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Connecting People to Politics: The Role of Religious Institutions in the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network

 Mark R. Warren

Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Fordham University
Bronx, NY 10458

Table of Contents


Religious Institutions and Traditions

The IAFís Political Strategy

Political and Social Context

Concluding Remarks


Faith-based community organizing is emerging as one of the most important initiatives to rebuild inner city communities and revitalize democratic life in America. Its success, I would argue, lies in the ability of faith-based organizing to connect people to politics. This connection is made by drawing the leaders of religious congregations and the social networks that extend from them into political action. This political action, meanwhile, involves a much deeper participation than voting or lobbying per se. By engaging community leaders in a collaborative process of discussion leading to action, faith-based organizing develops an active and empowered citizenry. In the context of the decline in organizations like political parties, faith-based networks create a new type of organization -- composed of religious congregations -- that provide an on-going, active relationship between the faith communities and political authorities responsible for community well-being. It is through the process of building these effective mediating institutions that faith-based organizing has achieved its success in community development.

In this discussion paper, I will critically examine the faith-based organizing model that the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network uses to reconnect people to politics. Among faith-based networks, the Texas IAF experience is particularly important to analyze for several reasons. The IAF is the largest faith-based network with over sixty affiliates across the country and is growing rapidly. The IAFís organizing approach was advanced to a significant degree through the work of Ernesto Cortes, Jr., beginning with his organizing COPS, an affiliate in San Antonio, Texas. COPS has become arguably the most powerful community organization in the country, directing more than one billion dollars in resources for improvements in its neighborhoods. Beyond COPS, Cortes and Texas IAF leaders and organizers have established a powerful state-wide network with eleven local affiliates and a highly sophisticated organizing staff, one of the few places that locally based community organizing has achieved significant political power at the state level.

Although focused on Texas, the implications of this study go beyond its borders. The IAF has established very successful organizations in East Brooklyn, Baltimore, Los Angeles and many other cities across the country. It is developing state and regional operations in California and the west coast, the New York metropolitan area and the northeastern seaboard, Tennessee and the south, and newer affiliates in the midwest. Furthermore, as the direct inheritor of the tradition started by Saul Alinsky who founded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago in the nineteen thirties and the IAF in the forties, the IAF has had a powerful influence beyond its own network. Through the work of Cortes and Alinskyís successor as executive director, Ed Chambers, the IAF has pioneered the approach to organizing that is followed in broad outline by other faith-based efforts, or that they consciously modify. Scholars and practitioners concerned about reinvigorating American democracy need to understand the contribution of religious institutions to the Texas IAF, where faith-based organizing has been pushed the farthest.

I wrote this paper as an informal discussion document without extensive references. It is organized into three sections to answer to the questions posed for this panel. I base the arguments in this paper upon research I conducted on the IAF from 1993 to 1997 in a number of Texas cities, using participant observation, in-depth interviewing, and an analysis of organizational documents and news sources. Some of these findings were reported in greater detail in my Ph.D. dissertation (Harvard University, 1995), entitled Social Capital and Community Empowerment: Religion and Political Organization in the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation. I am in the process of revising that dissertation for book publication.

Religious Institutions and Traditions

The IAF has been able to broaden the basis of participation in politics because it builds its organizations upon religious institutions which provide long-term access to the social capital of communities. By social capital, I mean social networks and associations based upon trust and cooperation. Robert Putnam argues that more than one half of the associational life of the United States revolves around churches and their affiliated associations, clubs and schools. In the inner city, churches are one of the few social institutions left. Historically, churches have anchored the social life of many American communities. Although IAF affiliates are composed of churches, they are not simply coalitions of institutional representatives. The IAF reaches deeply into religious institutions to engage not just clergy and lay leaders, but also the social networks of friends, families and neighbors that extend out from them. The IAF trains these leaders in collaborative political action. These emerging political leaders mobilize their "followers," their friends and neighbors, to public actions, providing a key source of political power for the organizations.

