developments. These “free spaces” combine communal ties with public dimensions, and “…a relatively open and participatory character.”5 In these spaces we’d help people “count themselves in” as individuals and as a community, aiming for a shared “this is who we are” moment. 

WOODROW AND FRANK, Antelope Valley Senior Center, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.

Our proposal outlined some initial photo-based strategies. We’d utilize new versions of polaroid-style cameras as icebreakers, for a twist on selfies and some instant gratification. Oversized portraits of residents would be displayed on the streets. Neighbors would document their blocks in Hockney-style photo collages. The hashtags #CountMeIn and #Census2020 would drive the message. During each new engagement, the civic value of census participation, and the online self-enumeration push would be discussed. MOAH would host a Census Action Kiosk (CAK) to provide internet access and assistance. The artworks generated by the community and the embedded artists would be shown in a culminating exhibition, with time remaining to be counted.

My fellow Artists-in-Residence would be photojournalist Wyatt Kenneth Coleman, and multidisciplinary artist and journalist Edwin Vasquez, both well known to the wider Lancaster community. Kenneth’s long career includes documenting the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and collaborations with Coretta Scott King, with a focus on everyday people working towards social justice in their own backyards. Edwin would tell the community’s stories in an ongoing blog, be a wide-ranging Spanish-speaking ambassador for the project, and help run the workshops. I would bring my creative place-keeping experience, and my skill set from a documentary filmmaking practice that is all about immersion in communities. 

MONICA, Lancaster Boulevard, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.

With Museum Director Andi Campognone as our guiding light, Robert Benitez would manage the project for MOAH and curate the exhibition. We got the grant (and later secured matching funds from the California Community Foundation). We were off and running.


MY JOB AS LEAD ARTIST WAS TO keep my eyes on the big picture. We set a goal of one community engagement event each month from July through December. At our first meeting in June 2019, additional collaborators were brought in to develop companion art pieces and augment the Artists-in-Residence team. Illustrator and muralist Nuri Amanatullah is also Art Director for the Housing Corporation of America sites we’d be working with, and would facilitate our presence there. The Antelope Valley-based collective Art in Residence—Nathaniel Cas Ancheta, David Edward Martin, and Janice Ngan— would bring youthful energy to the mix. I started by hitting the streets to explore what neighborhood centers and community organizations might host activations, and Kenneth and I began introducing ourselves at gathering places where he might make photographs.

As the group was developing our first engagement, injuries from an at-home accident prevented Kenneth from continuing. His work was a crucial centerpiece of the project. Fine art photographer Jane Szabo had recently shown a series of highly personal conceptual photographs at MOAH. Her deep portfolio included intimate environmental portraits that spoke beautifully to the needs of the project. Fortunately she was able to take Kenneth’s place.

ESTHER, George’s Cleaners, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.

In my experience, building relationships and trust has much to do with showing up. The incremental process of developing activations with half a dozen community centers and organizations began with meeting their directors and staff. I’d describe the vision for #CountMeIn, get a feeling for each site’s mission and programming, and for their constituents’ needs and interests. We’d then explore what existing situations we might tap into. For those places that clicked, our team would flesh out engagement ideas. I’d continue to liaise on dates, collateral materials, and other details. 

On many days Jane and I would prowl downtown Lancaster for portrait subjects. We’d venture into shops and businesses, set appointments, approach people on the street, and over time discover that spontaneity was our friend. All of these interactions were deeply rewarding. Chef, skateboarder, brewmaster, baker, dancer, pawnshop worker, record collector, security guard, genealogist, tattoo artist, male model, barber, dry cleaner—all became subjects. Our continual presence around The BLVD underscored the integrity of our partnership with the community. As the people of the neighborhood watched the portraits and the engagements accrue, they could see themselves as parts of a larger whole, with a role in the story of their community. Jane had a terrific knack for giving people permission to be themselves. 

WILLIAM AND DOMINIC, Cedar Center for the Arts, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.


THE SIX COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENTS were the spine of #CountMeIn. Loosening our grip on the original photography-based proposal allowed us to take advantage of more organic connections afforded by the partner sites. There were two activations in particular that Jane and I connected with very strongly.

