Watering Grass-Roots Democracy
Community organizer Ernesto Cortes helps the disadvantaged take on city hall - and win
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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?