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.

"He clearly doesn't want to listen," Larkin says. "A more relational response would have been, 'Gee, you're a group of African Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics, Baptists, Protestants, and Catholics all working together. That's no short order, especially in a city like Dallas. How do you do it?'"

An intense woman with piercing blue eyes, Larkin has worked as an organizer with Interfaith's affiliates around the country for 20 years, most recently in El Paso, where her group helped convince the state legislature to fund water and sewage treatment systems in the colonias along the border. Larkin admits without apology that Interfaith is clearly seeking power.

"Our mission is very clear," she says. "To gain enough local power to engage persons with power in face-to-face meetings where we can ask for what we want. Some people call that confrontational. Power means the ability to act. We're after the ability to act on behalf of the wide-ranging interests of this community. We firmly believe that the interests need to be represented by the persons themselves. Public officials tend not to be in relationship with members of a broad and diverse community. We're there to be partners with them, not to replace them."

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If the history of Interfaith's affiliate organizations in Texas are any indication, it's a movement that's not used to losing.

Its roots date back 55 years, to the work of a famous neighborhood organizer in Chicago named Saul Alinsky. A criminologist by training, Alinsky helped combat problems plaguing Chicago's poorest areas by building "people's organizations" in which churches and neighborhood activists cooperated. In hopes of duplicating his efforts in communities around the country, Alinsky created the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was funded by philanthropist Marshall Field and guided by an iron rule: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves."

Today the IAF, which created a training institute in the late 1960s, has spawned a national network of more than 40 umbrella groups, including the Industrial Areas Foundation of Texas, which is widely regarded as the most successful. That reputation rests, in part, on the strength of San Antonio's 20-year-old organization called COPS--Citizens Organized for Public Service.

Founded in 1974 by Ernie Cortes, who studied at the IAF training institute, COPS has revitalized many of San Antonio's most disadvantaged neighborhoods, winning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new streets, drainage systems, libraries, parks, and other services. In 20 years, COPS has become a major political force in San Antonio, responsible for the election of Henry Cisneros, the first Hispanic mayor of a major American city.

"We should look to San Antonio as a model. We should catch up to them in five years," says Gerald Britt, whom Cortes recruited to help start Dallas Area Interfaith--Cortes had heard about Britt's involvement in Dallas' redistricting battle. "But we're still debating whether [Dallas Area Interfaith] should be. We're arguing with the school district about funding after-school programs from the general budget when San Antonio regularly puts in $2 million for these programs. The City of Dallas just agreed to give Workpaths, our job training and placement program, $20,000. San Antonio gives $2 million annually to Project Quest. It is frustrating that we're not willing to be more entrepreneurial and creative about solutions to problems."

Four years ago, when Interfaith first arrived on the Dallas scene, its members decided that one of their first priorities was helping public schools in some of Dallas' neediest areas. This priority dovetailed nicely with a statewide initiative the Texas IAF had begun called the Alliance School project, in which schools make a commitment to achieve academic excellence by fundamentally changing the school's culture from a top-down, rule-driven bureaucracy to a collaborative effort among parents, teachers, principals, and the community.

The Texas IAF also helped secure $5 million from the state legislature in 1994 for a special Texas Education Agency fund that would reward public schools that are undergoing a community involvement metamorphosis with grants to be used for teacher and parent training and after-school programs. The law governing this money does not stipulate that it be used only for Texas IAF schools, but one of the conditions for receiving it is that the school works in partnership with a nonprofit, community-based organization which has a track record of organizing parents and community leaders.

Four years ago, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in East Oak Cliff heard about strides Austin Interfaith had made in improving inner-city schools. She approached the Dallas Interfaith leadership about working with Roosevelt, which was one of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

To help increase parent involvement in the school, the first thing Interfaith organizers, church members, and teachers did was canvass the neighborhood, asking parents what they liked and disliked about the school, and what they envisioned the school could become. This "Walk for Success," which is done at the beginning of each school year, was followed by house meetings, where small groups of parents and teachers continued their discussions on ways to improve the school.

Out of these meetings grew a host of course offerings for adults, from computer training to ESL classes. This year, the parents decided they wanted sewing classes--so they could make their own clothes. The funding for parent education, as well as teacher training, comes from the fund the Texas Education Agency makes available for Alliance Schools.

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