  1. Cedar Center for the Arts – Spotlight Café Poetry Activation. This weekly open mic draws a diverse population who might go uncounted: people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, housing insecure, and disaffected teens. At a café table set with pens, index cards, and warm lamplight, participants used the words “count,” “me,” and “in” to compose poetry around census-related themes like inclusiveness, identity, and belonging. Poets could perform their own piece, or have it read anonymously. The results were deeply moving, and the instant cameras were in such constant rotation we could barely reload the film fast enough. The polaroids taken by the participants at this first event are among the most poignant depictions of the area’s youth we collected. Jane created lovely portraits here, and Art in Residence recorded video segments for later use. 

INSTAX WIDE PHOTO, Cedar Center for the Arts, Lancaster, CA.

  1. Antelope Valley Senior Center and Housing Corporation of America – Crochet & Polaroids. This was my pet project, a long-term activation with two groups of women, one at the local senior center, and the other from three affordable housing communities in downtown Lancaster. Aware that seniors, especially if living in residential communities, often go undercounted in the census, I’d had the Center in my sights from the start, looking to do something there with the instant cameras. The first day sitting with the needlecraft class, it occurred to me that the rigid nature of the film might lend itself to being crocheted inside the centers of common “granny squares.” I snapped and hole-punched some images and needlecrafter Marcella Jackson found a way to build granny squares around them. As folks at the Center learned of the project, they agreed to have their photos taken. I always made them one to take home, sharing the census story with each portrait. Marcella established herself as Lead Crocheter, and we marshalled other women in the group to crochet squares under her watchful eye. I loved listening to the buzz of women enjoying the camaraderie of that room as they worked.

Marcella with granny squares, Antelope Valley Senior Center, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Robin Rosenthal

The concept was replicated with needlecrafters at the HCA sites. Integrating these two mediums—crochet and polaroids—on a large scale created “figurative and literal representations of the social fabric that exists at each location.”6  As a backyard beekeeper, seeing all those faces looking out from the granny square grids reminded me of the “brood cells” from which individual bees emerge to perform their vital roles in the cooperative life of the colony: a perfect encapsulation of my foundational thinking about the #CountMeIn project.

AV SENIORS SQUARED in #CountMeIn exhibition, Lancaster Museum of Art & History, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Jane Szabo Photography.

  1. MOAH Marroquin Family Classroom – Tote Bag Screen Printing. Coinciding with a weekly Farmers Market on The BLVD, artists Nuri Amanatullah and Clovis Blackwell helped participants add the #CountMeIn logo to a screen printed tote bag design created by Clovis. MOAH staff and a colorful sandwich board sign stationed at the corner helped draw a steady stream of market-goers into the street level space for a quick census briefing as they chose their ink color, pulled their own squeegee across the screen, and headed to the market with a freshly printed tote bearing the #CountMeIn message in that most democratic of mediums, screen printing.

NURI AND ALAIA, Lancaster Museum of Art & History, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.

  1. Sacred Heart Church – Virgin of Guadalupe Chalk Drawing. Building trust with this mostly Latinx, Spanish-speaking demographic at the largest church in downtown Lancaster was a crucial component of the larger #CountMeIn initiative. As Robert wrote, “This community has been particularly affected by anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-Spanish speaking sentiments contributing to the politicization of the Census, a climate based in fear, and an ongoing misinformation campaign. Fears of Census data leading to mass deportations became increasingly real and still persist. These fears stoke undercounts of Latinx people in the Census, adversely affecting their communities…7 Therefore, we wanted our engagement activity to honor the community’s own traditions. Accordingly, we organized a drawing event during their saints’ day celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. Families used colored chalk on black paper to create their own powerful interpretations of the Virgin. Hung clothesline art show style for the MOAH exhibition, the drawings testify to the strong faith of their makers. 

Chalk drawing at Sacred Heart Church, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Robin Rosenthal.

