Ordinary People

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The folks gathered inside the Austin Convention Center one Friday morning last month seemed pretty ordinary. They were black, white, Hispanic. Young and old. Some came in jeans and cowboy boots, others in business suits. They could have been there for anything from a tractor-pull to a pops concert.

Instead, they came 1,100-strong to this fortress-like building to forge battle plans for improving life in communities across the Southwest. They gave up their weekend for a meeting that was equal parts pep rally, teach-in, political caucus, and tent revival. Many had risen as early as 4 A.M. to travel to the state capital for this annual conference of the Industrial Areas Foundation organizations of Texas and the Southwest. The I.A.F. is a national network of more than 40 umbrella groups of religious congregations working to improve the quality of life in disadvantaged communities. (See "Alinsky's Legacy," page 19.)

To Ernie Cortes, the man running the show, these educators, parents, and community activists looked pretty extraordinary. For over the past two decades, they have become some of the most powerful and influential folks in the Lone Star State.

From simple beginnings, the I.A.F. volunteers have developed into respected players in a state where politics is a full-contact sport. Their strategy is simple: Teach citizens how to ask for what they want, and then help them hold public officials to their promises.

Their agenda ranges from public safety to housing to employment. Three years ago, the group began an ambitious effort to restructure 54 public schools across the state.

The group's approach has found broad support, appealing to both conservative business leaders and liberal church activists, Republicans and Democrats alike.

"I think what the I.A.F. does transcends party labels," says Mary Beth Rogers, a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a book on the group. "It certainly transcends liberal-conservative sort of definitions, which are outdated when you look at the kind of things they are trying to do: to teach people how to operate in their own interests and to give them the skills and the tools to do so."

Ernesto Cortes is a pretty ordinary-looking guy himself. He's a short, heavyset man whose thinning hair is combed across a bald spot. He has the slightly rumpled air of an absent-minded professor, his trouser cuffs dragging on the ground, his tie askew. He's self-effacing and reticent about his role in the I.A.F., deflecting personal questions.

You'd certainly never know he's won a host of national honors over the past decade, including a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1984. Or that he was featured on a segment of journalist Bill Moyers's public-television series "A World of Ideas." Or that he's lectured on(See ducation reform at the Johnson school of public affairs.

Born in San Antonio in 1943, Cortes attended Catholic schools, graduating from Central Catholic High School--also the alma mater of Henry G. Cisneros, a future mayor of the city and now U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Both sets of Cortes's grandparents settled in San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. His father managed a drugstore and later worked for Pepsi Cola.

Cortes earned a bachelor's degree in economics and political science from Texas A&M University, and began graduate study in economics at the University of Texas at Austin. But his involvement in the civil-rights movement led him to the work of Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers' movement. Cortes saw in both the means for improving the quality of life for those who lacked economic and political power. "The more I did that kind of stuff," he recalls, "it just felt like the less interested I was in being an academic." He ended up leaving graduate school and going to work for striking farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley.

Later, he worked for a field office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Memphis and organized voter registration for a black church in eastern Texas. Eventually, he returned to San Antonio to run a community-development corporation and helped start the first Mexican-American-owned McDonald's restaurant in the country.

But he felt his work was not having enough impact; the power patterns dividing people along race and class lines were not changing. He had always been interested in the work of Saul Alinsky, the labor organizer who founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, and had considered focusing his graduate studies on strategies for alleviating poverty.

In 1971, Cortes moved to Chicago to study Alinsky's methods at the I.A.F.'s training institute. He then did community organizing in Milwaukee and Lake County, Ind., before returning to San Antonio.

In his hometown, Cortes founded the first I.A.F. affiliate in the state, Communities Organized for Public Service, in 1974. Initially, COPS mobilized residents around public-safety issues, pushing for the installation of a traffic signal at a dangerous intersection and the construction of a footbridge over a drainage canal near an elementary school.

Since then, he's helped launch I.A.F. affiliates in Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, and Austin, his home since 1985. The group receives funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and other philanthropies. Cortes is now I.A.F.'s regional director for the Southwest, supervising the lead organizers of 17 affiliates in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado.

