Social Justice – Ernesto Cortes Jr.

“We organize people not just around issues, but around their values.”


Thirty years ago, you could see the power of community organizing on display almost every day in the streets of almost every major American city. It was at work in demonstrations for many causes. It took the form of marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, boycotts, and rallies. But those days of mass activism and public participation have largely faded. If you want to see the face of community organizing today, you need to go to a place like Occidental College, a small liberal-arts school in Los Angeles, and visit Professor Peter Dreier’s public-policy class. The attendance at this morning’s session has swollen to nearly twice its normal size. Extra chairs line the walls, and visitors — students, as well as local activists and community organizers — are packed on couches at the back of the room. They’ve all come to hear guest speaker Ernesto Cortés Jr. talk about his methods for community organizing, a vocation that has earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant as well as a Heinz Award.


His visit has generated the kind of excitement that Michael Dell might bring to a business school or that a talk by Spike Lee might inspire among film students. And justifiably so. Cortés has been a successful community organizer longer than the students in the room have been alive. His accomplishments alone would hold the class’s attention, but Cortés, who is five-foot-seven and heavyset, also has a commanding if quiet presence. His expression is unreadable, and that inscrutability gives him an air of menace, like a storm gathering. He’s not averse to using his gruff manner and rumbling voice to intimidate — whether it’s to bully a politician or to incite an organizer. It’s a tactic that is on display during this class.

When one woman asks him to explain how he “motivates” people to support a cause with actions as well as words, the storm rolls in. Cortés can scarcely conceal his impatience. “Perhaps I prejudge you unfairly,” he begins, “but when I hear your question, what I think you’re really saying is, ‘How can I convince people to do what’s good? How do I get them to do what’s right? How do I get them to follow my agenda?’ ” He pauses, frowning. “That’s not organizing. What I mean by organizing is getting you to recognize what’s in your best interest. Getting you to recognize that you have a child, that you have a career and a life to lead, and that there are some things that are obstacles to the quality of your life. I need to get you to see how you can affect those things through relationships with other people. And it’s only going to happen if you engage in some kind of struggle.”

He pauses to let it all sink in. “We organize people not just around issues, but around their values,” he says. “The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and hope. We need power to protect what we value.”

The confrontational style and almost accusatory tone of his remarks shock a few students. But Cortés did not become the most effective grassroots organizer in the nation by being predictable or polite. For almost three decades, Cortés has been the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the largest and oldest institution for community organizing in the United States. For nearly 60 years, the IAF has trained ordinary people to band together to become a powerful political voice and to solve problems in their communities. Texas has the strongest IAF presence, with 12 IAF-affiliated organizations — coalitions of mostly Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations, along with public schools and other interest groups. Over the past three decades, the IAF network that Cortés has helped cultivate has been responsible for more than $1 billion worth of sewers, sidewalks, parks, clinics, streetlights, and other infrastructure improvements in poor neighborhoods in San Antonio alone, with another $1 billion worth of improvements carried out along the Mexican-American border. And it has successfully pushed for the construction of tens of thousands of new housing units. The IAF network has persuaded cities, counties, and school districts in the Southwest to pass living-wage laws, has developed long-term job-training programs in that area, and has been an effective force in Texas education reform.

But Cortés’s goal is not specific reform; it is to teach the powerless to participate in public life. “We used to ask whether people were fit for democracy,” he explains. “Now we realize that people become fit through democracy. There is an aspect of our humanity that only emerges when we engage those around us in a debate about our own interests. Our organizations have become mini universities for participating in public life.”

The Education of an Organizer

Cortés’s initial ventures in community organizing came when he was a young man in the 1960s. Educated at Texas A&M, he later dropped out of a graduate program in economics at the University of Texas at Austin to help organize Mexican-American workers in Texas, his home state. He earned a reputation as a revolutionary but found that he made little progress when he went up against companies that hired strikebreakers. Then, as Cortés likes to say, he “got serious”: “I was sick of losing,” he says.