The structure of social capital varies across religious denominations, so that they may provide differential access to social networks. The work of the Texas IAF in the Hispanic community is enhanced by the parish structure of Catholic churches in communities which are largely Mexican-American. Here, almost all religiously active residents attend the neighborhood parish church. Moreover, the Catholic Church has long had a tradition of establishing a wide range of affiliated institutions, like schools, clubs and fraternal orders, through which to structure the lives of Catholics. IAF organizations draw from the leaders of these associations, like the Catholic Hispanic women involved in the Guadalupanas, and then reach deeply into the neighborhood-based social networks of these leaders. The authority of a supportive bishop and priest have also provided legitimacy for the IAF and encouragement for lay participation. Since Vatican II, the American church has worked hard to increase lay participation and leadership in its parishes. The Catholic arrangement of parish-based churches that combine authoritative structures with broad lay participation seems to provide a particularly conducive institutional environment for community organizing.

African-American Protestant churches, by contrast, provide a less dense institutional foundation to reach neighborhood networks. Congregationally organized churches draw their membership from a much larger area. In addition, black Protestants within one neighborhood may attend a large variety of churches, each of which may be significantly smaller than the average Catholic parish. Consequently, the recruitment of one African-American Protestant church into an IAF organization often provides much less neighborhood-based social capital than a Catholic parish. Examining turn-out figures for large IAF actions in Texas reveals that, on average, Catholic churches produce larger numbers of supporters than black Protestant churches. For example, COPS reaches 50,000 families through 27 parishes, mobilizing about 125 supporters from each member church to its annual conventions. The largely Protestant IAF affiliate in Fort Worth, Allied Communities of Tarrant, reaches 25,000 families through 22 congregations, each bringing about 75 supporters to annual conventions.

On the other hand, the institutional structure of African-American Protestant churches holds one important advantage. As middle class blacks have moved out of inner cities, many still return to their old neighborhood church. Consequently, the black church often brings more affluent suburbanites and poorer urban residents together in one place where they can potentially find a common purpose for cooperative action.

In addition to institutional access to the social networks of a community, religious institutions also provide belief systems that can support community organizing. Churches are one of the few social institutions that have as part of their mission the welfare of the community. Not all churches, of course, conceive of that mission in a "this-worldly" manner. But many do, at least in their rhetoric. The IAF unlocks that capacity by searching for the community welfare traditions within religious denominations and by stressing the active engagement of those beliefs. Since community can be conceived of quite narrowly, the IAF emphasizes a broad, inclusive interpretation of the meaning of "Godís children." Unleashed in that way, religious beliefs can serve as an inspiration for political action and provide a moral foundation for the organization. Alinsky organizations are well-known for their emphasis on self-interest. The modern IAF balances that self-interest with a religiously inspired concern for the community. Such a combination helps IAF organizations become more than a narrowly defined interest group. It provides a basis upon which to develop political collaboration among a variety of communities that are often divided from each other.

Reverend Mike Haney of St. Leonardís parish in COPS suggests the connection to his religious devotion in explaining why he joined COPS. "COPS is a way of implementing the gospelís call to justice that it imposes on us. This happens in a couple of ways: dealing with issues themselves; and COPS calls us to work as a collective, to find strength in community, and thatís a gospel call itself."

Religious traditions vary in their openness to such political engagement. White Southern Baptists have been largely unresponsive to the IAFís appeal. Racism, as well as resistance to interdenominational cooperation, plays an important role here. But perhaps even more importantly, many fundamentalists have become engaged in politics to further a specifically moral agenda, focused on such issues as abortion and school prayer. The IAF, by contrast, seeks to direct religious motivation to community development broadly conceived, defined by the more "secular" concerns of affordable housing, safe streets, and good education.

