Santana: Orange County’s Key Organizing Group Gets Disorganized

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OCCORD community meeting held in May of 2019.

With key debates over the future of Anaheim’s stadium and public lands in Santa Ana intensifying, Orange County’s premier progressive organizing group, OC Communities Organized for Responsible Development, OCCORD, is reeling from the resignations of Executive Director Shakeel Syed and a slew of organizers in the last month.

Nearly half the staff has resigned – largely in protest to Syed’s leadership.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OCCORD’s Executive Director Shakeel Syed at a May 2019 meeting. He has since resigned.

Exiting staffers are also raising questions about whether the organization’s main sponsor, Southern California’s powerful hotel union, Unite Here, has too much influence over OCCORD organizing campaigns.

Many of the OCCORD organizers– who in recent years were so disgruntled that they organized a union for themselves – also argue that the social justice nonprofit is itself a horrible boss, with a working environment characterized by burn out, long hours, lax professional development and stale wages.

In addition, dissident staff – comprised of several waves of exits from OCCORD over the past decade – argue they as community activists wanted to focus on issues like housing, because that is what residents in places like Anaheim and Santa Ana are most concerned about, as opposed to stadiums, which has been the focus from leaders like OCCORD Board Chairwoman Ada Briceño (also a Unite Here leader and executive director of the OC Democratic Party).

According to a host of interviews with exiting staff, many said they tried to convey their concerns about Syed – who lives in LA County – and the lack of direction at OCCORD to board members without luck.

OCCORD was set up in the early 2000s to spur a working class movement for better jobs and healthier communities in Orange County. It was set up like counterparts in other Metro areas, such as the influential LA Alliance for a New Economy (LANE), that combine policy analysis and activism.

By 2010, OCCORD was really on the ascent in terms of impact policy in Orange County.

OCCORD leaders, working the ACLU in Anaheim, effectively organized and got reluctant city leaders to implement district elections across the city. At the time, the group also regularly produced reports – looking at policy issues like planning commission appointments in Santa Ana and their impact on approvals.

OCCORD ultimately followed up on its redistricting success years later, watching candidates – like former OCCORD board member Jose Moreno – win a successful council run in 2016.

But earlier this year, it seemed the group was slow to react in places like Anaheim and Santa Ana – where things like stadiums, street cars and public land sales seem be on a fast-track agenda.

Some of the tension over the stadium campaign was visible at the last stadium forum hosted by OCCORD at Katella High School this past May, where Syed talked about the importance of pushing for a fair stadium deal for workers — to a smaller crowd than usual.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OCCORD community meeting held in May 2019.

Indeed, most of that crowd was more connected to Unite Here organizers than OCCORD, according to interviews with those who organized the event.

In contrast, OCCORD organizers seemed much engaged with the Rancho La Paz mobile home park residents who were pushing both the Anaheim and Fullerton city councils for help on steep rent hikes over the summer.

Meanwhile, just this last week, there were less than a dozen people commenting on stadium issues at the Anaheim city council meeting’s public-comment section.

While there is clear acknowledgment by progressive leaders that whatever happens on the stadium land will have a huge impact on Anaheim’s public budget, economic development and ultimately quality of life, the stadium issue itself remains a tough sell in public for groups like OCCORD.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OCCORD community meeting held in May of 2019.

Many residents are Angels fans and support anything that helps the team. Many organizers find that most working class people in Anaheim and Santa Ana are more impacted by issues like immigration and so busy working to pay for rent and gas, they can hardly focus on complex stadium lease negotiations. Further, there are even splits among labor groups – with the trade unions very supportive of virtually any stadium arrangement because of its impact on jobs.

Apparently, these fissures continued to boil over throughout this past summer and in August, the situation blew up, with one organizer after another resigning, followed the top leadership of OCCORD and then finally, by Syed himself.

On Aug. 30, Syed sent out an abrupt email to a host of contacts throughout Orange County, saying, “It is with very much mixed emotions, I am signing off after three exciting years of association with OCCORD.”

“Serving the OC communities with you on my side has been nothing short of a distinct honor & privilege,” Syed continued.

“Although we made progress…much remains to be done. I know my successor will carry the baton much better than when I received it from my predecessor. I do believe that our shared struggle for justice has no destination and we are, but travelers.”

Syed credited the board members of OCCORD for their stewardship of the organization as well as the organization’s foundation partners like the Irvine Foundation and the California Endowment.

“As I sign off this last day realizing full well that all good belongs to the collective & all shortcomings are but my human frailty,” concluded Syed, who was a regular contributor to the Voice of OC Op-ed page.

OCCORD board leaders seemed generally surprised at how toxic the situation had become and were surprised by Syed’s sudden exit. There was shock to hear about bad workplace culture – especially at a place that focuses on better wages and working conditions for workers.

“We are in the situation we are at but we are turning the corner,” said board chair Briceño, who in the past has herself served as an interim executive director for OCCORD.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OCCORD Board Chairwoman Ada Briceño (also a Unite Here leader and executive director of the OC Democratic Party).

An interim director has been appointed, Briceño said, adding that OCCORD leaders had also reached out to their program and foundation partners to let them know that key work – like citizenship classes – continues and had strong support.

She sent out an email on Sept. 13 acknowledging the mass departures but pledging stability.

“We are pleased to announce the appointment of Margarita Valenzuela as Interim Executive Director of OCCORD as of September 16th. Maggie brings more than 15 years of experience as an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 11 and elsewhere, with a successful track record of quickly building and leading teams. She is also a longtime OCCORD supporter who stepped forward to offer her service on an interim basis because of her personal commitment to our work. She first became involved with us when an OCCORD citizenship fair helped one of her family members become a U.S. citizen, and she has volunteered with us ever since.

Maggie’s first priority will be to listen to staff and stakeholders in developing shared workplans to deliver on OCCORD’s commitments over the next few months.

During this interim period, OCCORD will be working with the well-known national organization RoadMap Consulting to engage the Board, staff, and stakeholders in a guided transition process. This will include a broad and inclusive search for our next Executive Director. We will keep you informed and invite the community’s input as this process continues,” Briceño wrote.

A citizenship fair – one of OCCORD’s key functions – was organized last weekend, as “was a complete success,” Briceño said, with more than 100 people being naturalized.

Briceño disputed that workers had bad working conditions and wages at OCCORD, noting they were covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Nonetheless, she said the organization would work to learn from the issues that drove the mass resignations, with hiring of organizational consultants “to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

“We want to look at the organization and see what we can do to make sure we can move forward,” Briceno said.

“We need this organization to continue.”