Sister Carmen Sarati spoke softly but firmly into the telephone to one of her neighborhood lieutenants.
"Make sure the people get there early, OK? You have your 10 people? All right, Alberto. I knew I could count on you."
Sister Carmen, the woman behind much of the community organizing in east Santa Ana's barrios, was at work for yet another cause, another campaign for human rights and the poor. Five years ago it was a citywide rent strike among Spanish-speaking tenants. Then she helped start a soup kitchen for the homeless at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church.
Over the last year, Sister Carmen, who is of Spanish and Filipino ancestry, has earned the admiration of hundreds of immigrants who were guided by her through the amnesty process.
Now, the goal is to attack the county's drug epidemic and demand action by police, judges and elected officials. To accomplish that, Sister Carmen is helping establish a strong community organization that may eventually stretch across Orange County's Latino and lower-income communities.
"We're trying to empower people to take control over their own lives," said Sister Carmen, who is a community organizing liaison from St. Joseph's to the Orange County Congregation-Community Organizations.
The organization has recruited members from 14 congregations, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Catholics and Jews.
For Sister Carmen, it has meant identifying and recruiting neighborhood leaders from Santa Ana's Spanish-speaking barrios, where the greatest number of potential members live. Although it is a large multi-ethnic organization, recruitment efforts are strong in Santa Ana, where more than half of the city's estimated 237,800 residents are Latino.
Organizers have selected the congregation approach because they seek a broad-based, racially mixed, interfaith organization. Sister Carmen said such a group could have a larger long-term impact on Orange County than any other citizens' group.
"People understand protests and marches. But they don't understand how to build. Remember SANO (Santa Ana Neighborhood Organizations, now defunct)? The reason it didn't remain is because it wasn't deep enough in its relationship with the grass-roots people, like UNO in Los Angeles and other longstanding models."
Sister Carmen acknowledges that community organizing in conservative Orange County is difficult. But she has a reputation for quietly getting the job done.
"She's not confrontational, she's quiet. She gets things done." said Ann Hall, secretary to the president at Cal State Long Beach and in charge of St. Joseph's soup kitchen.
The Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Community Organizing has helped to start other activist groups and is the same group behind the congregation organization. The main difference, said the Rev. David Mann, the Orange County group's lead organizer, is that the new group has religious congregations as the base of its structure.
Last month, more than 1,200 people packed a high school auditorium in Anaheim and called for coordinated action from police, educators, judges and elected officials against what the citizens called a "drug epidemic."
Sister Carmen attended the mass meeting but kept a low profile, allowing neighborhood leaders to dramatically win commitments from the mayors of Anaheim and Santa Ana, Orange County's two largest cities, to do more to combat drugs.
Already, the group has claimed minor victories, including:
- In Santa Ana, Latinos from Barrio Delhi successfully pressured the city to clean up a city yard adjacent to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church that became an eyesore because of store vehicles and other equipment.
- At St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim, predominantly Latino parishioners pressured the city's recreation director and the City Council into improving lighting and increasing patrols at Pearson Park, a local haven for drug traffickers and drunks.
"Development of people is bigger than some of the issues we're involved with," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission and a member of the Orange County Sponsoring Committee, the organization's fund-raising arm.
"This is a leadership development project and from my perspective," Kennedy said, "as someone who's interested in helping poor people, this is one of the most effective methods of developing and training leaders."
Consider Andy Saavedra and Connie Petrovich.
Saavedra is a 45-year-old married Chicano and a long-time Santa Ana homeowner. He says drug dealers do business openly in his neighborhood and are not only illegal but a bad influence on young Latinos.
"We have a young woman living at our home who needed a place to stay," Saavedra said. "She's a cocaine addict struggling to stay clean. I believe we've got a drug epidemic here in this county but no one feels that they can do anything about it. I believe that every person can do something, however little, and that it can make a difference."