Book Review

In Your Face in San Antonio

Dry Bones Rattling was written to explain a Texas phenomenon to Yankees. But for Texans, and especially San Antonians, it offers something better: a peek into the inner workings of a home-grown organization copied elsewhere yet unappreciated and often disliked in its hometown. Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) was founded more than 25 years ago in the barrios of San Antonio’s South and West Sides. It was the first of many organizations in the Industrial Areas Foundations network, a coalition of highly organized, effective activist organizations representing the poor. That in itself should be noteworthy, Mark R. Warren points out in a book that draws on several years spent with members and leaders from the Texas network. (The IAF takes its name from the group founded in Chicago in the 1930s by legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky.)

The book opens with a vignette. An Anglo Catholic priest is telling the story of Ezekiel’s prophecy in the valley of the dry bones (“them bones, them bones”), a symbol of a community without hope. The bones began to rattle, sinews formed, and flesh and blood grew, symbolizing the community’s renewed vigor. The priest uses an Old Testament story that resonates with African American Protestants to inspire Hispanic Catholics, rousing them before a rally that resulted in substantial pledges for community assistance from then Governor Ann Richards and also from bank executives. Warren’s heady theory is that an organization that began in San Antonio (of all places!) may provide the best national model for lobbying for low-income families and communities, and as such has the potential to re-energize American democracy. A non native, he doesn’t note the irony for a city with such a severe insecurity complex to discover that what “put it on the map”–a popular phrase here–was not the PGA golf complex, or Fiesta Texas, or (fill-in-the-blank), but a strident grassroots organization that gets in people’s faces on behalf of the poor.

Warren’s book recounts a history previously unwritten, one that needed to be told. He draws on newspaper accounts and other primary sources, but the events and insights from participants makes Dry Bones Rattling a new window into the role of groups that have not been effectively covered by the media, a problem exacerbated by mutual distrust. But be forewarned, this is an academic book. The author doesn’t capture the colorful characters or stories that make this organization fun to watch.

Many elected officials and left-leaning organizations in San Antonio have long grown weary of COPS and their sister organization here, Metro Alliance. It is easy to move from appreciation to annoyance with their staged political theater, to resent what appears from the outside as rigid hierarchy and control over information, and perhaps most damningly, to see them as a part of the entrenched establishment they were formed to fight against. COPS and Metro have become so much a part of the equation here that it is hard to see them in a new light. But their formidable role in San Antonio politics is more evident than ever in the fast-moving current debate over whether the city should give unprecedented financial support to a golf resort over the Edwards Aquifer in exchange for agreed-upon environmental regulations.

This year, COPS faced a choice of principles: Stand up against the PGA golf resort, and face the potential of losing more ground on a sales tax initiative for many of their cherished programs. They risked alienating key business allies and reminding people that they are loud and uncivil. Yet they stood strong, perhaps damaging “Better Jobs,” as that initiative is now known, surprising those who had begun to view them as mere defenders of their piece of the pie. The PGA fight may end up reinvigorating the organization, giving them an altered image with the middle class and on the North Side, where environmental issues traditionally have resonated but COPS and Metro Alliance have not.

Warren offers a behind-the-scenes look at their tactics and strategizing through interviews with members who work to keep the agenda focused on the needs of low-income communities, paired with unusual access to founder Ernesto Cortes. Warren zooms in on their carefully constructed efforts to build and nurture leadership–a critical aspect of their strength that is often overlooked. From the inside, he helps deconstruct the view from the outside of the organization as controlling, rather than empowering poor people.

However, Warren’s efforts to convince non-Texans (he is an assistant professor at Fordham University in New York) that salvation could be found in Texas are rather funny. (“Many Americans would not normally look to Texas for cutting-edge democratic initiatives,” he writes. “As it turns out, though, Texas presents an excellent setting for studying democratic renewal. Texas has a more varied political tradition than most people realize.”) And in dealing with substantive criticism, he can be defensive: “Any serious effort to empower the poor and people of color is likely to have its detractors; the IAF is no exception.”

It is unclear whether Warren met any of those detractors, be they angry right-wingers, bitter ex-employees, or burned-out former members, or even local political activists, reporters, and business people with mixed experiences and feelings. IAF tactics are about power and how less powerful people can marshal it. As the organization matures, it would be worth exploring the potential benefits of less scripted interactions and more nuanced relations with powerful people, the media, and even politicians–some of which already is happening but isn’t discussed in the book.

Dry Bones reminds Texans why we should lose the irritation and be thankful for the IAF’s contribution to making our democracy livelier. I think it is fair to see IAF as a piece of the puzzle to restoring American democracy–if not the sole missing piece. Indeed, Warren’s thesis seemed stronger in San Antonio this spring when COPS and Metro helped pack the city chambers here and citizens noisily demanded we stand against corporate welfare. While they are inclined to take much of the credit for the anti-PGA movement–and indeed, they have energized it–it would be unfair to ignore the recently formed Smart Growth coalition. That said, in recent months we saw the best indication that democracy is alive in San Antonio that we have seen in close to a decade.

Jeanne Russell is a reporter with The San Antonio Express-News.

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Published at 12:00 am CST