The COVID-19 pandemic put community organizing on a new path in Orange County, focusing a new generation of activists on the most pressing quality-of-life issues facing working class communities.

Overcrowded living and high rent. 

Inflation and stagnant pay.

Inadequate health care.

It’s all these issues – combined with the lack of an early coordinated pandemic response and distribution of COVID-19 tests and vaccines to hardest hit areas like Anaheim and Santa Ana – that’s spurred a renewed focus on grassroots, local activism.

The type that reflects a call to arms. 

That’s how Marisol Ramirez, director of programs for OC Communities for Responsible Development, describes the way the pandemic rallied people. 

“I think a lot of young professionals – they probably agree – saw that it was a call for us to really step it up,” the 31-year-old Ramirez said. 

Since the virus reared its head in 2020, “a lot of young people had to take on a supporting role in their family,” said Penélope Lopez, an organizing director for the activist group called Chispa. 

“They’ve had to pick up extra shifts, go from part-time to full-time and get their first job altogether – that raised a political consciousness that things aren’t meant to be this way,” said the 26-year-old over the phone while tending to her 2-year-old. 

“People aren’t meant to be living paycheck to paycheck or not receiving support from their city or their council members.”

Activists, along with residents, have been routinely showing up to city council meetings in working class towns across Orange County to demand more from their elected officials. 

Pandemic Drags Long Standing Issues Into The Spotlight

Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, who works with many working class students, says there’s been a confluence of hardship on young people throughout the county – all brought to a head by the pandemic. 

“The pandemic revealed, rather than created, inequity and I think there’s also some generational issues. My parents’ house cost less than my first car and a lot of the people my parents’ age are still living in their homes. There are some policies in place that protect the elderly homeowners and rightfully so,” Balma said. 

But younger generations – Millennials and Gen Z – “are wondering when their protections are going to come,” Balma said.

“I think that the reality is that a lot of groups, a lot of young people, a lot of activists are seeing these inequities and demanding more from their government,” she said. 

Since the pandemic kicked off, there’s been more pushes for rent control in Santa Ana, Anaheim and most recently, Costa Mesa

And a rent control discussion could soon be coming to Buena Park, where residents and activists have been calling for it. Last week, city council members moved closer to enacting a comprehensive rental inspection program for the city in an effort to hold landlords accountable for repairs.

[Read: Buena Park Officials Consider Holding Landlords Accountable for Apartment Repairs]

Zellah Sanchez, 9, sits on the floor decorating an altar dedicated to cyclists who have been killed while riding. The altar also included housing statistics and information geared to inform attendees of the recent successful developments of rent control in Santa Ana. “We had the sign that says eviction=death to signal to the fact that for some really vulnerable people an eviction can cause death. Particularly during the pandemic when the one tool we had to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was to “shelter in place,” said Mextli Lopez, a Activist with Tenants United. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana, OC’s first city to adopt rent control, is currently facing a lawsuit over the ordinance by the Apartment Association of Orange County that says the law is depriving property owners of fair investment returns. 

Last year, activists also pushed Santa Ana City Council members to create a police oversight commission after the 2020 protests against police brutality. 

[Read: Where Will Santa Ana’s New Police Oversight Panel Go Under a New City Council?]

There’s also been calls for campaign finance reform, especially in Anaheim, where a damning FBI corruption probe surfaced last May. 

FBI agents allege former Mayor Harry Sidhu tried ramming through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign support from the ballclub. Sidhu has denied any wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged with a crime. 

While city council members in that city ultimately shot down the proposed reforms, many residents are still pushing for campaign finance reform – where the entertainment juggernaut Disney routinely spends roughly $1 million in city council elections in recent years.

[Read: No Campaign Finance Reform for Anaheim]

There’s also been a push for more open space in Santa Ana – a city grappling with park poor neighborhoods. 

[Read: Fighting for Room to Breathe in Crowded Orange County]

City Council members recently committed to turning the Riverview Golf Course on the Santa Ana River into a public park.

Ramirez said all the issues exacerbated by the pandemic also helped different community organizations and activism groups band together to push elected officials throughout Orange County to address a host of quality of life issues. 

“We are distancing ourselves from the pandemic and I think what we all share in common is the fact that the issues we had pre-pandemic are very much the same issues and if anything they’ve worsened,” Ramirez said.

It had the same effect on a years-long, community push to designate Little Arabia along Brookhurst Street in the west side of town.

But the pandemic didn’t just revive the movement.

It gave activists enough juice to cross the finish line. 

“Hijabi Queens” murals popped up recently in the heart of Anaheim’s Little Arabia. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

For years, community leaders and business owners said a formal district would boost the local economy and tourism.

And with health safety restrictions in place to curb the virus’ spread, the economic impacts without that designation became too big for local businesses to ignore. 

“A lot of businesses were suffering,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director for the Arab American Civic Council. 

Hookah lounges, restaurants, dessert shops – “When they’re busy it’s harder for them to make time.”

“When their own livelihood was in question, they had to do more.”

Ramirez also said she’s noticed a push by younger people across the state to have local elected officials direct more resources into neighborhoods that have been long forgotten. 

“There’s a big interest statewide to ensure that these funds are brought down to really grassroots causes that overall will impact our local economy,” Ramirez said. “That’s what creates healthy communities.” 

Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, a 27-year-old advocate with Chispa who recently ran for a state assembly seat, echoed Ramirez’ sentiments. 

“I think definitely the pandemic really exacerbated a lot of the issues when it comes to the inequality of resources and wealth – especially in cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, when a lot of our communities were disproportionately affected but also left out of a lot of the conversations,” Vicente said. 

[Read: OC’s Community Health Leaders Want a Seat at the COVID Decision Making Table]

Another Spark Lights Community Activism

Balma, the political scientist at Fullerton College, said the recent bailout of Silicon Valley Bank – coupled with lingering inflation and income inequality – could also push young people to organize.

“I think that in moments like this people come together and demand more. And I think when people are struggling so hard and falling further and further behind – most of these people aren’t looking for a hand out, just make it a little bit easier,” Balma said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income inequality grew in 2021 – the first time in 10 years. 

And in 2020, the World Economic Forum noted that “fewer people in the lower- and middle-classes are climbing the economic ladder” in the United States, putting it at the highest amount of income inequality among the G7 countries. 

Santa Ana and Anaheim are among Orange County’s most populous, and both count some of the largest immigrant and working-class populations in the region. 

But the organizing landscape is quite different. 

People like Vicente and Lopez now hope to change that.

Vicente said Chispa, a Santa Ana-based community group, is looking to mobilize younger residents in Anaheim starting with a forum next month so the community there can petition their elected city council members to help better their quality of life.

Lopez notes that between this and last year, “we saw some young people take on City Hall in public comments for the first time.”

And it’s not stopping there, Vicente said, noting that there’s been an increase in residents pushing for better living conditions in Buena Park – along with a potential push for rent control there. 

“I’m excited to see what this means for Orange County in general … it also has a lot of potential because there’s so many working class communities here in Orange County and these past few years we’re seeing this kind of sleeping giant awaken because of these issues being exacerbated.” 

Balma said their efforts are invaluable to working class residents looking to change their communities. 

“Those organizations are so important to mobilize people because the more time and energy you have to spend for subsistence, like working, the less time you have to be politically active,” Balma said. “We desperately need these activists to help amplify those voices.” 

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @brandonphooo

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.