INTERVIEWEE: Ernie Cortes (EC)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: April 12, 2002
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s April 12th, year 2002. We’re in Austin, Texas, and visiting with Ernie Cortes, who’s been involved with organizing and inspiring people to be involved on environmental issues, public health issues, educational fronts, through groups such as COPS, Valley Interfaith, and many others that he’s helped build. And I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
DT: We often start these interviews with a question about where this might have started for you, where your interest in the environment or in helping communities or protecting public health might have begun, if there were people in your family or friends or your close circle as you were growing up who might have encouraged this interest?
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EC: Growing up in San Antonio, uh, you saw a lot of things that didn’t seem to be quite they way they were supposed to be, uh, so it’s hard to say how you develop those kind of interests, uh. The environmental concerns came to me, frankly, out of concern for public health questions, uh, toxicity of water, uh, concern about lack of sewage, uh, uh, impact on health of air quality, uh, and this whole analogy that I like to use, uh, which is not mine originally, but the coal miner’s canary, that the environment is like the coal miner’s canary. And, so we have to kind of be concerned, uh, about the environment, not only because, for it’s own sake, but because of it’s impact on the quality of human life, or even the viability and the sustainability of human life. Uh, it comes from me all kinds of places, the Book of Genesis gives us fr—from early on, believing that, that means that we have dominion or responsibility, uh, or stewardship over the Earth and that means we have to, that means quality of life for other, all living creatures, uh, species. Um, so I don’t know where it came from – my parents, my church, my school, my community.
DT: Were there any mentors or teachers that you might have had? I understood you went and trained with Saul Alinsky.
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EC: Yeah, but long bef—well, I never trained with Alinsky, per se, I went to the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is Alinsky’s training institute, I met Mr. Alinsky, but I never really worked with him that closely. Uh, the guy I worked with at the IAF was Ed Chambers, who was the National Director of Industrial Areas Foundation and worked, built IAF organizations in Chicago and Rash Shash Shaneer , and other places. But long before I went to IAF, I knew about, and it was formed, to have concerns about civil rights issues and, ah, I learned an incredible amount of, of, uh, issues relating to public health, in organizing farm workers, and working with the farm workers in organizing Red River Valley and learning about the impact of pesticides. How on human beings, on farm workers, in particular. And, also, on us, from eating, uh, thinking about, you know, the impact of eating foods which have been laced with pesticides, and the dangers—of the carcinogenic impact that they have. So, it was not, I mean, it was, there was a lot of other things that were going on, uh, in the sixties when I grew up and was going to school, which affected how I saw the world, so IAF was, was not, didn’t shape my uh, interest in those issues. When I went to IAF, it was to learn how to do something about those concerns, not, not to understand those concerns.
DT: Are there some writers that you could point to? I know that you’re a pretty voracious reader, and there are some people there, alive or dead, people you met or didn’t meet, that might’ve helped influence you.
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EC: Well, uh, you know, there’s a lot of people I’ve read—Paula Rick, uh, uh, Barry Commoner, uh, um, lots of reports on water quality, um, Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs, um, but, you know, just various and sundry issues, uh, just having to do with people I talked to, met with, understood, uh, uh, so I can’t point to a particular writer, uh, who influenced my thinking about environmental questions. Uh, but, you know, I mean, I’ve read enormous numbers of reports about things like impact of chemical prod—petrol chemical products, O.K. When, in a lot of organizing in Houston area, learning about that, a lot of concern about the quality of water in the Rio Grande river and the impact of, you know, dumping pollutants from whether it’s steel plants, or lead plants, or etc. and, uh, so it becomes almost like a one person referred to it, one Catholic bishop referred to it as a “carcinogenic liqueur”, O.K. So, that, you know, that, you—you, I mean it’s hard to say any particular writer shaped my thinking, uh, about issues in environment and public health.
DT: It seems that one of the techniques that you have for organizing people, or at least understanding why people want to organize themselves, is because you listen to them.
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EC: That’s correct.
DT: Can you talk, maybe give some examples of when you went down to the Valley and you helped put together farm workers community down there, and how you might have learned from them?