Cortes met his wife, Oralia, while they were both working on a voter-registration effort in the mid-1970's. Oralia began her own career in labor organizing, working for unions representing farmworkers, clothing workers, and service employees. She says she left the field after deciding that they "couldn't afford to have two organizers in one family."

During the annual meeting, Cortes is constantly in motion. While presenters have the platform, he works the crowd, talks with organizers, takes notes.

He can be brusque at times. He doesn't hesitate to tell an interviewer he doesn't really feel like answering a question about how he got interested in organizing. "Why don't we save that question for later. Next question."

If Cortes dislikes speaking about himself, his children are more forthcoming.

Jacob, a 5th grader, calls his father a role model. "In a sense, he's a Robin Hood of the 90's," he says during a lively dinner at an Italian restaurant with a half-dozen organizers after the conference. "Sometimes, it gets difficult, because of the fact he's helping other people, that he's not around. But you learn to understand that it's for a good cause."

Alma, a high school sophomore, calls him "the kind of guy who tries to take every characteristic that he knows about a father and combines them into being that person. He tries really hard to be the perfect dad. And it's kind of hard because nobody can be that, but he does a pretty good job."

"Hello, Texas!" shouts Patty Flores, a representative of the Pima County Interfaith Council in Phoenix. "Education is our focus, children are our priority, and quality is our goal. Arizona is on the move, so look out, Texas!"

Flores is taking her turn at the microphone during the roll call that kicks off the weekend-long meeting. A representative from each alliance announces where the group is from, how many members are present, and what they hope to accomplish over the next 36 hours.

As the representatives come forward, their delegations stand and applaud enthusiastically. You can guess which groups are the oldest and most established by the response. San Antonio's cops and Metro Alliance, another I.A.F. affiliate in the city, elicit boisterous cheers from contingents of more than 100, while newer groups evince more reserved applause from delegations of a dozen or so.

Over the weekend, the delegates will listen to several speakers and will spend time in small groups comparing notes on how they've handled issues in their communities.

Each year, Cortes brings in prominent educators to explain their ideas in clear, jargon-free presentations to parents and teachers. The list of previous guests reads like a Who's Who in Education Reform, spanning a range of approaches and ideologies: Coalition of Essential Schools founder Theodore R. Sizer; Yale child psychiatrist James P. Comer, the founder of the School Development Program; Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools David W. Hornbeck; Robert E. Slavin, the director of the Success for All Network at Johns Hopkins University; researchers John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, two of the best-known advocates of private school choice; and Chester E. Finn Jr., who headed the research office of the U.S. Education Department during the Reagan Administration.

"We've tried to have a broad scope of people," Cortes says. "People who we think are going to challenge our own thinking."

This weekend's featured speaker is Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner maintains that there are seven kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. As a result, he contends, the traditional multiple-choice tests used by most schools fail to produce a complete picture of students' talents and abilities.

As they arrived at the conference, each participant was handed a folder from a rainbow-colored stack. Along with the usual conference fareschedules, maps, guides to local cultural attractionscame a set of readings resembling a college course packet. Included were excerpts from two of Gardner's books--The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and The Unschooled Mind--articles about Gardner's work from Teacher magazine and The Executive Educator, and several chapters from Thinking About Our Kids by former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe 2nd.

Gardner's presence is timely, given the recent attention focused on The Bell Curve, a best-selling book by psychologists Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnstein. The controversial book claims that intelligence is largely genetically determined; that it is best measured by I.Q. tests; that it is unevenly distributed in the population across class and ethnic lines; and that little can be done to improve the performance of minority groups.

"The ideas in The Bell Curve are not new," Gardner tells the attentive audience. "They are very, very ingrained in our society, especially Anglo-American society. But you can't get rid of an idea simply by showing what's wrong with it. You've got to have something to put in its place."

He proceeds to lay out his own blueprint for how schools can use such methods as projects, portfolios, and exhibitions to better measure what he calls "education for understanding," which he describes as students' ability to apply facts, concepts, and skills in new situations for which that knowledge is appropriate.

