By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 25, 2020 at 10:30 AM EDT
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Stacey Abrams really wants you to take the census.

The politician, who made history as the first Black woman to run for governor and deliver a response to the State of the Union address, is one of numerous forces behind a new #BeCounted PSA dedicated to the 2020 Census. #BeCounted is in partnership with Abrams' organization Fair Count and Harness, an advocacy organization founded by America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, and Ryan Piers Williams to engage artists in social change.

"It is so important for underrepresented communities to respond to the census, especially immigrants. You don’t need to be a U.S. citizen to take it. The census is counted by whoever is living in your household as of April 1st," said Wilmer Valderrama, co-founder of Harness, in a statement exclusive to EW. "That’s key because, in areas where there are large populations of immigrants, responding to the 2020 Census will help ensure resources can be directed toward services that support these communities while helping elect leaders who will fight on immigrants’ behalf in government."

Abrams is one of many recognizable faces, including Meryl Streep, Darren Criss, Connie Britton, Queen Latifah, Justin Timberlake, and Kerry Washington, participating in the video, which can be seen above. #BeCounted launches this PSA (in both English and Spanish) produced in partnership with NowThis to help raise awareness about the immense power and impact of the United States Census.

"The census is one of the most powerful tools of progress in America, and one of the least understood. It's how we allocate $1.5 trillion in investment every year, and it's also how we allocate political power for a decade," Abrams tells EW.

The #BeCounted initiative is just one of many efforts Abrams is engaged in to raise awareness around the power of the census and fight for voting rights. While #BeCounted is an extension of her work with Fair Count and her voting rights organization Fair Fight, she also addresses the census in depth in her new book Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. 

Abrams is also one of the subjects of And She Could Be Next, a two-part documentary series premiering on PBS on June 29, which chronicles the story of a defiant movement of women of color who are transforming American politics from the ground up. It's not the only documentary on her docket either; she's also featured in a still-untitled voting rights documentary from Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, which Amazon is slated to release this fall.

We called up Abrams to talk about the PSA, all things census, and her many upcoming avenues of civic engagement.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is the census so important and what prompted you to make a PSA about it right now?

STACEY ABRAMS: The census is one of the most powerful tools of progress in America, and one of the least understood. With the communities of color that are slated to be undercounted and not included in the census, it will force $8.2 billion out of those communities every year. Just to give an example of why that matters, if you look at the undercount from the 2010 census, there's almost a direct line to the under-resourcing of communities for investment in COVID-19 relief. When you are not counted, you're not included in the decisions, and you're also not included in the allocation of resources. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a correlation between the undercount of communities of color, especially Black communities, and the fact that they are disproportionately likely to not only contract COVID-19 but to have the least amount of response and investment to their support.

That's just one example, but the other one to remember is that we pick the people who will decide how we draw the lines of political powers...And so the lines that get drawn are based on the 2020 census. The power is allocated based on who gets counted.

You have an incredible lineup of talent in the PSA, and in recent years, for better or worse, we've seen the increasing intersection between celebrity and politics. Why do you think it's important to have recognizable faces and actors in a political PSA?

I want to push back on this being political. It's political only in the sense that the Constitution is the census's authority, but it's one of the most American things we do. We need communities that are often kept out of the process, often ignored by these decisions. We need them to understand that this is a part of their story too, and there are no better storytellers in America than the artists that are part of this PSA. We are simply saying that you are a part of our American story and you should be counted. Having familiar faces that are trusted, whose voices have spoken up and said, "Here are ways that you can take power and ownership." Most importantly, there's an urgency. The census only happens once every 10 years, there is no do-over. And so we need every single power base that we can find.

How did you and your team go about rounding up all this talent and locking in those participants?

So I was introduced to America Ferrera a few years ago, and we were able to stay in touch, and I've also had opportunities to work with Kerry Washington. America and Kerry convened a closed-door conversation a few weeks ago, and a number of these artists were part of that conversation, and then Harness pulled this together. So we're excited that they have agreed to take this so seriously, not only America and Kerry but Wilmer and Ryan. And the partnership was Now This, which is a phenomenal tool for pushing out information, particularly to those communities that are the least likely to receive this information, and that is minority communities and particularly young people.