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EC: Well, the big learning for me in the Valley was with the Valley Interfaith, O.K., in organizing that organization and, essentially, what I did was begin to do and, and, you know, just hundreds of relational meetings, one-on-one meetings, listening sessions, we’re, we’re not just listening, but I was having conversations with people who are leaders and potential leaders and found out about their concerns, about everything from the burning of toxic waste, uh, off the coast of Brownsville, the concerns that people had about the food chain, the impact of burning, uh, uh, there was a chemical waste m—management corporation was—was had this Vulcan I was gonna use to burn toxic waste and they were concerned about that. And, we began to organize around that particular issue, but then there also the question of a lack of sewers in the colonias, there was questions of asbestos, uh, in the paint in schools, which is making kids sick, molding, uh, uh, which was occurring in schools which is contributing to absenteeism, uh, and enormous visits to, uh, doctors, that we would meet with people who were connected with clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and it would talk about the impact of Third World diseases, in, you know, uh, because of the lack of sewers, secondary sewage systems that existed. In El Paso, the same kind of concerns came up, meeting with people with the public health systems and the hospitals. Back, before I began organizing, you know, uh, I was on the Board of Managers at the Bexar County Hospital District and you know, began to hear about, you know, these kind of impact that things like lead paints and others were contributing to, to kids, so you begin to, through a process of conversations and listening to lots and lots of people, you find out that they’re, they’ve got some issues that they really care about, that they want to do something about. What they lack is power. And they lack someone to teach them how to act on their concerns. And break them down and to make them very specific and concrete so that they can do something about. And that’s what organizing brought, O.K., uh, to the table and brought to the equation and brought to people’s lives, a possibility of learning how to act on things that, that they cared about.
DT: Can you give me an example of your work with COPS…
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DT: To try and brief through the things to the table?
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EC: Well, early on, the organization got heavily involved in, in the whole question of, of degradation of the water supply, by trying to limit development over the sensitive areas of the recharge zone and they’re still fighting that fight. Uh, almost thirty years later. But, then it had to do with just zoning questions, and, and, and, dealing with that kind of questions and making sure that there were the adequate safeguards and so, it was, you know, they got involved in elections, uh, they got involved in fights over the kind and quality of development, and because, you know, unfortunately Texas and San Antonio are notoriously, you know, lax and uh, uh, uh, and unvigilant, lacking in vigilance and diligence in dealing with, you know, some of these safeguards, and so it requires an outraged and, and effectively organized and mobilized citizenry to, to make sure the public officials do what they’re told. Uh, so, anyway, they did a lot, then they, the organization, after I left, got involved in fairly significant fights to clean up the toxicity around Kelly Air Force Base and got involved in some significant efforts on that, on—on behalf of changing, you know, forcing Kelly to do some major cleanups in the areas around the base.
DT: I understand that a lot of your groups and the people that you’re, the individuals that you’ve been organizing hold faith very close to their hearts and that some of the political grouping and inspiring that you do is based on that faith and draws on that faith.
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DT: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the role of faith in a pretty secular society like the United States.
