A City Built by Citizen Action

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I had the honor of sitting down with Jean Watt this past week to talk about grassroots organizations in our community.

I have become very interested in how groups get started here and what it takes to become effective. What I discovered is that grassroots groups are far more powerful at achieving goals that have lasting effects on our city than I could have imagined. They are an essential part of what makes this city such a lovely place to live.

Local groups such as AirFair, SPON, Concerned Citizens, Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks, The Irvine Conservancy, Orange Coast River Park, and many others put the residents, city, and neighborhoods at the center of their work.

I asked Jean why we need grassroots groups and she responded, “Citizen participation is what makes our democracy work and that citizens have several options if they want to achieve satisfying/effective participation.”

She suggested three ways to participate: get appointed if you can to a committee or council, get elected, or be an advocate through effective group activities.

Grassroots groups get started when someone sees a need that is not being met. Neighbors begin meeting in homes, talking over fences, sending letters to the city manager, and attending and speaking at council meetings.

SPON (Stop Polluting our Newport Bay) was co-founded by Claudia Hirsch and Watt. They saw a need for an advocacy group to work on water quality in the bay due to excessive trash and pollution.

Fran and Frank Robinson started friends of Newport Bay after learning that the Upper Newport Bay area was going to be developed.

The Friends of Newport Coast was formed in 1974 with the mission of saving Newport Coast from overdevelopment, especially on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway. They recently dissolved their organization, having completed their mission by getting the state to buy Crystal Cove State Park and, through lawsuits and negotiation, setting the amount of development on the inland side of Coast Highway.

Over the years, the concerted efforts of our local residents and their groups have limited high rises along the coast, gotten freeways off the master plan, put light and height ordinances in place, stopped pollution from flowing down from neighboring cities into the bay, achieved limits on airport growth and a curfew on flights in and out of the airport, spurred group home regulation and put in place a many other important safeguards and programs that have contributed to the city’s higher quality of life.

All as a direct result of citizen participation and action.

So what does it take to become an effective group, and why does it matter? Jean knows from experience and a long history of being a group member and initiator that “it takes a clear understanding of what the need is for action and an articulation of that mission to resonate to a broad segment of the community.”

It also must encompass dedicated, effective and charismatic leaders, along with patience and fortitude, time, people and money. Additionally, it must have enough people to carry out the task without burning everyone out.

Collaboration with local elected leaders is also crucial to achieving long-term success. As I have become more informed about the city I can clearly see what local groups and community members have done, and continue to do, and how much work is still ahead of all of us. Issues are becoming more complex, more expertise is needed from a variety of people, and resources such as time and money are limited. We can all support change by being informed and contributing whatever resource we have to offer.

While we are all in different stages of our lives that govern the level of support/service we can give, you may be unable to attend a group due to family and work obligations but you may be able to send a check to support a newsletter, lawsuit, or initiative. Whatever you can do to be of service to your community is the key to keeping these valuable groups going and continuing to be successful on behalf of all residents.

Effective leaders mobilize people to tackle tough issues. Jean is without a doubt one of the many effective leaders in our community and I thank her for helping me understand the history of groups since the 1960s, starting with Lido Island residents Joe and Judy Rosener.

We are a stronger city with much to be proud of because of active, caring, and dedicated citizen groups.

Thank you.

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