In 1974, after years of organizing in the Midwest, Ernie Cortés returned to his hometown of San Antonio, where he saw, now with the eyes of a seasoned activist, the consequences of a political system riddled with cronyism. The west and south sides of the city lacked basic infrastructure, such as drainage and sidewalks, while the northern part of the booming city saw new development and economic investment by city leaders and entrepreneurs. The minority voices of San Antonio were ignored, Cortés recalls, and the poor neighborhoods overlooked.
To fix the problems he saw running rampant in his hometown, Cortés turned to the churches. And from the meetings with the parishioners they came out COPS / Metro Alliance, a church-based grassroots group that went on to transform San Antonio politics.
“The power structure was made up mostly, but not exclusively, of white men,” Cortés said of the 1970s in San Antonio. “They wanted to keep the city quite focused on tourism. … What we did was a kind of disruption [the power structure] a little.”
During a tour in May, four organizers showcased some of COPS’s accomplishments: a gleaming new HEB where a rat-infested shop once stood, new sidewalks, libraries, and proper street drainage that used to hold water for days after storms. . The organization also helped lead a successful living wage campaign for city, county and school district employees.
COPS / Metro eventually became the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (Texas IAF), a network of 14 COPS-inspired organizations across the state with the goal of building political power among the poor and marginalized.
This year, the Texas IAF celebrates 40 years. The basic organizational model, with its roots in the school of Saul Alinsky Community organization – It remains the same. IAF Texas organizers work to identify and develop leaders within communities, empowering them to build on their own interests, fight for their own communities, and build power from within. While other organizing teams tend to focus exclusively on neighborhood civic engagement or mobilize around the candidate of the day, IAF Texas members look to existing institutions, such as churches, to build political power.
“The institutions already have some prestige, recognition and power in the community,” said COPS main organizer Jorge Montiel. “If we are going to organize for power, it is better to start with those who already have it.”
After decades of focusing on big cities, IAF members in Texas are turning their attention to parts of the state that have seen little community organization: suburbs, exurbs, and small towns. The network hopes to raise $ 2.5 million over the next two years to reach places like North San Antonio, Bastrop, Kingsville, Victoria, and Corpus Christi.
IAF Texas leaders said the expansion gives the group an opportunity to build momentum in conservative legislative districts where there is little counterbalance to right-wing political forces. It also puts them in a position to defend local victories, such as city ordinances that regulate payday loans and establish living wages.
“If we do it, and we do it well, it will certainly create more opportunities to later be a player across the state,” Montiel said. “We cannot ignore the fact that what happens in the Legislature affects what we do at the local level more.”