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EC: Well, let’s be—let me be real clear, the organizations that we build, the IAF organizations are political organizations, O.K., they don’t pretend to be faith-based organizations, O.K. However, you know, they operate and they act on their—their—their values, O.K. And their values are shaped by their faith, traditions, whether it be Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, the different forms of—of different Christian traditions, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodists, etc. So that they bring to the table, uh, a commitment and an understanding uh—uh—and a hope for realization of these two sets of values, O.K.? The values of a free and open society, the political values which come out of understanding the seminal and—and meaningful documents of our tradition, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights. You know, various important statements, the Emancipation Proclamation, uh, Northwest Ordinances, which kind of affirm and—and—and—and—and reaffirm, you know, our commitment to certain things which are real important to us, O.K. Freedom of expression. So, there is this kind of, if you will, and I hate to use this word, but it’s kind of secular faith, that is part of our tradition and part of what makes us tick and makes us, and, you know, animates us, and gives us some energy. This faith in, in democracy and democratic traditions and institutions. At the same time, that is, inter—that—that—that—those—that—those—that understanding and that commitment and that tradition is also connected to and challenged by and agitated by, hopefully, and shaped by commitment to the values of Judaism and Christianity, particularly those which have to do with concern for the stranger and the Exodus, the stories that come out of the Exodus tradition. A fear of God, as over against the Pharaoh, uh, a fear of God as over against secular authorities, which means, uh, a disposition to—to—take the kinds of risks that are, you know, that are, that are, conceptualized, and—and—and—and—and—the stories of the Exodus traditions, whether it be the midwives who refused to yield the Pharaoh’s beckon—beckoning, or—or the prophetic tradition, where the prophets go after, uh, the muckety-mucks, as I call them, the powerful people, the—the—the king and the, and the land owners who control the institutions and by so—so doing, or you know, dispossessing people of their land and of their work and of their very lives, O.K. So, as, the whole, there is a strong, powerful tradition which animates and shapes and motivates people, uh, gives meaning to their lives and we draw heavily upon, and are nourished by, uh, particularly in—in—in battles which require patience and—and—and—and constant vigilance and constant endurance, uh, we draw heavily upon those traditions and the resources of those traditions to sustain us over time.
DT: One of the things that I understand that your groups have felt driven by, aside from these sort of mainstream values, or faith that they might have, is also a belief in justice, and I was wondering if you could look at the organizing that you’ve done through that kind of lens, to find some more fair, equitable arrangement.
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EC: Justice takes on many different dimensions and many different understandings, uh, because there is the kind of justice which comes out of the biblical traditions. The word mishpot comes to mind, which has to do with the concrete realization of certain ideals, uh, in certain municipal institutions, which have to do with the fact that no one should be left out, no one should be deprived of the means to participation in the, in the prosperity of the community, and that’s, in the prophetic tradition, this notion of mishpot meant that no matter who you were that you were not to be, no one could take away from you the tools that were necessary – your house, your—your farm implements, O.K., in order to be able to participate in the shared prosperity of the community. Even so, therefore, if you owed money to a money lender, if you owed money to a landlord, and even though that debt was legitimate, uh, if it meant, in order to pay the debt, if it meant losing your capacity, uh, to have shelter, your capacity to own, to make a livelihood, that justice would not allow that to happen, and so therefore it is incumbent upon the people who ran these municipal courts to not deprive you of that, and to—and to rule in your favor, O.K., against the powerful interest of people who were, you know, economic—the economic power players of that particular lot and community. And so that understanding, that
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tradition is something which animates us, and frankly, it is reflected in the populace tradition in Texas, O.K., the Homestead Exemption comes out of that understanding, and the notion of a safety net comes out of that understanding that there’s a—there’s a level below which people should not ever fall and so you may have an enterprise economy with risk taking and dynamism and etc. and winners and losers, but there’s a—there’s a level below which people never fall. And, so therefore, that we never deprive people of certain basic things, which are important for their humanity, O.K., Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations said that, that was, that a just society is one where a working person can appear in public without shame, without being humiliated, O.K., and that meant for, in his time, being able to have a decent shirt, pair of shoes, O.K., uh, and so that therefore was important for the people who ran that society to understand that everyone should have the access to those things which are necessary to appear in public without feeling humiliated, and so, then the question for us is, you know, in the year 2002, O.K., what is it necessary for a person to be in public without shame? And I always argue, it’s more than just clothes, it’s also access to health care, it’s access to education, it’s access to—to—you know—to running water, to—to—to—to shelter. In 1949, the Republican controlled