  1. The Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley – TAY Portraits. At my initial meeting with Executive Director Sue Page, she educated me about CCAV’s Transitional Age Youth (TAY) program for young adults in insecure housing or aging out of the foster care system. Because of their housing instability, they are often invisible when it comes to being counted. I came to understand that for CCAV staff, their services to this population hold the key to short circuiting the homelessness cycle before it begins. This was the group, ages 18-25, Sue chose for us to work with. I remember the day I took Jane to the Children’s Center to meet the TAY program staff and showed her a meeting room that had an entire wall coated with chalkboard paint. What might we do with that? Jane proposed inviting the youth to use the chalk wall for images and words of special significance for them. She would photograph them in front of their personal statements. We were excited to see what these kids—who’d experienced so much trauma in their lives—would come up with. On the evening of their Christmas party those who’d signed on came to the room one by one. Jane’s sensitive portraits capture each of them not as victims, but as captains of their own destinies. Their words and drawings on the wall lifted our spirits with their messages of resilience, hope, and aspiration. It was an experience neither of us will forget. Beyond their grouping in the #CountMeIn exhibition, several oversized posters made from these images and carrying a Census call-to-action now hang in The Post, CCAV’s drop-in center where young adults can cook, do laundry, and learn other “adulting” essentials.

MELBA, Antelope Valley Children’s Center, Lancaster, CA. © Jane Szabo Photography.

  1. Andrew Frieder Creative Space – Artists Collaborative Bookmaking. For our final activation, we designed a project pointedly “at the intersection of art and civic engagement.8 Fourteen Antelope Valley artists came together to create pages for an artists’ book on the relationship of the Census to our communities. Robert notes the important role artists can play in civic spaces—if they are invited to the table. “Artists are vital members of any community, but they are especially important in communities that have been undercounted. Their ability to flip the script, call leaders out, and beckon others to disrupt the status quo keeps society moving forward. The Antelope Valley is no exception. The artists who call this region home have a unique understanding of the community: its needs, beauty, and the bonds that hold its social fabric together. This knowledge is reflected in their art.”9

Artists at work, Andrew Frieder Creative Space, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Robin Rosenthal

The “maker space” in which the group worked was particularly appropriate. Andrew Frieder, a so-called self-taught artist, was a creative force in the Antelope Valley whose prolific output of drawings and woodblock prints was much admired. After his early death his family donated the entire contents of his Lancaster studio to MOAH, and the Andrew Frieder Creative Space at MOAH:CEDAR was the result. The spirit of inclusivity and community resonated with us as we worked that day. 

#CountMeIn ARTISTS’ BOOK, Lancaster Museum of Art & History, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Jane Szabo Photography.


AS SPRING APPROACHED AND CENSUS mailings were imminent, we prepared to shift our focus from spreading awareness to helping the community get counted. We would make follow-up visits to the sites where we’d worked, and set up the Census Action Kiosk inside MOAH’s street level classroom. Companion #CountMeIn projects were underway with both the count and the culminating exhibitions in mind.

I AM HERE poster at Lemon Leaf Café, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Jane Szabo Photography.

Jane had amassed nearly a hundred community portraits. As a compliment to the gallery exhibition, a street-facing display titled I Am Here would showcase thirty of these images on 4’ x 6’ posters with taglines like I Belong Here; I Work Here; and I Create Here; and feature a call-to-action for online self-enumeration. These would be installed in storefront windows in April—traditionally census month.

Edwin was editing a video from his blog interviews. Art in Residence was working on an augmented reality concept overlaying downtown Lancaster “now” with Lancaster “then,” plus an immersive installation from images and sounds collected over the course of the project. Nuri was designing a mural referencing downtown Lancaster for MOAH’s two-story entryway. Archeologist Dr. Bruce Love was putting together a First Peoples’ exhibit about the Antelope Valley’s earliest residents.

And then along came COVID-19.

Nuri Amanatullah paints Don’t Look Back, You’re Not Going That Way mural during COVID-19, Lancaster Museum of Art & History, Lancaster, CA. Photo: Andi Campognone.


