Uplifting Stories of Community Power in Orange County

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Orange County is known for its amusement parks, wealth, and conservative politics, but our region is also a space for labor movement activism, resistance to segregation, struggles for public space, long-lasting campaigns for environmental justice, and more. On April 25, OC Grantmakers hosted the first session in year two of our Beyond Equity learning series, and we were thrilled to welcome Thuy Vo Dang, Professor of Information Studies at UCLA, and Elaine Lewinnek, Professor of American Studies at CSUF for a presentation exploring the historical complexities and contradictions of our diverse region. Together with Gustavo Arellano, these two remarkable local historians are co-authors of A People’s Guide to Orange County.

OC Grantmakers caught up with the presenters for a brief conversation about what they described in their presentation as “the places that hold stories of power in Orange County.” What follows is an abridged version of our conversation, edited for clarity and conciseness.

OCG: Why do you think so many stories of power, like those in your book and presentation, have been hidden, forgotten, or erased? And what can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future?

Elaine Lewinnek: Number one is who tells the stories. I don’t believe you have to share an identity to write about a group, but it helps to be a member of the community or to be in dialogue with communities to recognize that their stories matter. So often the stories have been written from only a single point of view. Number two is that this is part of what academics call settler colonialism. When people arrive as settlers, one thing they often do, especially in California, is erase who came before. Can you name who claimed this land we’re standing on right now? That’s a hard question for most people to answer, partly because they don’t know the names Acjachemen or Tongva as the indigenous nations that claimed this land first. Then it was Spain, Mexico, and the United States – all in a very short period of time, historically. Students in fourth grade do a mission project, but they don’t talk about the painful parts of the mission. They also study the gold rush and the railroads, but they tend to memorize the names of the big four who owned the railroads and not really think about who worked on those railroads and what their lives were like. University professors, like me, have learned to think about stories from multiple perspectives, but we haven’t fully bridged the gap to make sure that considering diverse perspectives gets into the K-12 curriculum.

Thuy Vo Dang: The kind of power that is bolstered by the erasure of marginalized people and their perspective, it’s reinforced by what is missing from the archives. When scholars are looking at evidence of the past through mainstream archives only, they miss out on the opportunity to engage a broader range of perspectives that may surface through sources like oral history. It’s important to teach young people to consider multiple perspectives very early on, and that’s the vital work happening now in supporting ethnic studies in K-12 education, something our book is directly assisting. Stories aren’t owned by those in power. Communities that have been historically disenfranchised, they’ve always had stories and passed on stories within their communities. They just have been unseen or hidden from the mainstream, including big nonprofit and philanthropic institutions. And then you miss the opportunity to engage with the informal groups or groups that have not had access to mainstream institutions but have always done the work on the ground. 

OCG: Are there stories that you don’t get to tell because they don’t fit naturally into a presentation or are hard to tell in the way that captures their power?

EL: We had some stories that we had to leave out of the book because they weren’t easily tied to a single place, and it was important to us that we do place-based storytelling.

TVD: We wanted to tell the story about Lieutenant Dan Choi.

EL: Lieutenant Choi challenged the military’s don’t ask don’t tell policy. He has such a great story – and it’s a complex story because he had this very public success but it also meant being rejected by his Christian Korean community. I was surprised researching this book how many LGBTQ successes we have in Orange County, and we were trying to figure out a place-based way to talk about these successes. There were multiple places, but none of them felt right.

TVD: The place-based element really brings history to life for people. There’s an entry in our book about Cafe Chu Lun.

EL: At Cafe Chu Lun, there were three Vietnamese teenagers waiting by a pay phone to be picked up in 1993. The cops stopped these girls, told them they looked like gangsters, said they needed to photograph them, put them into what was called the Asian mug book, and add their photo to the gang database. These girls said that didn’t feel right to them, and the cop told them if you have a problem with it then don’t come to my city. One of the girls, Quyen Pham, told the cop that this isn’t your city, this is America. Two of these girls got help from the ACLU to sue the cops to say you shouldn’t be profiling teenagers just for what they’re wearing. What they wanted was a letter of a policy apology and a change in policy, and they got both those things.

TVD: What came after that was a swell of pan-ethnic organizing in Orange County. Japanese Americans who’d been here for a lot longer started to organize community forums, and more Vietnamese Americans were motivated to run for office. That same year, Tony Lam got voted in as the first ever elected Vietnamese American in the country, and then more and more. People said to themselves this is happening to our community, so if we want it to change, we have to do more in terms of being visible in politics and also in solidarity with other communities who had a much longer experience of being racialized.

OCG is thankful to the many speakers who are part of the Beyond Equity learning series, which will continue in June 2024. To see resources from the series and learn more, please visit the Beyond Equity page on OC Grantmakers website.

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How do we build a compassionate and inclusive America in an age of distrust? WAJAHAT ALI knows from personal experience that when we come together to be the superheroes of our own stories, we can create honest social change. The beloved TED speaker has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic about our urgent issues—immigration, politics, parenthood—with boldness, hope, and humor. His memoir Go Back to Where You Came From, one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year, follows his life as a Muslim Pakistani-American on a surprising, emotional, and challenging quest for the good life. Iconic journalist Katie Couric says that “we are all so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his intellect, his humanity, and his heart.”

Wajahat Ali

“With wit and charm, Ali delivers a masterful meditation on growing up brown in America...he gives us a clear-eyed affirmation of the country America could be.” — Mara Gay, New York Times

Wajahat Ali uses his platform to fight tirelessly for the social change we need in our country—and he isn’t afraid to get personal while doing it. The Daily Beast columnist and former New York Times writer, TED speaker, award-winning playwright, and Peabody-nominated producer of the documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims offers us his experiences of triumph over hardship as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of life’s impossible situations. From his experiences of Islamophobia growing up as a Muslim Pakistani-American to his two-year-old daughter’s liver cancer diagnosis, Wajahat is living proof that when we share our authentic stories, we build the America we wish to live in.”

In his memoir Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, Wajahat teaches us how to create our own superhero origin story, invest in hope for the future of America, and enact real social change. The book was called “biting and funny and full of heart” by NPR. Representative Ilhan Omar called Wajahat’s work “hilarious” and “deeply moving”, and legendary writer Dave Eggers said it was the book he’d “been hoping Wajahat Ali would write for ten years—hilarious, stylistically fearless, deeply humane.”

Wajahat is also the author of The Domestic Crusaders—the first major play about Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world. He was the lead researcher and author for the Center for American Progress’s seminal report “Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and served as a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he told stories about communities and individuals often marginalized or under-reported in mainstream media.

As Creative Director of Affinis Wajahat Labs, he worked to create social entrepreneurship initiatives to support and uplift marginalized communities. He also worked with the US State Department to design and implement the “Generation Change” leadership program to empower young social entrepreneurs. Wajahat initiated chapters in eight countries, including Pakistan and Singapore. For his work, he was honored as a “Generation Change Leader” by Sec. of State Clinton and recognized as an “Emerging Muslim American Artist” by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. 

He has given keynote speeches around the world such as TED, The Aspen Ideas Festival, Google, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. His writing appears regularly in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s a Senior Fellow at The Western States Center and Auburn Seminary and co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.