Watering Grass-Roots Democracy

Community organizer Ernesto Cortes helps the disadvantaged take on city hall - and win

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TEXANS have known for years what the nation is just learning: that in 1984, businessman Ross Perot chaired a committee to reform the Lone Star state's education system.

What many people even in Texas don't know is that the momentum for the reforms began when groups of ordinary people voiced their concerns to the state government. These groups are part of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network of community mobilization groups across the nation.

Supervising the Texas IAF network is Ernesto Cortes, a native of San Antonio whose gruff demeanor covers a deep love for people. Cortes has founded IAF groups in Los Angeles, Arizona, and throughout Texas.

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Although his is far from a household name, Cortes is well known among Texas power brokers. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby worked with Texas's IAF on legislation to reform education and improve living conditions in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. "Ernie is one of the finest people I've ever known," Mr. Hobby says. "I don't know anybody more responsible for bettering the quality of life of millions of people in Texas than Ernie Cortes."

Cortes's longest-lived and most influential group is COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service). Founded in 1974 in San Antonio, COPS transformed neighborhoods of low-income, undereducated Hispanics into an organized, informed, and politically savvy group willing to take on city hall. The city made a peaceful transition to a more racially representative government after the formation of COPS.

COPS "transformed politics in San Antonio," says Charlie Kilpatrick, former editor of the San Antonio Express-News. "Ernie is primarily responsible for evolving a system that allows a great many people to become involved [in city politics] and share in success and failure."

People learn best when grappling with their own problems, Cortes says, and for this reason he sees his role as a teacher and facilitator, not a problem-solver.

He is a strict believer in the "Iron Rule" of community organization: Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Some excerpts from a recent Monitor interview:

What does our country need now?

We need intermediate democratic institutions, almost like a university, which provide a framework for families, communities, and workers to be able to act in public life. We're not going to get the kind of investments in human capital unless ordinary people have some way of exercising power to get a response from public officials.

The suburbanization of American politics means there is no way of forming a moral consensus. So we've got to create some kind of institutions that teach people how to form judgments, how to have conversations, negotiate, and ultimately compromise.

We have to think seriously about how we can do some real investment. I have a formula that in order for economic development to be productive, you have to first invest in human capital development and training of people.

Then you have to develop social overhead capital, infrastructure, technology and transportation systems. But you also have to invest in moral and social capital, which is the values and vision and moral infrastructure of a community. And all of these things have got to be in place, if financial capital is going to be productive.

What was San Antonio like when you were growing up?

It was a city run by very few people, and people of color at that time were Mexican and if you were Mexican you were poor, and you grew up in a part of town where things weren't so good. It flooded all the time. It was a low-wage town based on tourism, and the Mexicans didn't get the good jobs in the banks or the city utilities. It was that kind of city. It was pretty blatant.

We needed to do something that was not dependent on office holders, to realize there was a role that ordinary people could play. Or what were considered ordinary people.

Most of the people that came to COPS were rather extraordinary. But to the political establishment, they looked ordinary, they acted ordinary. They didn't have money, they didn't have the trappings of people who have access to power.

What was COPS able to do?

What it's done is to empower large numbers of people. It has enabled them to force the city to make investments in the older parts of the city, to the tune of more than a billion dollars. That's been a very significant accomplishment, in terms of housing, libraries, and flood control.

Aren't most of the people you organize relatively uneducated?

We find that formal education is not the only criteria, as long as people are curious. What we're trying to do is teach people that their curiosity is legitimate, their tool to hone.

Where others see limitations, I see people who are successful in a different way. People who have dealt with adversity, someone who's been able to maintain a sense of themselves, a dignity in spite of the bad situation they grew up in schools that don't work or are indifferent to them, employers who try to wring every ounce of energy out of them without paying them anything when you see people working and living in those kinds of conditions, yet maintaining a sense of dignity and hope, then you know they 've got potential.

How do you motivate people?

Usually people are angry about conditions and want to change them. But you're not just organizing against, you're organizing for. If you want to organize to do things, build schools, you have to see opportunity. It can't be just reaction, it's got to be also initiation.

We want to teach people that they have a responsibility to bring something to the table - their time, their energy. I don't care how poor they are, there's no self-respect unless they bring something to the table.

What forces hinder success?

Oh, just what people are told all the time - that you can't fight city hall, that government's too big and incompetent to turn it around. I don't believe that, but the more people that think that, the harder it is to get them to take it on.

Should IAF's ideas be translated into federal programs?

I don't think so. There need to be government programs, we need to invest in the schools, in job training. But we also need to have some sort of civic culture. We need to have some way of teaching people how to participate effectively, where people feel like they are citizens. They have rights, but responsibilities, where they're not just consumers.

What can one person do?

Politics is best done by groups of people. They've got to become involved, they've got to take some ownership. They can't do it by themselves. They've got to do it in connection with some other institutions, with a church, or neighborhood association.

They need to understand that until we restore an appreciation for and an understanding of politics, we're in big trouble. And what politics is about is not electing candidates, it's about debate and discussion. Politics is those decisions that have to do with how you allocate resources.

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