By Eric Altman, OCCORD Executive Director
On Sunday, January 29, 2008, three hundred people braved what the Orange County Register described as “biting winds and rain” to demand a community benefits agreement for development on 50 acres of city-owned land next to Angel Stadium in Anaheim. This public demonstration came on the heels of a successful drive to collect more than 2,000 post/pledge cards from Anaheim residents, workers, and churchgoers in support of community benefits.
The reaction was swift: Facing public scrutiny and a less hospitable political climate, the developer pulled back to regroup, and after three months of trying to ignore us, the Mayor agreed to meet with a delegation from our coalition.
The remarkable thing about these events was not the strong turnout in spite of bad weather, the number of post/ pledge cards collected, or the reaction of the Mayor and developer – but the way in which it all happened. For the first time in Orange County, unions, community organizations, policy advocates, clergy and faith-based groups have come together in coalition to develop a common strategy, advance a collective policy agenda, and share the nuts and bolts work of implementing their combined vision. It was the most significant public expression, so far, of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD’s) coalition building program, which has brought together more than two dozen progressive organizations through the community benefits framework.
In the weeks leading up to the action, coalition members took responsibility for signing up their own constituents on pledge cards. In the process, most coalition members worked with OCCORD to train their staff and constituents on community benefits, so that when people were asked to sign a pledge card, their commitment would be real. Along with pledge cards, people were asked to sign post cards to be delivered to the Mayor and City Council, the proposed developer, and the ownership of the Angels baseball team.
Together, we held dozens of meetings in union halls, churches, and living rooms, and within a four-week period, more than 2,000 people signed pledge cards. Some coalition members, who had never before engaged their constituents in such an activity, became much more adept than they ever thought they would. Others, who already had a lot mobilization experience, really outdid themselves with this effort. In fact, the largest number of pledge cards, by far, was collected by rank-and-file leaders of the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO), the local PICO group.
Three days before the action, in another unprecedented step for Orange County, ten interfaith clergy and lay leaders sent a letter to the Mayor and City Council in support of community benefits.
The logistics for the action were also a true coalition effort. Dozens of coalition members and their constituents phone-banked and made signs. Dozens more served as monitors for the march and rally. On the day of the event, media relations were handled by a local environmental activist together with a rank-and-file OCCCO leader. The Central Labor Council’s political director volunteered to coordinate with the police. Music was provided by a group of son jarocho musicians from Santa Ana-based El Centro Cultural de Mexico. When the rain started to pour, a leader from the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled was ready with a portable tent.
The march and rally were remarkable for their diversity of participation. Working with OCCCO, we had timed the event to coincide with the end of a well-attended Spanish language mass at St. Boniface Catholic Church. While many parishioners joined the march, no single group predominated. Housing and child care advocates, disabled community activists, immigrant rights leaders, and union members also turned out in force. Parents and teachers, seniors and youth, workers and residents, clergy and lay people – every group was represented and visible. Together, we created a united front that has seldom, if ever, been seen in Orange County.
Two days later, the coalition mobilized once again and filled the City Council chambers to deliver 2,000 post cards to city leaders. Within two weeks, the coalition received word that the developer was pulling back to regroup, and the Mayor, who had been ignoring us, finally responded to our request to meet. Although our community benefits campaign is far from over, OCCORD’s coalition building program is already altering the dynamics of development in Orange County, engaging residents and workers in the political process, and building power for systemic change.