Among the Interfaithful
It's early Sunday morning, March 4, and no one else in the crowd looks as tired as they ought to at this hour, but they'd probably be up for church by now anyway. The crowd fills the Texas Ballroom at the Hyatt and bulges out the doors. The far-flung chapters of the Industrial Areas Foundation -- an unsexy name for one of the most sharp-toothed and heavily muscled organizations in civic activism today -- have traveled here from West Texas, the Valley, Dallas, Del Rio, Pima County, Arizona, Louisiana, California, and Nebraska for the IAF's Southwest Conference.
It's a civil crowd, but not over-polite. They're trying to get somewhere and they're in a hurry. Happy-go-lucky people, people with little on their minds, do not spend their Sunday afternoons indoors at the Hyatt talking education reform. These people are the restless working class, blue-collar laborers and former welfare moms; a good many are teachers, underpaid and frustrated. This crowd wants something -- several things -- and they are stirred up.
Is this the revolution? This is the church crowd -- sober and sane, nicely dressed, and mostly middle-aged. That they look like a congregation is no surprise; the IAF organizes mainly through congregations -- Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. That they pack the political punch they do is surprising, if you are used to thinking of churches as slow and insular. Apart from an opening prayer, they keep it secular and relentlessly pragmatic. Bit by bit it emerges, though: These people expect the kingdom of God to manifest itself through good schools, living wages, and health insurance for children of the working poor.
Politically, they pack a good, hard punch. Valley Interfaith, the IAF-affiliated group in the Rio Grande Valley, has successfully lobbied city governments and state legislators to begin building water lines and infrastructure in the colonias. In Arizona, several IAF organizations just finished pushing a living wage measure through the state legislature -- the first successful living wage measure passed in a "right to work" state.
"We have to live in the real world and not some fantasy world," IAF's Southwest Director Ernie Cortes told the crowd. "In the real world we need allies in corporations and in politics. They may have mixed motives in helping us, but it is not our job to judge the purity of their motives. Our job is to be there with them, nudging them along."
Sometimes the nudge can look more like a shove. The IAF's "accountability sessions" call on state-level legislators to show up -- usually early, and usually on a weekend -- and publicly state whether they will support items on the organization's agenda. All the state senators and reps get is mike time to say yes or no. The IAF isn't interested in rhetorical flourishes or political posturing. And there is nothing vague or symbolic about the things the IAF is seeking, nothing that lays itself open to long philosophical debate. They want tax abatements for affordable housing and city money set aside for after-school programs for the children of working parents, and quickly. They don't organize by ideology, which may be one reason the IAF is still around 50 years after Saul Alinsky founded it in Chicago. The IAF pulls its members together through the self-interests they hold in common.
"You don't organize people based on a good idea," says Sister Pearl Cesar, an IAF organizer. "Most programs are good ideas, but if we're going to organize power to sustain these programs, we have to organize people based on their interests. We have to ask 'What is it that will move these people to act?'"
In 1991, 75% of the students at Zavala Elementary in East Austin couldn't pass the TAAS test, says Claudia Santamaria, who was then a bilingual teacher at Zavala. Teacher turnover was 80% each year. Attendance was the second lowest in the district. The problem wasn't money -- designated a "priority school" for its low performance, Zavala got grant money from the city -- or lack of interest from administrators. "We had programs -- after-school programs, programs for this, programs for that," says Santamaria. "We had more programs -- but we weren't functioning. We had students on the honor roll with all As, but they couldn't pass the TAAS."
In 1992, Zavala teachers voted to become an Alliance school, entering a formal relationship with local IAF satellite group Austin Interfaith. Alliance schools, the pièce de résistance of the IAF's many initiatives, are eligible to get grant money from the organization, but the critical element, organizers say, is that IAF workers train parents, students, and teachers to negotiate on equal terms with one another. The first action Zavala parents and teachers took secured city money to immunize students who had stayed home sick too many times and fallen behind. These days, Zavala has among the highest attendance figures in AISD. Teacher turnover is virtually nil. "We have a list of teachers who want to work at Zavala," says Santamaria, now principal at Pickle Elementary, the newest of the city's 16 Alliance schools.
Of course, teachers at Alliance schools do leave, and parents who were leaders move on as their children graduate. Sustaining its programs when the leaders leave or funding money is cut is the role of IAF, among many others.
"Citizens only take charge of their rights and responsibilities when there are institutions that can mentor and guide them," Cortes says. "When we begin to build the power from New Orleans to Dallas, from Louisiana to Arizona, from Iowa to California, then we begin to see the changes we want to see."