Many African-American Protestants have been quite receptive to political action for social and economic improvement. This capacity was enhanced by the civil rights movement which emphasized racial justice. Since the decline of the movement, many black churches have remained politically active, but to pursue black empowerment through such means as the election of black officials. Since the IAF in Texas seeks to build multiracial organizations and was started in Mexican-American communities, it has not always been easy to recruit black churches. Joining the Texas IAF requires black religious leaders not so much to suppress a concern for racial justice, but to redirect it towards a broader agenda developed through multiracial conversation and negotiations. Moreover, the IAF network began in the Hispanic community of San Antonio, directed by a Mexican-American organizer, Ernesto Cortes. African-Americans were not involved on the ground floor. The IAF learned from that experience and began to found all its future Texas affiliates on a multiracial basis from the beginning. The network now has quite strong black leadership and representation on the organizing staff. That makes recruitment of African-American ministers easier than in the early days, when joining required a certain leap of faith. Nevertheless, participation still requires a different emphasis in the engagement of black religious traditions in secular politics.

The notion of engagement suggests that the IAF does not just take from religion in some utilitarian sense. The connection of religious institutions and the IAF has had some transformative effects in both directions. It has served to reinvigorate many congregantsí religious commitment and practice. And member churches have expanded their institutional capacity and better focused their efforts with the help of the Texas IAFís "parish development program." Meanwhile, the IAF itself takes religious ideas and traditions much more seriously than Saul Alinsky ever it, developing what might be called a theology of politics.

The IAFís Political Strategy

"The purpose of COPS is not issues; the purpose of COPS is leadership formation." Reverend Rosendo Urrabazo, former co-chair of COPS.

The professional organizers of the IAF play the critical role in connecting the social capital embedded in religious institutions to political action. The main job of the IAF organizer, attached to every local affiliate, is to recruit new leaders out of church communities and train them. IAF training is not especially focused on skills development. The purpose of an IAF affiliate is not to address any particular problem or issue, but to build a political institution capable of developing and acting upon a mutually agreed upon program. In order to build such an institution, the IAF follows what it calls a relational organizing strategy which emphasizes teaching people how to connect to each other, to build a relationship that can empower them to act. The fundamental unit of relationship-building is the individual meeting, where two leaders explore the sources of their personal, social and political commitment and seek to establish a common ground for action.

This approach has several strengths compared to many other community based efforts. Because IAF organizations are not built for the purpose of pursuing any one issue, they have the potential to address community development in a holistic manner. In addition, IAF organizations seem better able to sustain broad participation over time, while other community development efforts become dominated by one or a few established officials. At the same time, the strategy places a significant degree of power in the hands of organizers. These organizers, along with the top leaders of local affiliates, train new leaders and evaluate their suitability for organizational leadership. The IAF de-emphasizes voting on proposals and the formal election of organizational officials (although these do occur), in favor of discussion processes oriented to creating a consensus for action.

As the IAF develops leaders from within communities that are often racially homogeneous, it brings them together in what it calls broad-based organizations, that is, multiracial, interdenominational, and metropolitan-wide institutions. Leaders build action-oriented relationships not just with those from their own church and community, but across them as well. In Texas, the IAF expands those relationships to include leaders from organizations across Texas and with its sophisticated organizing staff as well. While IAF organizing unleashes the capacities of individual church-based communities, the strategy also offers the possibility of overcoming the kind of narrow orientation that may come from organizing exclusively in one neighborhood or social group. Compared to many efforts that leave inner cities better organized, but still isolated, the IAF seeks to engage the more affluent suburbs in common action with the inner city.

In order to create this more broad based unity, the IAF searches for commonality in issues, encouraging leaders to develop mutually agreed upon programmatic initiatives. Because of the diverse base of the organizations, and with IAF input from higher regional levels, the practical initiatives developed can be innovative and sophisticated, like the job training program in San Antonio Project QUEST. (I discuss the IAFís political strategy as applied in the QUEST campaign in a forthcoming American Behavioral Scientist article.) They are apt to receive broad public backing as well. On the other hand, the IAF tends to avoid divisive issues in practice, and will not pursue campaigns which a significant number of members oppose. Consequently, issues that are often highly charged racially, like demands for racial reform in policing, are usually not pursued. For example, when white skinhead Christopher Brosky received probation for killing a black man outside of Fort Worth in 1993, the IAF affiliate, Allied Communities of Tarrant, had difficulty responding, even as more than ten thousand mostly black residents marched through the streets of the city.

