Ernie Cortes likes to describe the outlook of the Industrial Areas Foundation as neither liberal nor conservative, but radical.
Labor organizer Saul Alinsky, who had begun forming "people's organizations" to improve the social and economic welfare of the residents of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, founded the group in 1940. Its initial approach was to dispatch organizers to sites across the nation to establish grassroots community organizations. After three years at a site, the organizer would depart for a new location, leaving the chapter largely independent of the national I.A.F. from then on.
During the 1960's, many of the original I.A.F. organizations evolved into community-development corporations, some of which--like the Woodlawn Organization in Chicago--are still operating today.
After Alinksy died in 1972, the foundation's leadership passed to Edward T. Chambers, who believed it was necessary to create a formal national network of community organizations with stronger links between the groups. Today, the I.A.F. has more than 40 affiliates across the country, most of them coalitions of religious congregations. The largest concentration of affiliates is in Texas and the Southwest, the region Cortes supervises.
A 1990 I.A.F. publication spells out its vision this way: "We believe that most leaders are made, not born, and that the majority of men and women have the ability to understand, to judge, to listen, to relate, to speak, to persuade, to confront, and to resolve. We find in our congregations and our blocks, in our public-housing projects and barrios, a vast pool of citizens, able-bodied and able-minded men and women. They are often untrained and untaught. They are ignored by almost everyone. They are even redefined as a new class or underclass, but time and again they have proved their ability to grow and develop if invested in."