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Congress, you know, led by Senator Robert Taft, passed a Housing Act, O.K. And that Housing Act of 1949 said that every American, no matter who he or she is, is—is—is, should be given, and should be provided with a decent home and a suitable living environment. Well, I think that’s something, which is frankly, uh—uh a part of our tradition, O.K. And, uh, and something which we should, you know, be accountable to. So there is this kind of understanding of justice which means that we have access to those, to the prosperity, to the shalom, if you will, in the biblical tradition of the community. And, so that’s that, so there’s an Israeli scholar by the name of [Avishai] Margalit, wrote a book called A Decent Society and he said that there’s a difference between a civilized society and a decent society and a just society. A civilized society is where the people of that society are nice to each other and kind and sensitive, O.K. But you can have a civilized society which is not a decent society because that civil, that de—decent society requires that the institutions of that society do not humiliate adults. So you could have a society where the institutions humiliate adults to which treat adults as second-class citizens, even though people are nice to each other. O.K., well, what comes to mind is the South before, you know, the Civil Rights movement, where you had people who were nice to African-Americans, nice to the Black people, warm and sensitive to them, but nonetheless, the institutions, the schools, the courthouse, the public institutions treated Black people, uh, African-American people, as second-class citizens. The same thing was also true in South Texas, O.K., with Mexicans, O.K., and in San Antonio, where you had institutions which denied people the right to participate. You had institutions which treated adults as second-class citizens to be seen and not heard. That is not a decent society, O.K. So, in order for there to be a decent society, those institutions, whether it be the school, the workplace, the universities, have got to make it possible for people to feel that they are first-class citizens. They have a right to be heard, a right to participate, a right to deliberate. Now, in order for it to be just, it means that they have to have access, O.K., to the resources of that society which are necessary in order for them to maintain a decent standard of living, health care, education, full employment, which enables them to participate, again, in, we call the shared prosperity, or what the Hebrew community would call the shalom of the community.
DT: Can you explain how this plays out in getting access to the resources…
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EC: Well, it means, uh…
DT: In the case of flood control in San Antonio, or wastewater bonds for the colonias.
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EC: San Antonio was not a decent society because there were—and it certainly was not a just society because you had whole communities which were left out of access to public facilities, that did not have flood control in their communities. When it rained, O.K., when it rained, kids, you know, people couldn’t go out. Their homes were flooded, O.K. Uh, and, then, so therefore, it was, you know, ipso facto unjust society, O.K. It was not a decent society because when they tried to participate, O.K., there was a resistance to their participation. And it took the organizing of COPS in order to open up, O.K., the institutions, whether it be the political institutions, etc. to enable them to participate. The same thing is true in the Rio Grande Valley, when you have people who live in whole colonias and hovels, who don’t have water, who don’t have access to sewer, O.K. Then, clearly, you know, that community is not just. If, when you pay people less than a decent standard of living, when you pay people poverty wages and when you subsidize, you know, and give corporate welfare, O.K., to developers, O.K., who sustain poverty wages, then it’s clearly you have an unjust system, and in order to change that unjust system, you’re going to have—often times, you have to create or enable institutions to develop capacity, and that means, in the process of making it just, you make it decent as well.
Am I being clear?
DW: I think so. It’s just a brief thing. I’m from California. COPS? I maybe need a bit of an introduction.
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BM: O.K. COPS is Communities Organized for Public Service, O.K., which is an IAF organization in San Antonio. COPS Metro Alliance, it’s made up of about 60 different institutions, congregations, unions, neighborhood groups, O.K., all across San Antonio, particularly, in the beginning stages, in the South and West and East sides, in the older areas. Now, it’s much—much more expanded and in a much more metropolitan scope, and so it includes areas all over the city of San Antonio, from Helotes on the Northeast, or the Northwest side, excuse me, to congregations on the Southeast side, and so it’s a broad coalition of institutions, an organization of organizations whose purpose is to develop capacity to teach people, uh, effectively how to participate in the political, social, and cultural life of the community.
DT: We talked a little bit about some of the organizations, COPS, and Valley Interfaith, and some of the other IAF affiliates. Can you talk about some of the individual people that you feel have been empowered by these groups, that have felt like they’ve been taught how to get access?
