Austin Interfaith

Organizing Austin One Congregation at a Time

They're called "accountability sessions." In reality, they're demonstrations of power - blatant examples of political muscle flexing. But what makes the events enjoyable is that, for once, politicians aren't the ones doing the flexing. Instead, they are genuflecting.

Once or twice a year, Austin's politicians and politician wannabes attend one of these accountability sessions and stand in tribute to one of the city's most powerful political organizations: Austin Interfaith.

One local political writer calls the sessions a "secular Mass." It's an apt description for an event that mixes elements of a prayer meeting, job interview, political rally, and school assembly into an intriguing form of political theatre. Officeholders and candidates for school board, city council, and other offices do everything but kneel and break into song for an audience that includes Methodists from Northwest Austin, Jews from West Austin, Presbyterians from the University area, Catholics from South Austin, and Baptists from East Austin. In all, members of 30 or more congregations may show up for an accountability session. Crowds number as few as 50 or as many as 800 or 900.

The accountability sessions are intriguing in themselves, but they are also are used as a political brickbat. Particularly during this time of year, when the city is preparing next year's budget, Austin Interfaith leaders are meeting with city councilmembers, carefully reminding them of promises made during earlier accountability sessions. Call it coercion. Call it a threat, but the group has clearly learned how to play hardball.

"Our primary goal is for our members to learn and do politics," says Father John Korcsmar, pastor of Our Lady of Dolores Catholic Church and one of Austin Interfaith's 10 co-chairs.

Begun in 1985, Austin Interfaith created a power base by organizing people instead of money. By tapping into churches and synagogues, the group found a motivated constituency who profess to believe in the Gospels and the Torah, and through Interfaith they are given a chance to turn the ideals of the Scriptures into a reality. They have turned churchgoers into a political machine, and that machine has made significant and positive changes to Austin's schools, health care delivery system, and job training programs.

In the school arena, Austin Interfaith organized the Alliance School program, convincing five of the city's lowest achieving elementary schools - Zavala, Ortega, Becker, Jordan, and Blackshear - to join forces with Interfaith and the Texas Education Agency, in a program that allows the schools to get additional funding from the state. That money can then be used to train teachers and parents. Some 60 schools in Texas are now Alliance Schools.

"Zavala has the highest test scores of any school in East Austin. It used to have the lowest. I think that's significant," says Al Mindiz-Melton, principal at Zavala Elementary. Four years ago, Zavala, located in East Austin on Robert Martinez Street, became the city's first Alliance School. The changes have attracted much media attention, and in a testament to the school's success, U.S. Secretary of Education Madeleine Kunin visited the school last December.

Mindiz-Melton credits Austin Interfaith for the turnaround. "We would not have achieved what we achieved without them. No way. We'd probably still be floundering down at the bottom of the barrel."

Last year, Austin Interfaith convinced the city to spend $505,000 for an after-school enrichment program, giving elementary-aged public school students a safe, structured environment in which to study and play after the school day ends. More than 6,700 students enrolled in the program during the last school year.

The group also persuaded the city and county to set aside $190,000 for school-linked health care programs in 16 elementary schools, which served 1,397 children between January and June of 1995. According to Interfaith officials, 36% of those students had no health insurance, and half were behind on their immunizations.

Austin Interfaith then convinced the city to provide another $300,0000 for a summer youth employment program for students aged 12-18. Once the funding was in place, member congregations provided 15 hours of job training for the students, who then went through an employment selection process. Nearly 500 students are now working in a wide variety of jobs, ranging from high technology at companies like IBM and Texas Instruments to low-tech positions at the city's animal shelter.

Austin Interfaith is one of about a dozen inter-denominational organizations now operating in Texas under the auspices of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Created in 1940 by the late Saul Alinsky, the IAF works to create political organizations in low-income communities across the country. Their goal in every instance is to effect social and political change, and the accountability session is a standard part of their recipe. Some 1,000 congregations around the country are now affiliated with IAF member groups.

The first IAF organization in Texas was founded in San Antonio in 1974 by Ernesto Cortés (see p.24). Known as Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) the group forced San Antonio to spend half a billion dollars on drainage and infrastructure projects on the city's west side. Most recently, COPS was instrumental in getting stringent water quality regulations passed in the Alamo City. (See Daryl Slusher's cover story, "Consensus for Clean Water," Feb. 24.)

Much of Interfaith's success lies in its organizational structure. Certainly it receives inspirational guidance from leaders like Cortés, but the group relies on each congregation to develop leaders who want to lead, be involved, and attend a myriad of meetings. The group sends many of these leaders through a training program, at which IAF leaders like Cortés teach them the theory and practice of politics and political organizing. And they forever hammer on one point, known as the Iron Rule inside the IAF: Never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.

It may sound like Newt Gingrich's slogan, but in fact, it forms the basis for all of the IAF's member organizations. Austin Interfaith has a relatively flat organizational structure, with a group of co-chairs who oversee a network of committees which deal with education, job training, health care, neighborhood security, and housing issues. From these committees come the people who run the accountability sessions.

The most recent accounta- bility session was held on May 6 at Martin Junior High School. At 8:30am, about 200 parents, students, teachers, and Interfaith organizers gathered in the school cafeteria to discuss the topic: "Winning a Future for Our Children & Youth." For the next three hours, the participants attended workshops on parental involvement in schools, helping children prepare for the TAAS test, and other topics. Then it was show time. Interfaith organizers spent 15 minutes peppering the crowd with questions like "Do we want summer job training for our youth?" To which the crowd delightedly answered in a near yell, "Yes!"

