Losing Faith

Dallas Area Interfaith wants to give the city's poor and disenfranchised a voice in politics. But all critics see is another grab for power.

It's political theater imported from another time and place.
In the packed pews of Kirkwood Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in South Dallas on a recent night, two groups of actors--one speaking English, the other Spanish--reinterpreted a biblical story of Moses seeking God's counsel.

In this version, Moses, played by two women--one black, one Hispanic--tells God that his people are furious with the "Desert" Independent School District Board, which has turned down their request to fund after-school programs that would benefit children of the Desert's most disadvantaged denizens.

"Lord, the children of Israel are complaining that the Desert ISD won't invest in our children," says a sunglasses-wearing and toga-clad Moses. "We've been dealing with these Desert dummies for 40 years. What do we do?"

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Yahweh, a tall black woman with a steely gaze, maps out a strategy for the frustrated Moses. "You must organize the Desert precincts--commit 50,000 voters to our agenda of issues," she commands. "For the only way to change the Desert way is to elect new officials."

Moses returns to his people and imparts Yahweh's simple advice: "Go forth and organize!"

It's political action, Dallas Area Interfaith style.
A multi-ethnic, inter-religious, grassroots organizing group, the four-year-old Dallas Area Interfaith has helped the city's poor tackle some of its most intractable problems--the need for decent jobs, effective public education, and clean, safe neighborhoods.

In a relatively short amount of time, the group has grown into a formidable presence--60 member congregations and 4,000 supporters--and has made impressive strides.

Using state and local grants, Dallas Interfaith launched a jobs program that is training and placing people in jobs that provide health benefits and a living wage--an average of $13 an hour. Working in concert with the Dallas County Community College District, it has increased the number of ESL (English as a second language) and citizenship courses. It has helped long-neglected neighborhoods extract from City Hall services that are rightfully theirs--from pothole repair to sidewalk paving.

And in its most ambitious--and controversial--campaign to date, Interfaith has begun teaching parents, teachers, and principals in some of the city's most troubled public schools how to work together to take control of their schools.

But despite Interfaith's accomplishments, it has drawn harsh criticism for its tactics. In record time, the organization has managed to become a headache for those who control the power levers of Dallas. And Dallas Interfaith's ambitious entry into school politics--one of the city's most volatile and treacherous arenas--could be the group's ultimate test. Interfaith will either win a place as a true political player or lose crucial credibility--not only with Dallas' historical power structure, but with its own grassroots base.

Interfaith had its first acrimonious brush with Dallas politics several years ago when its leaders pressed city council members to spend millions of dollars to help fund the organization's jobs program, which had yet to prove itself. (The program now has 187 people in training and has placed 50 people in jobs.) When Interfaith dismissed council members' reservations about the program and stepped up public pressure, an angry Max Wells, among others, denounced Interfaith's style as confrontational and threatening, and refused to vote for the program on those grounds alone.

After the council defeated Interfaith's request, the group packed the next council meeting with supporters, who, following carefully composed scripts, gave testimony on why the program was so crucial. Then the group--a veritable Rainbow Coalition of representatives from every quadrant and social stratum in the city--stood up en masse and exited the meeting.

Interfaith's most recent clash with the Dallas political power structure involved the DISD board. The two groups squared off earlier this year over the increasingly important, but fiscally complex, issue of after-school programs. For months, Interfaith organizers lobbied board members to increase from last year the amount of money they had allocated to after-school programs that had been developed in collaboration with Interfaith. The money would increase the number of schools with Interfaith-backed programs from 10 to 17.

These programs combined traditional recreation activities with tutoring and other offerings--from chess to crocheting. Their programs, Interfaith members argued, didn't just keep children out of trouble, they helped students become more successful in school. Some of Interfaith's schools had statistics showing that participants in their after-school programs improved their attendance, grades, and performance on standardized tests.

Last August, in a vote that split along racial lines, the board's five Anglo trustees not only voted against increasing the funding Interfaith had requested, but also voted to rescind the amount it had awarded the year before. "The school board cannot afford to fund after-school programs for all the children who need them," school board President Bill Keever explained at the time.

In an effort to pressure the board to change its mind, Interfaith, as promised, came out to subsequent board meetings in force, busing in 500 church leaders, parents, and children--some carrying placards reading "Save our after-school programs"--and warned they would return again and again until their request was granted.

"A great deal of what they do is good--empowering people, informing people," Keever says. "Where I start having problems is with the methods they use--intimidation, threats. It's just ridiculous. They are unwilling to work with other groups. It has to be their way or no way. They are a group of people supported by churches who behave in anything but a godly way."

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