Student-led nonprofit O.C. Justice Project expands beyond Irvine

Arush Mehrotra stands at the Irvine Civic Center.
Arush Mehrotra stands at the Irvine Civic Center. An Irvine high school senior, Mehrotra is balancing distance learning and social justice work like the growing reach of the O.C. Justice Project across local high schools.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

At the start of his high school semester, 16-year-old Arush Mehrotra is juggling distance learning, applying to colleges and starting a social justice nonprofit.

He said he’s not one to sit still.

Before Mehrotra graduates next year, he wants to build out a foundation for the O.C. Justice Project so its impact can last even after he’s gone.

He started the project at Irvine’s University High School in January as a way to create a platform for youth, like himself, to practice activism about the issues they are passionate about in their local community. But the germ of the project started during his freshman year when he listened to a “Ted Radio Hour” podcast about cash bail.

It sent him on a rabbit hole of research that piqued his interest in social justice causes leading him to write op-eds for Los Angeles Times High School Insider and get involved in his own school newspaper, Sword & Shield.

“Our mission, just broadly speaking, is to inspire my generation, the younger generation, to care about the issues that threaten the democratic ideals,” Mehrotra said.

Mehrotra reached out to Krishna Khawani to become involved in the project. The two had met during mock trial and debate activities, where they discussed policing and drug reforms. But forming a school club at University High under stay-at-home orders proved to be difficult.

Some residents say less discretionary funding should be allocated to law enforcement and more should be spent on community services.

Instead, they made O.C. Justice Project a nonprofit with the help of an incubation program at Irvine LIGHTS and decided to form school clubs during the next school year.

Khawani, the 16-year-old director of finances for the nonprofit, said becoming a registered 501(c)(3) and not having to deal with school club guidelines makes fundraising easier.

Mehrotra looked through other schools’ club lists to search for like-minded groups and reached out. That’s how he found Noah Kim, the nonprofit’s director of operations.

Kim, a 17-year-old Portola High student, started a club called “Wrongfully Accused,” which dealt with raising awareness about the wrongful convictions of people who were innocent or given an unfair sentence.

“Overall what Arush has done with O.C. Justice Projects, I genuinely find it amazing,” Kim said. “With my club that I started it last year, I didn’t have many members — five to seven members. But Arush spread [the nonprofit] to multiple school districts.”

O.C. Justice Project has five executive board members and chapter presidents in seven Irvine and Tustin high schools — University, Woodbridge, Irvine, Portola, Northwood, Arnold O. Beckman and Foothill. They plan to expand nonprofit chapters to schools in Santa Ana and Mission Viejo.

As of today, the nonprofit has 41 members, but Mehrotra said it’s bound to grow since chapter presidents have just started to establish clubs at schools this week.

Together the core members have set up a bank account, website and social media.

Arush Mehrotra stands at the Irvine Civic Center.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The organization has three main goals: raising awareness on specific social justice issues, fundraising to support the local community and political outreach.

“We don’t specify exactly what social justice issue we want to tackle,” Khawani said. “It’s because we want to leave it up to our members to sort of follow their own passions and follow what they deem as important to themselves and give them the platform and opportunity to tackle those issues.”

Members gravitated toward the Black Lives Matter movement during the peak of protests in the spring and summer.

In June, the nonprofit hosted a Zoom roundtable focused on the movement. The purpose was to learn about the movement and talk about lived experience. It lasted nearly three hours with about 30 local students joining the discussion.

Later, one of the board members designed a Black Lives Matter-themed T-shirt to sell and donate all profits to the Youth Justice Coalition, which works to solve the school-to-prison pipeline. They raised $700 and shipped the shirts to people in Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Rancho Santa Margarita, Santa Ana and Fullerton.

Mehrotra said the next fundraiser they are planning will benefit people who were recently released from California prisons.

In an effort to become more involved in local politics, the nonprofit is hosting a virtual town hall on Sept. 19 with Irvine Councilwoman Farrah Khan, who is running for mayor.

Part of the political awareness aspect of the nonprofit also includes pitching op-ed pieces written by students to media outlets, putting together a comprehensive voter guide for state and O.C. elections and launching a podcast centered on conversations with local community leaders.

This year’s civil rights and health climate shined a spotlight on the organization.

“The Black Lives Matter movement definitely helped sort of get that spark that allowed our organization to do even more. And it was especially helpful given the fact that we were all virtual and we were still able to do all of these different types of things,” Mehrotra said. “That’s what helped draw people to our organization specifically because they started hearing about these issues.”

It’s no surprise to his family that Mehrotra started the nonprofit since they are politically active. His older sister developed a startup called JusticeText, a video management tool that allows public defenders to easily process their video evidence.

Mehrotra has a lot of work going on. He is finalizing a list of colleges he’d like to apply to. So far it’s a mix of UCs and his dream school, Columbia University.

“I don’t see O.C. Justice Project going anywhere after I leave for college. Cause I think that there is such a strong, passionate group of individuals — a lot of them are freshmen. It’ll definitely continue,” he said.

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