Then, in a carefully choreographed sequence, half a dozen local politicians clambered onto the tiny cafeteria stage. Interfaith organizers hit them with questions like "Will you commit to continue funding for summer youth employment at current levels for the 1995-1996 budget year, and will you work within your power to place and keep this funding in the base budget? Please stand if your answer is yes." To which City Councilmembers Gus Garcia and Brigid Shea, Mayor Bruce Todd, County Commissioner Sam Biscoe, County Judge Bill Aleshire, and AISD Board members Geoff Rips and Loretta Edelin all stood up. "Will you commit to continue funding for school-linked health services at current levels for the 1995-1996 budget year and will you work within your power to place and keep this funding in the base budget? Please stand if your answer is yes." Again all the politicos stood up. The final question was on support for the after-school enrichment program and again, all the politicians stood.

The accountability sessions are endearing in their simplicity. They also verge on
the comical. After all, the politicians know beforehand exactly what they will be asked, and they wouldn't attend if they didn't support Interfaith's program.

The only councilmember in recent memory who has refused to support the Interfaith agenda at an accountability session was former councilmember Bob Larson, who subsequently lost his bid for re-election to Shea. In 1991, Larson refused to support Interfaith's position on expanding in-school health clinics. "They didn't know it at the time, but we had a hospital going broke," said Larson recently. "I knew we couldn't afford to do more when the hospital [Brackenridge] was going into a crisis. I couldn't sit there in good faith and say yes."

Larson salutes Interfaith for their efforts. "They have people who do a good job of organizing churches," he says. But he is bothered by the accountability sessions. "What sickens me is that politicians who know for sure that they can't deliver on their promises, sit there and say yes to everything." And he dislikes the rigidity of the process. "There's something scary about it, when it gets to the point where it's so orchestrated as Interfaith puts on their show."

Interfaith leaders say only "a handful" of politicos who have attended their accountability sessions have refused to support their agenda. "It doesn't bother us when they say no," says Korcsmar. But Interfaith does get peeved when politicians promise to support them and then don't, as Councilmember Ronney Reynolds did last year. According to Interfaith leaders, Reynolds pledged to support their youth agenda during his re-election campaign. But when the issue came to a vote before the council, Reynolds abstained.

For candidates on the stump, the accountability sessions are an essential stop. They offer an opportunity to address a large audience and, very briefly, demonstrate their support for the Interfaith agenda. In January of 1994, 19 candidates for the AISD school board showed up for one accountability session.

Aleshire, who attended the May 6 meeting, told the Chronicle he will not run for re-election. He went to the recent session because he supports Interfaith. "I not only think they are right, I don't think they are asking for enough," says the judge, who plans on going to law school after his term expires in January 1999. "If Interfaith is being persuasive with elected officials, it's not because of their political moxie, it's because of the correctness of their position and the quality and accountability they are trying to achieve," he says. "I wish every other organization that attempts to be representative of grassroots communities would behave like they do."

But critics say that Aus- tin Interfaith doesn't work with other groups, and that it hasn't been consistently effective at the ballot box. "I think we ought to hold an accountability session on them," says one long-time East Austin activist, "because they don't collaborate. We've all got to work together. But they seem to be so hung up on getting credit for an initiative, that they don't collaborate, and I think that's a detriment to our neighborhood."

Interfaith leaders acknowledge that they seldom work with other groups. "Enemies and allies can change," says Korcsmar. And he adds, "We want credit for what we do." And when things don't work out, he says, "We'll take the blame." Anita Hardeman, an Interfaith delegate who attends Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, and who has worked on the summer youth employment program, points to another reason: "When you allow your organization to work with others, you break the continuity of your goals and objectives. If you work with your own people, the goals and objectives stay the same," she says.

While Austin Interfaith was credited with turning out voters for the 1990 school bond election, they haven't been consistent in getting voters to the polls. "I think they still influence relatively few votes," says Larson. Interfaith leaders acknowledge that their efforts at getting out the vote have been sporadic. But Joe Higgs, a lead organizer for the group, says "politics happens at a lot of places besides the ballot box." Any politician who breaks a promise made in front of hundreds of voters can expect repercussions, even if not the result of an organized ballot drive.

Austin Interfaith leaders repeatedly say they are non-partisan and that their goal is to work with whomever gets elected. "We always want to be in relationship with people in office," says Korcsmar. Given their effectiveness in getting programs going, there's no doubt the group practices the art of politics very well. But their influence goes beyond muscling local politicians and getting money. Hardeman says that Austin Interfaith's equal mix of Anglos, Hispanics, and African-Americans gives it strength. "No other group crosses all the socioeconomic boundaries, regardless of race, creed, or color," she says.

The diversity of Austin Inter- faith, rather dividing it, seems to unite it. Diversity also gives it credibility and power. And make no mistake, that's what Interfaith wants: power. Cortés frequently quotes Lord Acton, the 19th-Century English historian who said, "power tends to corrupt." But Cortés adds, "We must realize that powerlessness also corrupts - perhaps more pervasively than power itself."

Empowering people to force change may be Austin Interfaith's greatest accomplishment: At a time when Americans are increasingly disconnected from their neighbors and communities, and the democratic process is being perverted by hugely expensive campaigns run by professional pollsters and spin doctors, Austin Interfaith has created an effective, multi-racial, multi-religious community of people who are motivated and organized to fight side by side for the things society needs, things like better schools, better jobs, and better health care.

Ronnie Dugger, biographer of Lyndon Johnson and former publisher of the Texas Observer, has long called for the creation of a new political movement in America. Speaking of Interfaith and similar IAF organizations, he asks rhetorically, "who has been as effective?" And Dugger loves the accountability sessions: calling politicians on the carpet and "holding them accountable without a lot of kindness - that's what democracy was supposed to be." n

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