Stacey Abrams on the 'Power' of the 2020 Census & Teaming Up with Stars Like Kerry Washington
"If you believe that we need to change and need to make progress, the money and the political will is determined by the census," she says
When it comes to voting rights, Stacey Abrams is often the teacher.
So when Abrams hopped on a video conference call with actors Kerry Washington, America Ferrera, Ferrera's husband, Ryan Piers Williams, and Wilmer Valderrama to discuss the importance of the 2020 census ahead of their joint #BeCounted campaign, the Georgia politician was impressed with the celebrities' eagerness and willingness to use their platforms to encourage others to participate.
"It felt like I was in class," Abrams, 46, tells PEOPLE about the conference call. "I'm deeply grateful that America and Wilmer and Ryan and Kerry and others understand just how vital this is, not simply to addressing a single statistical count, but to planning for a decade of progress. That's what the census does."
Abrams, the Democratic former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial election to Brian Kemp, who was then the state's secretary of state overseeing the election. That vote is widely remembered as a contentious and controversial contest, marred by questions about voting access
Abrams has since made spreading awareness about voting rights and eliminating voter suppression her two main priorities. At the root of fixing these issues, she tells PEOPLE, is the 2020 census that numbers the country's population and determines a state's representation in Congress and how to divvy the Electoral College that elects the president.
"If you believe that we need to change and need to make progress, the money and the political will is determined by the census," Abrams says. "It is the source of economic power and political power, particularly for those who are on the margin or who are the least likely to have power."
Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, a wave of protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd's death and ahead of the closely watched campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Abrams' organization Fair Count is teaming with Harness (an organization founded by Ferrera, Valderrama and Piers Williams) to raise awareness about why the 2020 census is so "vital" to the future of local communities and the country itself.
Abrams — the first Black woman to be the gubernatorial nominee of either the Democratic or Republican parties — is arguably the most active politician on voting rights, but she certainly isn't the only person involved.
Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas and others have called on Americans to turn out for the 2020 presidential election, but Abrams and her initiative seek to also raise awareness about the importance of the census.
Teaming up with this specific group of celebrities was an important step in raising public awareness, she tells PEOPLE.
"What was so critical to me is that these are voices who are trusted truth-tellers," Abrams says. "They are people who represent the spectrum of our community and they are folks who can cut through what can sometimes seem like political talk and instead offer real insights — and to do it in a way that people can hear and feel, because that's what I want most of all."
Abrams was in the midst of a cross-country bus tour promoting the importance of the census when the coronavirus began openly spreading in the U.S. in February and ultimately forced her team off the road in mid-March once social distancing recommendations were announced.
Forced to readjust, Abrams says her team decided to amp up its online outreach.
"We have been able to adapt to COVID [the coronavirus disease]," she says, "But the problem is that doesn't happen everywhere in the country and the hardest to count communities are indeed lagging behind. And we know that if communities of color, Black and brown communities are not counted in the census, they stand to lose upwards of eight billion in investments every year for the next 10 years."
That, Abrams says, pointing to increased COVID-19 infection rates among minority populations, has proved to have a "devastating" impact.
The Navajo Nation reported this month that its population has a higher per-capita infection rate than any state, and it has reported a death toll higher than seven states combined.
Recent numbers from the Navajo Department of Health show the Navajo Nation has more than 3,600 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. At the same time, New York — once the epicenters of the pandemic — had about 2,000 cases per 100,000.
"We have seen the disproportionate likelihood of [infections among] Black and brown people, especially Black families," Abrams says. "Black people, we have doubled the rate of infections of every other community, but we also have, we've lagged behind in the resources to address it. That's because of the under count and the census in 2010."
She says the 2020 census and the Nov. 3 election are so important, because "the census data is collected in 2020, but the people who get to use it, to set our futures, get elected and take office in 2021."
"Whoever gets elected in 2020, especially at the state legislative level, they will decide the lines of power, the district that you live in, who you get to pick," Abrams says. "They'll decide this for the next 10 years."
Abrams' campaign has had somewhat of an uphill battle in the face of what she said was "intentional disinformation pushed out by the Trump administration, in an attempt to scare communities, especially communities of color, out of participation."
Last year, the Supreme Court and three additional federal judges all blocked the Trump administration's attempt to add on a question to the 2020 census about a person's citizenship.
Abrams wants people to understand that question will not appear on the 2020 census and that all people currently living in the U.S. should fill out the census in order to make sure their communities are properly funded.
The census helps provide population statistics used in redrawing local voting district maps. The government also uses the data collected from the census to determine how to distribute money to different communities around the country — funds used for things like schools and roads.
Part of the joint #BeCounted campaign spearheaded by Abrams and Washington and Valderrama, Abrams says, is to eliminate "some of the concerns, the rumors and the misinformation" about the census.
"But it also explains the power" of the 2020 census, Abrams tells PEOPLE.
"The census shouldn't just be seen as something you've got to suffer through or be afraid of," she says. "It should be seen as a tool for how you can have more investment in your community, have more political power in your neighborhood and how we can have a better stay over policing policies, over environmental policies, reproductive choice. You name the point of progress or the point of contention, and the more people who are part of the conversation, the more progress we will make: That's what the census guarantees us, that we are included for the next decade."