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Community and Labor Project Comes to UCI

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Agricultural and rural Orange County has long since been turned into a diverse metropolitan area but the common reputation of Orange County continues to be one of conservatism, right wing activism and affluence.

As social justice movements build momentum in Orange County, community and labor organizations have voiced the need for institutional support to facilitate organizational efforts.

“Orange County has the fourth fastest growing income gap between the rich and poor in the country,” said Hugo Romero, the coordinator for the UC Irvine Community and Labor Project (CLP).

The UCI CLP began in 2013 as a collaborative initiative proposed by several labor and community organizations in conjunction with  the UCLA Labor Center. The project seeks to increase the quality, scale and effectiveness of civic participation in communities of color and low-income populations throughout the county. Various community and labor organizations, including the Korean Resource Center, Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, Orange County Congregation Community Organization and the Orange County Labor Federation, have met to discuss ways to make these goals a reality. Overall, these participating organizations specifically identified the need for targeted research.

These five organizations and the UCLA Labor Center worked together to create a report titled “Orange County on the Cusp of Change” that explains key challenges current residents of Orange County face.

The report states that the county deals with social, economic, political and environmental conditions that need significant change. According to the report, north and central Orange County face hardships with underemployment and unemployment, low wages, education access, language isolation, lack of affordable housing, overcrowding, poverty, environmental issues and homelessness. These issues mostly impact residents of low-income and immigrant communities. The last section of the report lists four key strategies to achieve a more inclusive Orange County: civic engagement, community organizing, political reform and research.

Carolina Sarmiento, a doctoral graduate in the School of Social Ecology, began laying the foundation for an advisory board for the project with her professors and advisors and started developing integrated research needs into classes to be taught at UCI.

While the CLP is just beginning at UCI, the Community Scholars Program has been thriving at UCLA for 20 years, as well as at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and has proven to be a tremendously successful program. As the CLP Coordinator, Romero hopes that the project will eventually grow into a center at UCI.

Romero mentioned that the project’s research must come from people who actually live and work in the community.

“Research is the huge component of the project,” Romero said, “research that is community-based and treats the community as experts on the field, regardless of their educational background and [integrates] that viewpoint so that it captures their experiences and what they are feeling on the ground, and what would help them.”

The research proposal is a work in progress but could address anything from police brutality, gentrification or make a case for a minimum wage increase in Orange County.

“We are not necessarily advocating or campaigning,” Romero said. “But we hope to provide research that there is a need and possibility for this type of work, by really engaging labor, community and the university to work together for a better Orange County.”

The Community Scholars Program will take place at UCI during  the winter and spring quarters. The course will be a collaboration between the UCI CLP, the Department of Planning, Policy and Design and the Community Outreach Partnership Center.

Starting off small, the first component will be to bring community and labor partners together to shape a new report, as was done with the “Orange County on the Cusp of Change.” The Community Scholars Program will select ten to fifteen graduate students to work with community members, union organizers and grassroots non-profit employees, ideally in equal numbers.

Any UCI student, faculty or staff or community and labor organization is welcome to submit a project proposal. All submissions are due by 11:55 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 19. A committee consisting of community and university  representatives, Romero and the Community Scholars lecturer will review proposals.

“We are excited. We are getting great reception here with labor, with community organizations, with immigrant rights groups in the community and we are all very excited to work with UCI,” Romero said.

“UCI has a history of individuals committed to working with community organizations and has done significant research for social justice. The Community and Labor Project is meant to build on this passion and grow from it, so that is what we are aiming to do.”

For more information about submitting a project proposal, contact Hugo Romero at