'Power' networks help poor develop political clout
When Gov. Mark White calls the Texas Legislature back for a special session in the next couple of weeks, he will be flanked at the announcement by leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) - a ''power'' group founded in Chicago in the 1940s by radical organizer Saul Alinsky.
The governor will call the session, among other reasons, to try to pass reforms aimed at evening up school budgets between rich districts and poor, moves pushed by IAF leaders.
The scenario will be only the latest indication of the ever more-established influence of the mostly poor and lower middle-class, mostly Hispanic and black, membership of the IAF organizations in Texas.
These organizations are slowly and steadily branching out into cities across Texas, and southern California, as well as into Baltimore and New York City.
As the network grows, the groups are raising their sights from city-hall issues such as street repair and drainage to statehouse concerns such as school funding and public-works projects. If their past record is any guide, they will get a good share of what they want.
What they want, in a word, is power. The IAF is a small group of professional organizers who have created an institution loosely based on the precepts of the late Saul Alinsky. Their purpose is to cultivate political power for poor neighborhoods or changing neighborhoods that feel they have lost control.
The IAF organizers are hard-headed pragmatists who use neighborhood institutions, chiefly churches, to help people get what they want.
Like Mr. Alinsky before them, IAF leaders have mostly scorn for the liberal activism of the 1960s. The iron rule of the IAF, repeated frequently at all levels, is never to do for others what they can do for themselves.
Rather, organizers and leaders teach the use of politics, says Ernie Cortes, the IAF's Texas director, ''not just about elections, but about politics in the Greek sense of the term - negotiating your interests.''
Mr. Cortes is a thick, avuncular, bear-like man with an academic vocabulary (he carried a sociology book in his case when we met), but with the laconic directness of his marine years.
In 1974, Cortes started the flagship of the IAF organizations, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in the barrios of San Antonio's west side. COPS is now by far the most powerful mass organization in the city. With 26 Roman Catholic parishes and 2 civic groups as member organizations, COPS counts 90,000 families in its fold.
Now there are two more IAF organizations here in San Antonio, as well as ones in El Paso, Houston, Fort Worth, and in the Rio Grande Valley. At the end of the month, Mr. Cortes moves to Austin to begin operation of a new group. He is looking at Corpus Christi next.
In Los Angeles, United Neighborhoods Organization has been active on the city's Latino east side since Cortes launched it in 1976. South Central Organizing Committee, based mostly on black Baptist churches, is a new organization that has recently scored its first victory - an ordinance limiting liquor-store licenses. Organizers are currently raising money for a new effort in the San Gabriel Valley, further east of Los Angeles.
There are three other groups in the Northeast. Probably the most diverse of them is New York's Queens Citizens' Organization, a largely middle-class, half-black and half-white, blend of Protestant and Catholic churches. Another, East Brooklyn Churches, is black and Hispanic. BUILD, based on black churches, is in Baltimore.
''The Southwest is where we spent the bulk of our time in the '70s. Now it's paying off,'' says Ed Chambers, a former Alinsky colleague and president of the IAF. ''In the '80s,'' he adds, ''we're spending our time in southern California and New York.''
Each IAF group sets its own agenda. The IAF approach is to train leaders in the neighborhood and let members decide democratically what concerns them.
As Cortes sees it, pressuring for policy change is only a smaller part of the purpose of IAF groups. The larger point is cultivating in people an ability to use power. Voter registration drives are one tool the groups use: COPS registered 16,000 new voters in San Antonio before the Texas caucuses this month. Other kinds of power are more basic and more intangible.
Esperanza Hernandez, a single mother and assistant vice-president of COPS for her parish, is a classic IAF story.
Two years ago, her oven was already broken when her refrigerator broke too. She had no glass in her windows and no screens either. Her apartment, in one of the most decrepit housing projects in San Antonio, was overrun with roaches, rats, and teenage vandals.
All that has changed. Since her priest told her about COPS, she has systematically confronted the local police chief and federal housing officials.
Now her kitchen is repaired, the police patrol the projects four times as often as they used to, and, as an oblique result of all this, she is studying to earn her high school diploma.
''I went to a training session and learned not to wait too long to get things done,'' she says, ''but to go out to do them yourself.''
This approach has changed the city's political scene. IAF groups are strict about not endorsing candidates. But COPS leaders draw up very specific agendas, and they are not loathe to show up en masse at city council chambers to hold politicians accountable. They do the same with candidates at ''accountability nights'' where COPS members make their positions on the issues known and extract commitments from office-seekers.
Partly as a result of this activism, some San Antonio barrios show over 90 percent of eligible voters to be registered.
There are two themes, two ''value traditions,'' that IAF organizers and members must work in service of, according to Ernie Cortes.
One is the democratic tradition of free speech and assembly, pluralism, compromise, and understanding one's self-interest. The other is the Judeo-Christian ethic. ''For that reason, some civic groups have a hard time with us,'' Cortes notes. ''We'll always build our foundation on churches.''