He moved to Chicago, where he studied with Ed Chambers at the Alinsky Institute, which was founded by Saul Alinsky, the legendary radical community organizer who also founded the IAF. For years, Alinsky had agitated for better living conditions for poor people in Chicago, and he had chronicled that work in his best-selling book “Reveille for Radicals” (1946). From people like Alinsky and Chambers (who is now executive director of the IAF), Cortés learned that there are two kinds of power: organized money and organized people. In 1974, Cortés decided that he had learned enough from Chambers to strike out on his own, so he returned to his roots in San Antonio. There, he launched a revolution that changed the city.

The first group that Cortés helped organize, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), forced the city to make good on a sewer-and-drainage proposal that it had passed 30 years earlier — but had never implemented in the poor neighborhoods that the proposal was intended to help. As a result, for years, residents of San Antonio’s West Side had faced annual floods, which often took lives. In 1974, shortly after winning that battle, COPS pushed the city council to allocate $100 million (money that was supposed to be spent on these neighborhoods in the first place) to improve the infrastructure of San Antonio’s poor neighborhoods. The city balked, and COPS came through with a protest reminiscent of Alinsky’s old Chicago tactics: Hundreds of COPS leaders lined up in a downtown bank to change hundreds of dollars into pennies — and then stood in line again to change them back into dollars. Meanwhile, other COPS leaders were in a local department store, trying on clothes and asking to be shown other items, but not buying anything. The demonstration brought much of the downtown area to a halt. Within days, city officials agreed to a meeting — and eventually, they handed over the money.

These days, COPS and the other 12 IAF groups in Texas rarely need high-profile antics to get public officials to respond. Politicians have seen these groups single-handedly swing elections with their intense “get out the vote” and other voter-education campaigns. What about change through electoral politics? “In this country, we no longer have politics,” says Cortés. “There are auctions at which people bid for the office of the presidency. The politics that we talk about is the politics of the Greeks — the politics of negotiation and deliberation and struggle, in which people engage in confrontation and compromise. My goal is to reclaim that political tradition.”

The Organizer as Educator

In the past few decades, the IAF has diverged from the Alinsky model in significant ways. Alinsky was never a conscious mentor or teacher, and the momentum of his movement was always heavily dependent on him — so dependent, in fact, that many people believed (incorrectly) that the IAF would flounder when he died in 1972. Cortés, however, is an adamant and passionate teacher. “We’re much more thoughtful and careful about congregational development and institutional development across the board than IAF was in the past,” he says. “We’re asking ourselves harder, tougher questions about leadership and mentoring and how to go about achieving that.” The other change that the IAF made was to expand on Alinsky’s work with organized religion — making parishes and faith-based organizations the center of the whole program. Cortés says that he’s not organizing “communities”; he’s organizing “institutions.”

“If there’s going to be a sense of community, there has to be an institutional base to that, which connects leaders and money and traditions and capacity and expertise,” he explains. Cortés’s methods of community building have become so successful and so well known that some of the institutions that he has traditionally relied on to help him are now seeking his help. The Catholic Church is one such institution.

Sister Maribeth Larkin’s cell-phone rings insistently as she takes her seat. She’s the first to arrive for a morning meeting at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Larkin, who wears a short-sleeve navy-blue dress, no makeup, and a plain, gold band on her left hand, leans over to pull the bleating phone from her leather briefcase on the floor. It’s Cortés. He’s supposed to be at the meeting with Larkin, who is one of the 40 or so Southwestern- region IAF organizers who train community leaders. “Ernie, where are you?” she asks. She smiles indulgently at his response: He’s lost, just a few blocks away. “Head west until you hit Mariposa Street,” she directs. “Which way is west? It’s toward the ocean, Ernie.” Then her phone loses the connection. She snaps it shut, annoyed. “Shit!” she mutters. “I hate technology.”