The next day--after listening to talks by two Project Zero staff members about how schools have already begun to put Gardner's ideas into practice--the meeting opens up for discussion. Many parents seem excited about Gardner's theories, but they press him on how his approach can be reconciled with the reality of high-stakes standardized tests.

This kind of interaction of a noted school reformer and a group of parents and activists is something that's often missing in reform efforts. Too often, school reform does not engage parents and other community members in meaningful ways, says Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust at the American Association for Higher Education in Washington. Without the involvement of these groups, schools may make some temporary improvements but not the type of long-term permanent changes that are needed, she argues. "When you look at schools that don't just turn around, but stay turned around," she says, "a common ingredient is a community that demands improvement and that continues to demand every year evidence of continued growth."

Haycock believes Cortes and his colleagues are an excellent model for the nation. "They don't just read what Howard Gardner is doing," she notes. "They bring him there, and they question him with a kind of ferocity and a kind of probing approach. All of us ought to hold such standards of proof."

In 1989, the various I.A.F. chapters in the state formed a separate nonprofit organization, the Texas Interfaith Education Fund, to conduct research and train local leaders about issues affecting residents of the Southwest, ranging from education to housing to employment. Cortes is president of the T.I.E.F. board of directors.

A major component of the fund's effort is the Alliance Schools proj~ect. The three-year-old program is helping to restructure 54 Texas public schools by focusing on developing parent leadership, making student achievement the focus of school restructuring, and building community relationships around the issue of education reform.

The Alliance Schools project is a partnership between the state education department, State Commissioner of Education Lionel R. Meno, the T.I.E.F. and the broader Texas Industrial Areas Foundation network, school and district leaders, and parents. It was launched in 1992 to increase parent and community involvement in schools and to give schools more flexibility and support from the state in how they educate children. The state is providing schools with some additional resources for professional development, including a summer training institute for Alliance Schools teachers.

The Texas Education Agency is providing some additional funding and is trying to eliminate regulatory barriers by giving schools waivers. Thirty-seven of the 54 Alliance schools are receiving $15,000 grants from the state education agency this year, mainly to underwrite the cost of additional teacher and parent training.

The effort has already shown some signs of progress, according to Della May Moore, a spokeswoman for Meno.

"One of the elements of success that we've identified is that they have enlarged the number of individuals who have ownership in the success of schools," she says. While scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills have risen in Alliance schools, they remain below average for the state in some cases. Moore says the gains are still important because they are taking place in schools that have large numbers of very poor children.

The group's education-reform strategy centers on changing the culture of schools from one that is hierarchical and bureaucratic to one that is more collaborative. A starting point is relationship-building, and typically the groups begin by holding individual meetings with community residents to find out what their greatest concerns are about their community. From there, they proceed to "house meetings," informal gatherings in people's homes. Later, come strategic-planning meetings to develop a specific plan of action, and then larger neighborhood meetings to explain these plans to a larger audience and involve others. The method is classic I.A.F. organizing.

Not surprisingly, victories don't come over night. In El Paso, for example, organizers have learned that it takes a long time to build the relationships necessary to spark and to sustain change.

"Historically, the culture of schools from the parents' experience is that their job is to get the kids to school, and they don't have a role to play unless there's a problem," says Maribeth Larkin, the lead organizer for the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, an I.A.F. affiliate.

So EPISO begins by addressing issues that were less focused on the school itself and more focused on the community at large. At Alamo Elementary School, for example, parents and teachers worked with the city council and the police to clean up a park that was covered with glass and junk and had become a hangout for gang members. Parents at Ysleta Elementary focused on improving traffic flow at a dangerous intersection near the school.

While these issues were not always the first ones educators wanted to address, Larkin says, they did allow everyone to learn how to work together and break down stereotypes.

"Since then, they've been able to tackle all kinds of other things like curriculum, getting parents into the classroom, getting parents to think of themselves as real educators and co-learners with the kids," she says.

In Austin, meanwhile, organizers found their initial effort to involve parents in school-level decisionmaking foundered at first. More parents came to meetings and back-to-school nights, but nothing was really changing in the relationships between parents and teachers.

One of the strategies Austin Interfaith members decided to use is one familiar to both churches and politicians: going door to door. Teams of organizers, church members, parents, and teachers went out in pairs, each visiting about eight to 10 homes. They sought to engage parents in 15-minute conversations about what they liked about their children's schools, what needed to change, and what the obstacles were to their becoming more involved in their children's education. "It's not going out to proselytize," explains Joe Higgs, Austin Interfaith's lead organizer. "It's really going out to listen."

One thing they discovered is that many parents perceived the teachers as people who came to their community to work and then left as fast as they could. Meanwhile, the teachers' perception of parents, Higgs says, "was that they were pretty incompetent and don't care about their kids, otherwise they would do this, this, and that."

But the visits created a climate of excitement, he says, as the parents began to see that teachers really did care about the school and about their opinions, and vice versa.

During debriefing sessions, volunteers talked about what they saw and heard. "When you hear that something is a problem from 15 different groups, it's hard to ignore," Higgs says. This in turn helped to form the basis of a broader agenda for how to improve Austin's schools.

Today, one of the first schools the group began working with, Zavala Elementary, is a very different place, Higgs says. It has a health center and an accelerated program for aspiring scientists. Average daily attendance has risen about 0.7 of a point each year, reaching 97.4 percent this fall, one of the highest of the district's elementary schools. Staff turnover has decreased. And scores on the state assessment are the highest among Austin's low-income elementary schools and are comparable to schools drawing a middle-income population.

Tona Vasquez, a mother of four whose daughters attend Zavala, says she was shocked at first to learn that the school had ranked 32nd among the city's 33 elementary schools at one point. "We thought all the kids were doing well," she recalls. Since then, she and other parents have taken a more active role in the school and are proud of the strides that have been made.

Another key component of the I.A.F. strategy is what the group calls an "action."

Haycock of the A.A.H.E. relates an action she witnessed in San Antonio in 1993. She attended a public meeting in a high school auditorium that was crammed to capacity with about 600 parents who had come to talk about education reform.

Just a week earlier, she had been at another meeting in the city where she heard a group of principals and teachers declare that Chicano parents there didn't much care about education and wouldn't show up for education-related events.

During the previous year, local businesses had raised money to support college scholarships for several hundred students. Now, the parents invited in the banker who had headed up the effort. Haycock recalls: "In front of the crowd, they said 'Mr. So and So, we commend you for your effort, but will you commit to raising twice as much in 1994? You have 30 seconds to respond.' The drums are rolling. And they do this all the way along the line. They brought in the head of the parks and recreation department and said 'You funded programs in 30 schools. We want them in 100 schools by next year. You have 30 seconds to respond.' And, of course, he says yes."

Hugh Price, the president of the National Urban League, witnessed a similar effort to increase the number of after-school programs in San Antonio. "It showed how effective grassroots organizing can deliver the goods for kids and can be transformed into a 'win-win-win' situation," he says. "Everybody won: the parents who were organizing, the public officials who responded to the pressure of the organizers, and then, obviously, the children won."

This approach works, he says, because it isn't designed just to vent anger but is focused on a specific outcome the community is seeking. The activists develop a list of specific demands and a plan of attack, and then everything is rehearsed and tightly organized, orchestrated down to the second.

This confrontational method is something that has often worked well for the I.A.F., says Tom Luce, a Dallas lawyer who has been a longtime supporter of the group's work. But after 20 years of this, it's no longer a surprise to any elected official or community leader who comes to an I.A.F. gathering. "They know if they show up, they better be prepared to answer one way or another," he says.

Cortes describes the I.A.F.'s mission as giving ordinary people a voice in the economic, social, and political systems that govern their lives. Its work is about power: who has it, who doesn't, and how this can change.

"Most people see power in a negative way," observes Cortes. "We try to teach people that there's a way of thinking about power that is important and positive. Power is literally the ability to act, and it comes from the Latin word poesse. It means the capacity, to be able. In Spanish, the word is 'poder.' In one sense, it's amoral; it's neither good nor bad. It is."

The I.A.F.'s organizing is centered primarily on religious congregations, and the group members come from all racial and ethnic groups and faith traditions. Churches and synagogues are a good base of "values, vision, and energy," Cortes says. "Faith to me is an affirmation that life is meaningful. And we need institutions that think that life is meaningful."

One of the group's central principles is what Cortes and others refer to as the "Iron Rule." It's a kind of corollary to the Golden Rule--instead of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the Iron Rule is "Don't do for others what they can do for themselves."

"We like to teach people that if you obtain consent by informing people and developing their capacity to make judgments,and their ability to analyze the alternatives, then that kind of power has some ethical implications that are different than that kind where you obtain consent through force or violence," he explains. "That informed commitment requires conversation, requires relationships, requires teaching and development of people. That's a different kind of power than kind that Lord Acton always warned us about. He's talking about power that is inaccessible, power that is unaccountable."

Cortes's conversation brims with such allusions. He is extremely well read and seems to assume that the people around him are, too, sometimes making great leaps of faith in conversation about his listeners' knowledge.

In her 1990 book Cold Anger about Cortes and the I.A.F., Rogers writes, "To keep up with Cortes, I found my own reading expanded into areas in which I had never ventured beforeparticularly into economics, philosophy, and theology. He seemed eager for me to read, eager to show me the intellectual path to his own development so that I could better understand why and how he had come to build the organizations in the way that he had."

"He's a voracious reader," agrees Price of the Urban League. "He is endlessly curious. Whenever we meet, he's always asking me what I've read lately. I know he is always about four books ahead of me. I find that discipline and habit of mind quite remarkable."

That kind of attitude infuses the entire I.A.F. organization, Price adds, noting that Cortes is always giving organizers new books to read. "This is a pretty routine practice that stretches their understanding of the world around them and the ideas around them."

Last month, Cortes was re-reading the philosopher Hannah Arendt's Men in Dark Times, as well as several books about the Holocaust and about Weimar Germany, a period he feels is important because of the need to understand why and how some democracies fail.

Reading is also a family pastime. Cortes recently picked up some books on Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion and culture because his daughter Alma was studying the subject in school. And he and Jacob read 19 of Shakespeare's plays together last summer as a personal project.

When he is in Austin, he tries to leave the office for an hour or so each day to go to a coffee shop next door to read a few newspapers or magazines, or a chapter in whatever book he is currently engaged in. "I find that if I do that, it calms me down," he says. "It helps me become focused. I feel like I'm bringing some energy to the conversation."

Despite its successes, the I.A.F. is not without its critics. For one, Tom Pauken, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, doesn't view the I.A.F. as a positive force in the state.

"They're very shrewd, and they pick issues that need to be addressed," he says. "But they're less interested in finding solutions to these problems than in using them to gain political power."

Pauken, who is writing a chapter about the I.A.F. in his upcoming book The Thirty Years War: The Politics of the Sixties Generation, believes the I.A.F. has a hidden left-wing, socialist agenda. "They believe government has the answer to all the problems," he charges. "By and large, they engender an attitude of hostility toward the private sector."

Meanwhile, others suggest that some educators have felt threatened by the I.A.F.'s confrontational tactics or frustrated by the group's tendency to push for yes-or-no answers to problems that are often very complex.

But Rogers observes that in recent years the group has softened its stance somewhat.

"In the early days, they were so confrontational that that was troubling to many people who didn't know how to deal with that kind of action," she says. "But since they've become older, they've become more mature and more experienced as an organization in getting things done." Today, Rogers says, there are very few times when the group takes on that confrontational tone. "I don't think they are afraid to do it, but they don't need to do it now. Their leaders are wise enough to know that you don't do that unless you have to. They don't believe in confrontation for confrontation's sake."

Vol. 14, Issue 18, Pages 16-21

Published in Print: January 25, 1995, as Ordinary People
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