How essential do you think it is for actors and storytellers to use their platform for civic conversation?

It's critical because too often, politics is seen as this elite conversation, and worse, it is seen as a conversation that doesn't have anything to do with people's daily lives. The census is about our daily lives. If you have a child who goes to school and needs access to a school lunch, it's decided by the census. If you want to go to college, your Pell Grant is decided by the census. If you want to start a business, the resources in your community are determined by the census. And if you like driving on roads, roads and bridges and decisions about transportation and housing, all of that comes from the census. We need their voices because they can cut through, but it's too often seen as political talk. They can help. They can be seen as truth-tellers. And that's what's so critical in this moment. We need people to understand this census is about them, not about politics.

You already addressed how the census could impact the COVID-19 response, but I know another big issue that so many people are concerned about right now is police brutality and police funding. Could you just speak a little bit about how the census could also be essential to attacking those issues when it comes to allocating resources?

That is affected by the decisions made by our city councils or county commissions, our state legislatures, and Congress. That means if you participate in the census, if you want to vote in the people who will make change and vote out the people who think everything is fine, you have to be included in the census because that draws the political lines. And then at the exact same time, the $1.5 trillion that are allocated every year include dollars that go for community investment, community policing, but also housing and education. If you believe in a transformation of how we fund our public priorities, [you have to be] included in the census because that determines where those resources go. If we want reformation and transformation in the wake of police brutality, it has to be included in the census. Fundamentally, this is a long process. Change takes time. But if we aren't there at the beginning of the conversation, we will be left out for 10 years, and a decade is a long time to wait for justice.

You're appearing in And She Could Be Next, which is premiering on PBS at the end of June. How did you get involved in that project, and why was that something that was important to you to participate in?

The producers and directors reached out to us during our campaign, and I was excited to participate because I believe that we have to evolve and expand what the face of leadership looks like in our country. And She Could Be Next is a pretty critical part of that conversation. It was a delight to be able to share not only what happened, but the work that goes into being part of the representation of America. I'm honored to be part of how we evolve and what we see as leadership. If we keep doing the exact same thing, we'll get the exact same results. But when we're willing to look beyond what we are used to, and actually understand that leadership comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors and genders, then we will see a stronger and I think much more vibrant America.

Ava DuVernay is one of the executive producers. How much interaction did you have with her, and how much was this her vision?

They were present the campaign, but it was always in the midst of other things that were happening. But I had a real opportunity to get to know Ava during that time. She and I have actually remained in good contact. She is a visionary and she understands just how important it is to know not only our history, but to use that history to propel us towards change. Her work on 13th is one of the reasons I wanted to really expand on the importance of the census because we take these pieces in the Constitution for granted that we need to understand what they mean. She did such an extraordinary job there. I look forward every time to what she reminds us of and what she teaches us about who we are as Americans.

Lastly, there's a third prong to all of this, which is a still-untitled documentary about voter rights that is looking like it will be released this fall. How did that come about, and how does that tie back to this bigger picture of the PSA, the new book, the PBS series, all of these things swirling around together?

In the wake of 2018, I had some time on my hands, but I also had a responsibility. I believe in the policies that I was prescribing. I believe in the promise of what we can become and how we can tackle systemic inequities, injustice, how we can tackle racism. But I also know that it's not enough to want. You have to know how to get it done. There are three pieces. That's policy, it's voting, and it's the census, and that all three of these pieces have to be seen as vibrant and valuable. The book really tries to lay out the roadmap I see for progress in America. I was privileged to be able to frame that out, but I also wanted to make sure that I meet people where they are. So it's making sure that we're having that conversation in this written form. It's making sure that I have structural systems that can actually tackle it, which is why I created Fair Fight and Fair Count and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, which is focusing on economic policies in the South. And it's why the documentary is so important to me because people learn and internalize in different ways. This is a chance to really contextualize why modern-day voter suppression is so odious. It also reminds us that we've been here before, and while it is not as visibly violent as the previous iterations of voter suppression, it has the same type of effect on our capacity for progress. And so whether it's in written word or in deed or in film, my mission is to make certain we understand that we have an opportunity for a fair America, but we're going to have to fight for it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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