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EC: Well, there’s enormous numbers of people, uh, in San Antonio (inaudible) was the first President of COPS, (inaudible) Gallego second President, Carmen Bodillo, third President, (inaudible) Cortez, Virginia Ramirez, Pat Azuna. Then you have leaders in the Metro Alliance, O.K. Sister Gabriella, O.K., and a whole raft of—of other leaders, uh, from all walks of life, Unitarians, Roman Catholics, League of Women Voter’s types, O.K., uh, who have been effectively involved in this organization. One of the greatest leaders of the COPS organization was a priest named Albert Benavides’, unfortunately drowned in 1984. In Valley Interfaith, you have people like Carmen Anaya, Father (inaudible), Estella Sosa-Garza, O.K. In El Paso, in La Pisa organization. You have enormous numbers of people in Dallas Area Interfaith, Reverend Gerald Britt, here in Austin, Regina Rogaolf. You have a whole range of leaders Jewish, from Jewish congregations to Roman Catholic churches, school leaders, uh-uh, school principals like, uh, Claudia Santa Maria, uh, parent leaders like Lourdes Sanmaron, O.K., who’ve been developed and—and they’ve learned through action and reflection, through research actions, through relational meetings, through house meetings, O.K., uh, all across the state of Texas they’ve developed skills and understanding and wisdom, O.K., about public and social life.
DT: Is there a typical profile for them? Is there a way to describe the route that they usually take from being somebody who is maybe not as empowered to somebody who is more engaged?
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EC: I think most of them, all of them, had curiosity and imagination and, uh, but they didn’t look like they were smart, they didn’t look like they were effective, they didn’t look like they were people who could—could–could be significant. Fortunately, uh, the organizers, O.K., people like Christine Stephens, Judy Donovan, Pearl Caesar, Luis Valdez, Willie Bennett, O.K., Joe Rubio, uh, young men and women, O.K., Catholic nuns, uh—uh, all kinds of different people, social workers, lawyers, Joe Higgs in Houston who took the time and the energy and spent, you know, 55-60 hours a week doing one-on-one meetings, O.K., meeting with 35, 40, 50 sometimes of these leaders and potential leaders, looking for talent, looking for, being like talent scouts really just kind of combing churches and schools and unions and communities and taking the time to do these kinds of one-on-one 30-minute discipline meetings, and out of every 35 meetings, maybe meet 3, or 4, or 5 who really could emerge , O.K., and then putting those 3, or 4, or 5 out of every 35 until you do a thousand of these meetings, O.K., over the course of a year and out of the thousand, you find, you know, you know, uh, 50, 60, 75, O.K., who’s got enough talent, and then they go back and look for people among the other people that you met with and so that you begin to create this kind of collaborative group of leaders who are, who you mentor and you guide and you teach and you develop, and they, in turn, go out and do the same for others.
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Because the challenge of this work is—is not to organize the community, but to find the people who are going to do the organizing, to find the people who got the energy, the imagination, the curiosity, the talent to do that kind of work, and so that then you then mentor and guide and teach and put them in different situations and develop their capacity to act and develop their capacity to gain recognition and significance. And, so therefore, organizing them becomes really the teaching of these skills and these insights, and—and—and helping people understand and interpret their experiences, tell their stories in creative and effective ways, tell their stories to news media, tell their stories to political figures, tell their stories to corporate leaders, so that they begin, they begin to create a different kind of conversation, O.K. A different understanding of what is essential to the life of that particular community, whether it is about schools, health care, jobs, etcetera.
DT: Why do you think there is a necessity for them to tell their stories, and why is there such a disconnect between many of these ordinary people and those that are in boardrooms and so on…
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EC: Because most of the people in boardrooms and other, listen, they’re driven by the media, they’re driven by this kind of short-term time horizons, the quarterly returns, the instantaneous results that are expected, O.K., the celebrityville, that, you know, that, frankly, this dominant culture now is, you know, so much interested in promulgating the faddest of things, O.K., the superficiality, the triviality of stuff, O.K. And so as a consequence, it’s hard to get them to—to pay attention, O.K., if you will, to a developmental process. It’s hard to get them to pay attention to a strategy which is about development, it’s hard to get them pay attention to something which is going to be fulfilled in, you know, the year or two or four years sometimes, O.K. So, it’s hard—a guy named Frederick Dreyson once wrote a book that your political perspective depends on what you think is the role of time horizon. The role of time horizon for a corporate executive is the quarter, O.K. The role of a time horizon for a politician is the next election. The role of a time horizon for—for a hospital, or educational bureaucrat is the budget cycle. But, the role of a time horizon for a grandmother is a generation, because she’s concerned about what happens to her grandchildren. So, the difficulty is finding people who understand the role of a time horizons, O.K. And, when you have, you know, kind of a faddish, kind of instantaneous kind of, you know, society where people, again, expect immediate results, O.K., it’s hard to get people to think about what is the role of a time horizon.