More recently, as larger numbers of African-American churches have become involved in Texas IAF affiliates like Dallas Area Interfaith, and as Cortes has hired and promoted more African-American organizers, the network has conducted deeper discussions across racial lines. Although open discussions of racial issues can sometimes be volatile, the IAF structure has the advantage of combining discussion with cooperative action, developing trust overtime. Reverend Gerald Britt, an African-American minister and a leader in Dallas Interfaith, argues that "working together is a necessary step. We canít address racial baggage first. Weíll never deal with all of that. That will take till Jesus gets back. We need to start working together and build some trust first. But the other side of the coin is to believe that because we go to city hall together that we have deal with the blight of racism in our nation."

The strategy the IAF pursues in connecting these diverse, social capital based organizations to the political system emphasizes the independence of these mediating institutions. IAF organizations are nonpartisan: they do not endorse candidates or political parties. Instead they attempt to influence public officials by a combination of confrontation and negotiation. Leaders work with officials to develop programs, and often prove willing to compromise. But they also mobilize their supporters to large actions to back up their initiatives. In addition, the IAF keeps focused on its own program, working with other community-based organizations primarily around its own initiatives. While IAF affiliates do not endorse candidates, they hold accountability nights at which political candidates must state their position on the organizationís agenda. The IAF then publicizes those positions in its communities.

Such a strategy provides the independent base of power so often lacking in community development initiatives. By not endorsing candidates, the organizations are freer to work with whomever is elected, despite party affiliation. Although the Texas IAF organizations do develop long-term relationships with more sympathetic politicians, mostly in the Democratic Party, the IAF has very close working relationships with leading Republican business executives in the state as well, like banking executive Tom Frost. A nonpartisan strategy also helps inhibit the tendency to develop a patronage connection to one party or politician, trading votes for favors. The drawback to this strategy is that it allows the party system itself to remain as it is -- candidate dominated and without its own organized base in the citizenry. Broader democratic renewal in America may well require the reinvigoration of a participatory capacity within parties as well.

Political and Social Context

In what may seem at first glance to be a paradoxical finding, the IAF seems to succeed best where there is a relative vacuum of community-based organizations. The IAFís social capital approach does require an existing foundation of social institutions and networks, particularly religious ones, upon which to build. But, if those institutions are already organized to address community issues or to intervene in politics in some way, then the situation can prove more difficult. One of the reasons I think the IAF has been so successful in Texas is the lack of such community-based organizations with previously existing ties to political actors and parties. Texas cities like San Antonio, Dallas and most others had a history of political dominance by a narrow business elite with little active participation from the neighborhoods. Urban machines were nonexistent for the most part. And the civil rights movement never took a firm organizational hold. Houstonís inner city does have many community based organizations and many pre-existing church ties to politicians; it has proven to be one of the most difficult cities for the Texas IAF to organize. The Houston IAF affiliate, The Metropolitan Organization, has had a number of significant victories, but it has struggled to establish and sustain itself as a city-wide political force. Houston is also a vast city with few clearly defined neighborhoods, and that has made organizing difficult too. By contrast, the IAF has capitalized on a relatively open field for community-based political action in most of Texas.

The reason for this apparent paradox is that the IAF offers a nonpartisan way of conducting politics, one that stresses creating a base of power independent from politicians and elected officials. Where communities have some level of political organization, their leaders would have to disrupt the kind of relationships they already have in order to join with the IAF. These relationships have often been based upon trading political endorsement for some consideration on policy issues, or for some favors in the distribution of resources. Many African-American ministers, for example, have come to depend on such relationships for what little resources they can wrest from city governments. They are often hesitant to risk those ties and their current political power for a potential benefit down the road. In Fort Worth, a group of black ministers led by Reverend Nehemiah Davis took this step because they were impressed with the accomplishments of the IAF in San Antonio, and because they concluded that politics as usual had produced little for their communities. This kind of change in orientation seems more likely to occur when an opening is created by, for example, the defeat of key elected officials upon whom community leaders had depended.