ON THE DAY A BOXFUL OF CENSUS ACTION KIOSK materials arrived at MOAH, the kiosk program was suspended. The I Am Here posters were printed and ready for storefront windows, but once Safer At Home took hold, there were fewer shops open to let MOAH staffers inside. The artwork from the community and the artists was delivered to the museum in social distancing mode, and installation of the exhibition proceeded despite the uncertainties.

MOAH staff installs #CountMeIn exhibition during COVID-19. Photo: Lancaster Museum of Art & History.

The opportunity for the entire community to come together for the May 9th opening reception, and see images of themselves and the artwork they created in the central space of the museum, was always a key component of our strategy for increasing the count. It soon became clear there could be no grand public opening inside the museum on May 9th. Museum Director Andi Campognone, Robert, and MOAH staff quickly pivoted to alternate strategies.

Photographer Birdman was engaged to create a fully 360-degree Virtual Tour11 of the entire #CountMeIn suite of shows. The tour went online for opening day, and the link has been widely disseminated. Under the circumstances, it’s the best possible substitute for being there, with all artists’ statements, wall didactics, and videos accessible at a click. Link:

Since we could no longer meet with the community, several downtown billboards carry Jane’s portraits of residents with a call-to-action. A book about the project is underway. We all publish #CountMeIn posts on our social media, using visuals from the exhibition that waits on the museum walls. Now our messaging reminds people that the census determines which communities get the resources to respond to public health emergencies like this one. 

#CountMeIn Poetry Activation exhibition view. Photo: Jane Szabo Photography.

As I write, MOAH plans a safe re-opening before the exhibition’s closing date of August 16th. In the meantime the #CountMeIn team has participated in public dialogues on Instagram LIVE and on Zoom. We continue to connect with the community in any way we can. The government has extended the deadline for self-response by three months, until October 31, 2020. Time will tell if we will have accomplished our goal of increasing downtown Lancaster’s participation.

We could never have anticipated the effect current events would have on our hyperlocal civic engagement initiative. The ravages of the pandemic have stripped bare the persistent societal inequities in every corner of the country. From a landscape of pent-up frustration, a volcano has erupted in the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd. Both remind us of our need to find strength in community, as we share in its benefits and burdens. And once again it is starkly clear that if there ever was a time for neighbors to become collaborators in writing their community’s future story, it’s now.

UPDATE, September 29, 2020

Since this article was written in early June, there have been several developments impacting the 2020 Census and the #CountMeIn project.

1) After COVID-19 considerations caused the Census self-response deadline to be extended until October 31st, the Trump administration abruptly shortened the deadline back to September 30th, jeopardizing the accuracy of the count. Those most likely to be harmed are immigrants and people of color, often among the hardest to count populations. After a court challenge by the National Urban League and other groups including the City of Los Angeles, a federal court last week restored the October 31st deadline. The Trump administration is appealing, and anything is possible.

2) President Trump had also sought to exclude non-citizens from the count used to allot House of Representatives seats, which would negatively affect states with large immigrant populations. The President’s order was ruled illegal by a federal court on September 10th.

3) The Lancaster Museum of Art and History’s “safe reopening” of the #CountMeIn exhibition was successful but short-lived due to County restrictions as COVID cases rose. The show has been extended until December 27, 2020 with hopes of another period of socially distanced, timed entry before closing. In the meantime, those interested can take the Virtual Tour through May 2021 at


1 Url for Real93543 website:

2 Url for Positively Littlerock Story Map Tour:

3 Harry C. Boyte, “Everyday Politics and Civic Engagement,” The New York Times, 2004, retrieved from:

4 California Arts Council Artists in Communities guidelines,

5 Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America, University of Chicago Press, 2nd Edition, p. ix.

6 Robert Benitez, wall didactics for #CountMeIn exhibition, Lancaster Museum of Art & History, May 9-August 16, 2020.

7 Benitez, #CountMeIn wall didactics.

8 Benitez, #CountMeIn wall didactics.

9 Benitez, #CountMeIn wall didactics.

10 Url for Jane Szabo Photography website’s portfolio selections from #CountMeIn:

11 Url for 360-degree Virtual Tour of #CountMeIn exhibition: