The politicians may not understand the theological talk about ‘love and power’ but, when the I.A.F. speaks to power, they listen respectfully,” William Greider wrote in Who Will Tell the People? The Industrial Areas Foundation’s language of love is the intellectual legacy of theologian Paul Tillich. But the language of power, the organization’s lingua franca, was the language spoken when 5,000 members of twenty-four I.A.F. groups from seven states gathered in San Antonio on November 7.
Since 1988, I have attended a number of meetings of the state’s I.A.F. organizations: Valley Interfaith in the Lower Rio Grande Valley; Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio; Austin Interfaith; the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO); the Metropolitan Alliance in San Antonio. I write about these events because, like Bill Greider, I am convinced that these community-based organizations are a rare sign of vitality in an otherwise moribund democracy. But they are difficult to write about, without writing a formulaic story: the people came, they met in convention, the leaders said this, the politicians said that, and a strategy was agreed upon. Reporters sometimes avoid these events because they are not “news.”
At the San Antonio meeting I was overwhelmed by news and intrigued by one observation. The observation required walking to the back of the stage and looking over the heads of sixty or seventy people — elected officials, members of the business community, clergy high and low, and the I.A.F. organizers and leaders coordinating the event — who were facing the audience. What was first-term Congressman Charlie Gonzalez seeing when Father Jimmy Drennan asked the 5,000 enthusiastic delegates to stand and endorse an item on the I.A.F. Domestic Strategy Agenda? How did this event look to Congressman Nick Lampson, or Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, or U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, or state Senators Rodney Ellis and Eddie Lucio, or House Ways and Means Chairman Rene Oliveira, or Bexar County Judge Cyndi Krier, or San Antonio Mayor Howard Peek? These elected officials were confronted with the angry enthusiasm of 5,000 people, who represent tens of thousands of votes. (Governor Bush was invited but, as he has in the past, declined to attend.)
Watching the convention from the back of the stage, I realized the I.A.F. had reversed the spatial dynamics of the ornate auditorium in downtown San Antonio. The audience was sitting on stage, watching a demonstration of political power in the tiered seats on the floor and the balcony. The language of love was inaudible but the language of power was evident. And the politicians sat and listened respectfully.
There is also news. Since I started paying attention ten years ago, the Southwest I.A.F. (which began in 1974, when seven community leaders met to discuss the lack of drainage in South San Antonio) has developed into a regional power that might be described as the Interstate-10 Alliance. I asked I.A.F. southwest regional director Ernesto Cortes if the Southwest I.A.F. considers itself a national power, as its member organizations now extend from Houston to Los Angeles.
“You forget New Orleans,” Cortes said. “We’re a regional organization. We’ve put together a regional agenda responding to problems that are distinct to the Southwest. But they have national implications.
“There is grotesque inequality,” Cortes continued. “It’s unconscionable that the bottom 20 percent can see their wages decline while the top 20 percent accumulate so much wealth.” The inequality Cortes describes is particularly egregious in San Antonio. Among the fifteen largest cities in the country, San Antonio has the second-highest number of people living below the poverty level. Half those living below the poverty level are between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. And most are working: San Antonio’s current unemployment rate is lower than 3.5 percent. Why are people working to remain poor?
The I.A.F. would argue that the city’s generally low level of education has left working families bearing the consequences of the global economy, with mid-wage manufacturing jobs moving to cheaper labor markets abroad. It’s worth noting that while the city of San Antonio has funded some COPS programs, it has put far more public money into subsidizing a service economy that provides low-wage jobs in the place of manufacturing jobs. The Alamodome, Henry Cisneros’ tax-payer-funded, “if we build it, they will come” stadium is still awaiting its N.F.L. franchise. Seaworld received a tax rebate for a theme park that hires minimum-wage workers. And voters recently approved a new taxpayer-funded arena for the San Antonio Spurs, in which ticket sellers and concession stand employees will earn the minimum wage. (The Alamodome remains one of the rare exceptions in sports socialism: a stadium built for no team.)
Cortes mentioned none of those projects. But he envisions better uses of tax dollars. “There should be no public money for poverty-level jobs,” he said. “No money for domed stadiums or arenas or hotels that pay minimum wages. Any time you make a public investment, it should be for something that pays living wages. There should be no subsidies for poverty.”
COPS is asking the city for an annual “human endowment investment” of $16 million, divided among:
A city-wide after-school program that currently serves 30,000 students in San Antonio public schools;An education partnership program that has provided college scholarships for 4,100 students and reduced the dropout rate;A job-training program that has placed more than 1,000 workers in jobs that pay an average of $10.16 an hour;A program in the city’s Alliance Schools, which provides after-school programs, curriculum innovations, and counseling for students and their families.
To raise the $16 million in San Antonio, COPS and the Metro Alliance are asking for a sales-tax increase of one-eighth cent (“or perhaps more, if needed,” Father Drennan told the crowd). The tax increase is smaller than the Alamodome sales-tax increment (no longer in effect because the stadium has been paid for), said COPS founding president Andres Sarrabia.
The sales-tax increase will require a city council vote to refer the issue to voters for a May 2000 referendum. “If this passes, San Antonio will be the first city in the country to invest public money in a human development program,” Sarrabia said. He added that the new money will not supplant the city’s current general-revenue contributions to the programs COPS and the Metro Alliance have created.
The convention was not without its odd moments. No sooner than Senator Hutchison publicly pledged to support the Domestic Strategy Agenda than she stepped offstage and began backing away from her commitment. And Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio told the convention he would kick off the $16 million fund initiative by donating $1,000 of his own money — a gesture that embodied all the dignity of a drunk slipping a twenty-dollar tip into a waitress’ bra.
But the San Antonio meeting marked an important moment in the Southwest I.A.F.s quarter-of-a-century history. Local organizations such as COPS and Valley Interfaith have served as incubators for policy initiatives that will be replicated across the Southwest: a sales-tax initiative that began when Valley Interfaith agreed to support McAllen Mayor Othal Brand’s proposed tax increase, only if money would be set aside for schools and libraries; an after-school program that was developed by the Metro Alliance in San Antonio; a market-driven job-training program that began as COPS’ Project Quest in San Antonio.
“Think of a line that starts in Fresno, California, and goes south to Mississippi,” Cortes said. “Everything below that line, that’s where we’re working now.”