Signs reading, “step up to be counted,” were everywhere at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Festival in Leimert Park, where residents gathered to celebrate freedom, equality and King's legacy. Here, near the end of the parade line, activist groups such as My Black Counts were working to both protect and further what King worked for by tackling an issue that they say is of the utmost importance: participation in the 2020 Census.

“Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement more broadly did a lot of work to make sure that black folk and people of color had the right to participate civically,” said Kevin Cosney, the director of field engagements for My Black Counts. “Participating in the Census is one of the easiest ways you can do that.”

My Black Counts is an initiative that was developed by the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub for the purpose of promoting black participation in the 2020 census. As the director of field engagements, Cosney is responsible for things such as phone banking and door-to-door canvassing for the initiative.

Cosney said census participation is crucial to effectively combat the housing crisis, as well as securing appropriate federal funding for schools and food distribution programs. Data from the census is used by the government to determine what proportion of federal funds are given to each state, city and county.

In addition to impacting the allocation of federal funds, census data also determines what kind of representation people have in Congress. Therefore, through the census, California residents will influence how many congressional seats the state gets in the House of Representatives.

This powerful systematic impact that the census has is why Cosney said he believes it’s important that people of color are aware of its significance. For Cosney, spreading this awareness serves to remind people of their voice and presence in the country.

“The movement of My Black Counts is to say we are not on the margins. We need to be in the center of these conversations,” he said.

City officials have also recognized the importance of the census. At the Freedom Festival, L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson reminded those in attendance why civic participation should be an ongoing venture.

“Like never before, being counted is important. There are a lot of people trying to count us out in this country,” he said.

Representing Los Angeles City District 8, Harris-Dawson has hosted the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Festival for the past four years. As the organizer for this year’s event, he established the theme as “The Future Is Now” as a way of inspiring the community to take action in the upcoming elections. In the lead-up to the festival, he explained that the celebration of King’s legacy in 2020 should focus on reminding people about the power they have and their responsibilities as citizens.

“We understand the importance of struggle … that justice is something ongoing,” the councilman said. “[Martin Luther] King Day is a time to celebrate each other and our progress. It is also a time to mark the things we need to accomplish going forward.”

Cosney echoed Harris-Dawson’s call for progress, stating that change within the coming years is critical for the black community.

“It’s pivotal now because of where black folks are in the economy and how gentrification is moving our communities out. We are still struggling for basic necessities,” Cosney said.

The United States Census Bureau will start making census forms available in March and will gather responses until the end of December. This year will be the first time that participants will be able to fill out the form online on The Census Bureau’s website. Alternatively, participants can call the Census Bureau over the phone or fill out a series of paper forms.