A second important contextual variable is the extent to which local institutional arrangements create avenues for the IAF to exert political power. COPS expanded its political influence tremendously in San Antonio after it helped force the adoption of single member districts in 1977. It was then able to influence the votes of five of the nine city council members. Through accountability nights and other methods, the IAF can influence a significant number of voters in these districts, even without a formal endorsement. Most American cities now have single member districts; but in some cities the districts may be too large for the IAF to develop significant leverage on any one public official. Beyond often nonpartisan city elections, if the IAF wants to exert power on the county or state level, it must be able to influence party organizations. Here, the IAF in Texas seems to benefit from a situation where the democratic party is strong enough to elect candidates to office that will support the efforts of the IAF, but weak enough not to see the IAF as a threat. The Democratic Governor Ann Richards provided crucial state funds for IAF job training initiatives in part because she was ideologically inclined to do so. But, lacking a strong party base in Texas communities, she also saw her support for IAF initiatives as gaining her votes in the IAFís communities.

In Texas the IAF has one further, very important, institutional source of political power. The state constitution requires cities to hold bond elections to raise money for the kind of capital improvements desired by development oriented private interests and public officials. Voters, particularly in more affluent areas, are often reluctant to approve these bond packages because of their tax implications. The IAF has been able to negotiate the direction of some bond funds to projects for its neighborhoods by offering its ability to mobilize the needed votes . Bond elections provide a context for IAF leaders to develop relationships with powerful private interests. The IAF has tapped these connections to garner support for many of its more ambitious, sophisticated programs like school reform and job training.

Finally, I want to briefly mention some other elements of the social context of Texas communities that may have proven favorable to the IAF approach. First, it is a state with a relatively high rate of religious adherence: 63.5% of Texas residents are adherents of Christian churches, compared to 52.7% of Americans as a whole. Outside of Houston, there are few large concentrations of Texans that do not look to Judeo-Christianity as their religious heritage. Moreover, the Hispanic community, a key base for the Texas IAF, is relatively homogeneous; that is, it is almost entirely Mexican-American. Religious based organizing that draws upon Judeo-Christianity may face much greater difficulties in communities with less religious participation, with greater non-Christian adherence, and with more diverse Hispanic (and perhaps black) communities.

Concluding Remarks

None of the contextual elements I mentioned are entirely decisive. The IAF structure emphasizes local initiative, deep roots, and tactical flexibility. Regional IAF directors and local organizers have become quite entrepreneurial in building IAF affiliates that can work in different environments. In New York City, the IAF has established one of its most powerful and successful affiliates, the East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC) organization known nationally for its Nehemiah Homes affordable housing, and a growing metropolitan network as well. New York has a dense network of community organizations with ties to the political establishment, as well as intense divisions between communities. In such cases, the IAF has worked to overcome divisions within communities and to disrupt established political relationships. And IAF affiliates have found institutional avenues for political influence other than bond elections. They have placed a greater emphasis on alliances where their own organizations have difficulty encompassing the entire metropolitan area. Although Texas has offered conditions particularly conducive to IAF organizing, the network has worked to adapt its approach to achieve significant success in many localities across the country.

On the other hand, one of the historic limitations of locally-based community organizing has been its apparent weakness to address the national and international forces that have a major impact on local conditions. Although the IAF has not yet been able to operate at the level of national political power, in Texas the IAF has brought together eleven local affiliates to establish its first state level political institution. IAF regional supervisor Cortes has built a large and highly sophisticated corps of professional organizers to expand the power of that network. The IAF has demonstrated the capability to leverage its base in eleven localities to attain a degree of power in the state capital. The federated, networked structure of the Texas IAF seems to enhance its ability to operate at many levels of government -- city, school district, county and state. In particular, political power at the state level has helped local affiliates address more complex problems, like education and low wage jobs, which require the intervention of government at higher levels. The IAF has more recently attempted to forge regional networks in several areas of the country. Given the recent expansion of IAF affiliates across the country, the IAF may soon be able to leverage a base in sixty or seventy congressional districts so that it can take programmatic initiatives at the national level as well.