If You Develop Leaders, You’ve Got to Follow Them: Chispa’s Work in Anaheim Explained


If you’ve followed our work over the years, maybe you’ve noticed— Over the past year, Chispa has been more active in the City of Anaheim. For an organization historically focused in Santa Ana, but with aspirations to become a political home for young Latinxs countywide, this was a big milestone. It happened just as Chispa began: with a small cohort of Anaheim based members and staff seeing a need for young people to lead and make  an organizing intervention in response to political corruption at City Hall, and pull the organization to meet the moment and make those future aspirations a present reality.

For Chispa, our work in Anaheim is neither coincidental, nor cynical. It is mandate born out of deliberate discussions with our members, centered around their vision for the city they grew up, live, and work in; and their demand that the organization they invest in invests in them.

Caption: Chispa members and staff attend their first City Council Meeting to support Campaign Finance Reform in the wake of the political corruption scandal.

All of us on staff understood too well the impact of outsiders meddling in local fights for justice with zero historical context and zero commitment to stick around for the consequences of their meddling. We were adamant that Chispa would never be an organization that parachuted in and out; we plant roots and grow our work from there. It is one thing to have members and staff from Anaheim, and another to make Chispa an organization that does Anaheim work.

We knew that if we started working in Anaheim, it would mean being there for the long haul. Whatever trepidation we felt faded in the face of our Anaheim members’ mandate, and the moral clarity and unwavering leadership of our Anaheim-based Organizing Director, Penelope Lopez, who put in the time and effort to map for us how the work could become a sustainable core priority for the organization. Penelope’s and our members’ efforts culminated with the Anaheim Young People’s Townhall earlier this year. 

Caption: Images from the Anaheim Young People’s Townhall.

The Young People’s Townhall was inspirational and revealing. After attending multiple city council meetings, and community events, the dearth of attendance and participation by young people stood out. This also wasn’t coincidental. Years of politics as usual will deepen political apathy across entire communities, but especially among young people.

But what the Townhall showed us was that the energy for young people to organize across issues and to intervene politically is there. It just requires work, time, and investment. 

Political Corruption Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, There are Clear Winners and Losers.

The corruption scandal in Anaheim laid bare the way in which the City government systematically prioritized the needs of a few wealthy special interests at the expense of working families. Over the course of the year following Mayor Harry Sidhu’s resignation and arrest on corruption-related charges, it became clear that political corruption doesn’t exist in a vacuum: there are clear winners and losers, and the working families across the city lost every single time, while resort interests profited at their expense.

For us, the true impact of the pay-to-play politics at the center of the conversation in the City became apparent during the Young People’s Townhall. In discussion after discussion, the urgency for political action was centered around the cost of living, access to spaces for young people, and distrust toward a Police Department with a long history of violence toward Latinxs in the city.

Accountability Requires More than Political Reform.

With the context of the Young People’s Townhall and subsequent conversations with our members, we came to the conclusion that meaningful accountability that allows the City to turn the page on this difficult chapter requires more than reforms in the way the city government operates. It requires adopting a policy agenda that finally addresses the needs of everyday residents.

That is to say that, while the City has an immediate obligation to adopt new transparency, ethics, and campaign finance reforms to blunt the influence of the political actors who brought us to this point, the city’s efforts at accountability cannot stop there. 

Meaningful accountability means raising residents’ standard of living. It means taking care of workers, ensuring that families have affordable housing, and that young people are given the resources to thrive and succeed. Accountability has to go beyond transparency measures and stopping obvious grift; it means making whole the people who lost, and whose needs were ignored, under the former, corrupt regime. 

For us as an organization, drawing the connection between political corruption and community disinvestment is the conversation we want to have with young people. We want to work with young people in Anaheim and help them develop the tools to take the helm of their city and create an equitable future. It’s work we’re doing in Santa Ana, and it’s work that we know we can do, that we’re committed to doing, in Anaheim. 

Hairo Cortes

Hairo Cortes

is the Founder and Executive Director of Chispa. He is a voracious news reader and historian at heart. His past work saw him lead campaigns for justice at the local and national levels. He hopes to build a thriving movement infrustructure for young Latinxs to win meaningful change for their communities.