Five minutes later, the committee files in: several priests, a nun, and two church laypeople. Larkin, a second trainer, and Cortés (when he arrives) are there to help the committee figure out how to organize a millennial celebration that will focus on diversity — an issue that the church is struggling with as its congregations become increasingly Hispanic. Ten minutes into the meeting, Cortés arrives. He’s dressed in a jacket and pants (of varying shades of gray) and a maroon tie. Once Cortés takes his seat, the others start addressing their questions to him, rather than to the whole group. He deflects each request for an opinion with a question: “What do you think?” or “What are you trying to accomplish?” By the end of the meeting, he has helped the committee to make decisions by stepping back and allowing members to lead themselves.

Larkin says that the meeting is typical of Cortés’s style of leadership: He forces people to push the limits of their abilities, to do more than what is comfortable. He was the one who convinced her, 20 years ago, that it was possible for a shy, soft-spoken nun to become a briefcase-carrying, cell-phone-toting, powerful organizer. “I’ve never thought of myself as an assertive person,” she says. “And as we started to talk about what kind of role I might take on, I saw that in public I was going to have to act in ways that I had always thought I was too shy and polite to act. But Ernie was interested in more than the limits that I placed on myself. He helped me find the self that I had to become to do this work. That’s what I love about what I do — helping others discover that in themselves.”

The Organizer on Campus

Cortés plans to push the limits of community organizing as well. He envisions a nation of cities filled with ornery, invigorating public discourse fueled by IAF groups. Right now, he is working in Los Angeles to launch the kind of revolution that he helped bring about in Texas. He is in the early stages of organizing in Los Angeles, and his work is rewarding but slow. Some skeptics wonder whether Cortés’s model will fall short of his lofty goals. At the end of his public-policy class, Professor Dreier asks Cortés, “Don’t you think that some problems are too big for groups like yours to tackle? That some problems have to be solved on a national level, not just in LA?”

Cortés thinks for a minute. “I’m not sure I believe that,” he says. “I believe that there is a lot of power here. If you could figure out how to get at the power of LA’s people, then you could do a lot. We hope that within five years, we’ll have 25 schools that will have been touched by our efforts — places where the culture has changed, where teachers are excited, and where students are excited. We hope that we’ll make progress on health-care issues and workers’ rights. Right now, we’re just trying to recruit and develop, to get the organizers, leaders, and institutions that we need to pull off that kind of massive change. And I think that we can do that.

“But who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in two years someone will ask you, ‘Where’s that Ernie Cortés guy?’ And you’ll say, ‘Oh, he was run out of town.’ ” Then that Ernie Cortés guy smiles grandly, and there’s not one person in the room who believes him.

Cheryl Dahle ( is a senior writer at Fast Company. learn more about communities organized for public service on the Web (


Sidebar: What’s Fast

Community organizer Ernesto Cortés views democracy as the single most effective way to develop people — and to get things done — both in society and inside companies. He offers this advice on creating coalitions and on becoming a truly democratic leader.

There are no permanent enemies or permanent allies — only permanent interests.

In politics and in business, there are situations in which the people you care about are going to be your adversaries. I am capable of working with business leaders on issues like education and long-term training, even if those leaders completely disagree with my strategies pertaining to living wages or union organizing. In order to succeed, you have to be able to have those kinds of complex relationships. You have to realize that this is not a war. It’s not about destroying people. It’s about negotiating settlements.

Never do for people what they can do for themselves.

Smart leaders know that what they’re trying to do is develop people’s capacity to act. Mentoring has got to be about getting them to understand their own interests and to develop a habit of inquiry so that they can move from being your protégés to being people who can be your mentors.

Don’t lead — develop other leaders.


What I’m trying to do is build something that is beyond anything that I can do as one person or as one leader. So the moment that I start leading an organization myself, that’s my cue to walk away — or else I’d become just another executive director. My job is to get out of the center of things. Because if I’m the one with all of the relationships, then once I go away, the organization collapses. I’m not here to serve as a charismatic leader. I’m an organizer.

Encourage confrontation.

The best managers understand that if everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.