Yes, Orange County has an Abundant Write Wing
by Andrew Tonkovich
FEB. 28, 2004
Living in a notoriously conservative county earns me plenty of teasing from my smart-aleck progressive friends in Northern California. It’s a lot to live down, the part-real, part-silly stereotype of life in Orange County. However, in 10 years as a teacher and sometime labor and antiwar activist living in a place with an airport named after an actor, I’ve had plenty of experiences that challenge the stereotype and speak to a closer reading of our community’s story.
Each time I’ve helped organize a political event, I’ve been oddly reassured. More than 150 turned out to see a documentary on Noam Chomsky. There was standing room only at the premiere of a MoveOn-sponsored film about George W. Bush’s war. When a local college board appeared to accede to the goofy plans of a Holocaust denier, people of conscience, Republicans and Democrats, came out to give the guy what for. Orange County sustains two dozen weekly antiwar vigils.
And there’s the Great American Write-In. Imagine the scene: A civic-minded political forum--Women For: Orange County-- rents a hall and sets up information tables for community groups: pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-civil liberties.
There’s free coffee, orange juice, bagels. The locals arrive, hundreds of them: homemakers, high school students, seniors, soccer dads. It might be a pancake breakfast, except that the folks sit at tables covered with writing paper and stacks of envelopes. They write letters, by hand, to policymakers, elected officials, heads of state and advocacy organizations, expressing their thoughts. The organizers seal the envelopes and put stamps on them, all free.
The Great American Write-In might seem an ambitious-sounding name for this modest bit of grass-roots civic engagement. But the event puts the lie to stereotypes of conservative, selfish, isolated people. This Orange County tradition, nearly 20 years old, offers a brilliant, simple, honest model of community activism that might easily be embraced by other cities, counties, even a whole nation.
Among the 40 groups sending volunteers to staff tables, you’ll find the usual suspects: the ACLU, Amnesty International, the League of Women Voters. But also participating will be the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Friends of KOCE. The Kurdish National Congress will be in the house. Also Surfrider Foundation and Planned Parenthood. The Write-In is nonpartisan, educational and fun. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate the pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword ethic that we teach our kids. How many of us even know the names, much less the mailing addresses, of our county supervisors, state Assembly members, state senators, congressional reps?
Even if you oppose the goals of some of the organizations present, you can still write a letter and feel confident that Women For will mail it. Maybe that’s why they’re not shy about calling the event great and American, and why the rest of the country should take notice.
Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid and longtime editor of the Santa Monica Review. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, Zyzzyva, Faultline, Juked, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He wrote for both OC Weekly and the Orange County Register. With Lisa Alvarez, he co-edited the landmark Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, and is the author of two fiction collections, The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations. His review of A People's Guide to Orange County appeared recently in Alta online.