Community activism leads to changes, organizer says
Published: Monday, February 7, 2011
Updated: Monday, February 7, 2011 09:02
"They could imagine something different and that made a big difference in the community," an organizer said of the early days of COPS Tuesday at the Methodist Student Center.
Yasmin Radjy of COPS/Metro Alliance helped kick off the Hot Potato series this semester with the topic "Grass Roots Democracy through Community Organization."
COPS, or Community Organized for Public Service, was founded in 1974. It is a diverse organization that is involved in 1,200 neighborhoods in San Antonio composed mostly of Hispanic, low-income families.
Radjy started off the discussion with Lutheran Pastor Dennis Jacobsen, who wrote the book "Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organization," that talks about the role of the church in dealing with problems of the world.
"He talks a lot about how the church does a lot of charitable work," Radjy said. "Even though they do a very good job, it's not enough obviously since the ills and problems affecting these vulnerable people keep getting worse."
Radjy said this raises questions about what more they could do, which leads to a need for justice work, which can be done in three ways: advocacy, proclamations, and congregational-based organizing.
"Congregational-based organizing deals with power," Radjy said. "Power is a big word that raises a lot of red flags, which leads to the question, should congregations have a role in dealing with power?"
She said it doesn't seem like the American way to allow small institutions to have such power, but COPS exists to help create long-term power for institutions.
Radjy told a story from when the organization first started in San Antonio. A man was angry about flooding on the West Side because children walked through mud on their way to school, and some children drowned.
As a result, he turned to the Catholic Church and found that funds earmarked for his side of town were used on the North Side instead.
The man joined parishioners in going to City Hall to find out why. The elected officials discussed the budget, ratified it, signed it and finally decided to ask the man what he wanted to talk about.
"So here's this man with very good intentions, very good values, and the Catholic Church is very clear about how speaking out like this is important," Radjy said. "But he had nobody listening to his voice."
Radjy said this leads to institutions organizing with others who have common values or problems, so the institutions can transform the community.
"My experience has been that you sit down with a group of people of different faith backgrounds, but the pressures that they feel with their families and their congregation are the same," Radjy said.
She told another story about how congregations on the South Side were getting attention because people were talking about how their children graduated from high school but were unable to attend college.
The closest community college at the time was this college at quite a distance and a long bus ride, and if a family had only one car, it could be problematic to get to school.
So a group of people went to City Council to explain the problem and the solution — build a new community college.
The response they got was, "The kids on the South Side won't make it to college. They aren't focused enough in school, and it's not worth the investment,'' Radjy said.
"So they organized and had lots of conversations and got a lot of congregations together in an attempt to create a community college. And they created Palo Alto College."
Alamo Community College District established Palo Alto College Feb. 21, 1983, and it began offering classes in September 1985.