UCI alumna Erin Gruwell (second from left), keynote speaker at the OC Working Together summit, was joined on stage by her Freedom Writers students (from left) Calvin Lin, Tiffony Jacobs and Sue Ellen Alpizar. Steve Zylius / UCI

UCI and the Orange County United Way co-hosted a summit Oct. 1 on the UCI campus to launch OC Working Together, an ambitious, multifaceted, collaborative campaign to help the region’s less fortunate residents.

Tapping into the knowledge and expertise of prominent UCI academics, Orange County United Way leadership, executives from the county’s leading nonprofits, and city and county government officials, OC Working Together seeks to improve conditions and outcomes in areas such as education, family violence prevention, financial stability, health and housing.

In his opening remarks, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman provided inspiration to the more than 200 participants who filled a conference room at UCI’s Newkirk Alumni Center for the daylong summit.

Describing the summit as a historic event, Gillman said: “What does it mean to live in a good society, in a just society, in a fair society? Our job is to serve the people, fundamentally, through illumination – illuminating the darkness of ignorance and intolerance and doing the hard work that’s necessary to figure out how to serve society.”

The seeds for OC Working Together were planted 18 months ago when Gillman had lunch with Orange County United Way President and CEO Max Gardner.

“You could just see his mind start to work on ways that we could connect the university and the nonprofits in the community around how we could do more,” Gardner said of Gillman. “It just seemed like a natural outgrowth, and we were encouraged to build on the momentum.”

At the summit, he summarized his organization’s 2015 Community Indicators report, which provides a trove of statistics on Orange County’s economy, income levels, housing, education, health, safety and infrastructure. The numbers look good for many people, but for others, bleak situations have worsened since the deep recession that hit the nation several years ago.

“If you want the next generation of Orange County residents to be happy and able to take care of themselves, they need four things: They need to have a job, they need to have an education, they need a place to live, and they need to be healthy,” Gardner said. “The chancellor believes that with the help of all of you in the room, we can make a tremendous difference in what’s going on in Orange County, and we fully intend to do that.”

Keynote speaker Erin Gruwell ’91 gave a passionate, hourlong presentation. Founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation and inspiration for the film “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank, the UCI alumna recounted her time as a student, her early days as a teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach and experience with underprivileged students, and her transition into a leader in nonprofit advocacy for young people. Accompanying Gruwell to the OC Working Together summit were three of her Freedom Writers students, who met with participants and signed copies of The Freedom Writers Diary.

Following a lunch break, attendees separated into breakout groups to take the first steps toward forging concrete solutions.

“Sometimes, working in the health and human services arena can be challenging, even isolating,” said Chris Baiocchi, vice president of fund development at Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. “OC Working Together was a fantastic reminder that there are organizations of all shapes and sizes committed to improving the health and quality of life of Orange County residents. It was great to see so many colleagues – and to hear from UCI and United Way.”

If there was an emerging theme to the day, it was that the work, collaboration and communication needed going forward had just begun.

“I can’t wait to hear the initial fruits of what I hope is a historic first meeting,” Gillman said. “We will keep ourselves honest; we will meet regularly. Next year, it’s going to look better than it did this year – the year after that even better. And in a few short months and years, we’re going to look back and see what we can accomplish when people of good will decide to work together for the benefit of our community and our neighbors.”