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.

Organizer Leonora Friend says that Interfaith was never invited to attend. "We didn't know a group was continuing to meet," Friend says. "We got wind of it, but we can't be expected to chase down everything we hear."

Mary Taylor, hired in January to coordinate Dallas Public School after-school programs, says she sent an invitation for every meeting to Interfaith leadership.

The consortium completed a policy in October. But by then, the school board had voted down Interfaith's funding request and refused to reconsider it. The trustees who ultimately voted against Interfaith's requests--Keever, McDow, Leos, Lois Parrott, and Roxan Staff--say that to a large extent, it was a question of equity--how could the board fund just a handful of schools when so many of the 210 schools in the district needed programs like these? Some trustees, including Leos and McDow, also say they were starting to hear that some of the schools were disillusioned with Interfaith, but put up with the organization because they desperately needed the after-school programs.

"There are some good things about Interfaith and some bad things," says Enrique Carranza, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Obadiah Knight for the past two years. When Carranza first took office, the Interfaith organizer assigned to his school gave him ideas for increasing PTA membership. "He told me to get into the crowd, to make them part of the PTA meetings, instead of talking at them from behind a podium," says Carranza. "It really helped."

But he gradually became disillusioned with the organization, beginning when Interfaith leadership invited trustee Kathleen Leos to a meeting at My Lady of Perpetual Help, a Catholic church whose priest, Father Ignacio Cizur, is on the Interfaith executive committee.

When Carranza arrived at the meeting, an Interfaith organizer told him and some other parents in attendance that they were to clap when she signaled them to. "I looked at her and said, 'You want me to do what?' It completely turned me off. The meeting was more like an ambush. They didn't give Kathleen a chance to say anything. All the Interfaith people there said they were representing Obadiah Knight, but many of them I had never seen before. The parents who talked about the program read from scripts on little index cards. They all sounded alike. It was so cookie-cutter. I walked out of the meeting."

Several teachers at Obadiah Knight agree with Carranza's concerns about Interfaith. One teacher, who did not want to give her name for fear of being ostracized by Interfaith supporters, says when she canvassed the neighborhood and asked parents what they wanted to see at the school, Interfaith organizers told her and others exactly what to ask. "Interfaith wanted us to ask specific things they were interested in as an organization," she says.

When a new Interfaith organizer assigned to Obadiah Knight this year asked Carranza to become a member, he declined. "She told me I was a community leader. I'm just someone who is working on behalf of my kids. I told her that my family left Mexico because they were persecuted for fighting oppression. I think Interfaith uses some of the same things they use in Mexico. They bring people from outside the community to show support for something, and they put words in people's mouths."

Carranza believes Interfaith used the after-school issue as "a carrot to build their agenda. I think a majority of schools in the district need after-school programs. In the end, I think Interfaith's tactics wound up hurting us."

Carranza was disappointed when Obadiah Knight lost the district's $20,000 appropriation, which has reduced the number of children participating by half--to about 150. (The school still obtains funding from Parks and Recreation and has found additional funding from private businesses that support the campus.) But he says as a businessman--he manages a large Fort Worth restaurant--he understands the budgetary reasons Leos voted against it.

Several times last year, Leos says she asked an Interfaith organizer to provide her with the budgets for their programs so she could see how many children were served and where the money went. She received four budgets, only two of which gave a detailed accounting of how the money was spent, Leos says. She was also troubled by the wide differences in the number of children being served at different schools--which received equal amounts of money. When Leos pressed organizer Friend for more budgets, Friend says she pointed out to Leos that she could get the information herself through the district administration.

Without the budgets, Leos refused to vote for the program. "I was dealing with Leonora Friend at all these meetings, now suddenly she tells me it is not her responsibility to get me this information," Leos says.

"The district administers the programs, not us," Friend responds. "They have whole staffs that can access that information for them."

It was a stalemate that hardened while both sides continued professing to represent only the best interests of children.

But Leos admits she had another reason for reversing her previous vote giving Interfaith programs their initial funding. She remembers a chance meeting she had several weeks ago in Austin with Ernie Cortes, who now heads up the Industrial Area Foundation in Texas and the Southwest. "He asked me didn't I believe that parents who organized--who asked for what they wanted--be rewarded? I told him I didn't think that was necessarily true. I asked him, should parents be punished because they're not organizing and rattling chains?"

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