DT: I guess one of the other things that I’m intrigued by is that a lot of your organizing has brought together people from very disparate backgrounds and ethnic groups, and it seems like a very necessary thing because it’s such a multi-ethnic, diverse society we’ve got now. Can you explain how you build those bridges and make those links?
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EC: Well, it’s not rocket science, it’s really just teaching people to bust through their stereotypes and having the patience to make, enable, if you will, uh, African-American leaders to understand that it’s important to them to be in a relationship to Latinos and non-African-American, non Latino, if they want to have power, O.K.? If they just want to be comfortable, they feel good, then you just kind of connect to people that you know and feel good about, O.K. If you want to have power, then you got to go beyond just your identity, politics, you got to go beyond your comfort zone and take some risks with people that you don’t know very well, that you don’t feel so comfortable with, that you can’t make small talk with, O.K. And, so therefore, the question then is how to teach people how to engage and how to have a conversation with somebody whose background they don’t know anything about or they never went to school with or they don’t know what to talk about and they feel awkward at first, O.K. And get them over those feelings of awkwardness, or hostility, or fear, or anger, or whatever it is that comes to mind, because people, we’re taught, we’re taught to be fearful, we’re taught to be, uh, to be dismissive, we’re taught to—to, uh, basically, to, uh, be hostile, O.K., to be other, whether that otherness is sexuality, whether the otherness is religion, whether the otherness is race, whether the otherness is faith, O.K. I was on a plane today with a guy who was telling me,
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you know, all about the negative things of Islam. Well, you know, I didn’t want to get in an argument with him, so I just didn’t talk about it, but you can say the same things about Christianity and Judaism, O.K., I mean, there are elements of those things which are not, are, which are just as primitive and just as out of context, looked just as, you know, as antithetical to—to any kind of, you know, relationship with people, O.K. So, you know, I mean, the question is do we allow people to operate inside their stereotypes of each other, or do we get people to bust through those stereotypes and to recognize that there’s a common humanity that all of us, you know, John Kennedy’s greatest speech was when he said that all of us share the Earth and all of us were mortal, O.K. So, not withstanding the animosities that exist between the Soviet Union and the United States, you know, there was, there was, and again to be cliché, he said, “Never negotiate our fear, but never fear to negotiate.” Well, I think part of what we have to figure, if you’re going to be able to do that you then have to say, you have to recognize that your adversaries or your potential adversaries have interests which are similar to yours, they care about their kids, they care about their families, they care about their communities. And the question is, how do you find those intersections which connect people to those common interests?
DT: Can you tell us a little bit of how you find those intersections? Especially when you’ve got communities who have lacks and needs in dozens of different areas, and how you see environment figuring into those lists, whether it’s public health care or …
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EC: Well, you try to teach people what we call relational power, O.K., and the difficulty is that people operate out of this model what I call unilateral power, which is zero sum “I win, you lose”, O.K. So, that the gains we get are going to come only at your expense. Well, if you teach people, no, now wait a minute, there is a different way of thinking about this, O.K., there is a concept of relational power which means we can both win, O.K. But that mean, by expanding the pie. We can both win by creating more capacity, O.K. If we don’t allow, you know, other people to play the prisoner’s dilemma on us, or prey, you know, where they isolate us or separate us, so that the model of urban life or the metaphor becomes the prisoner’s dilemma; I do it to you before I do it, you know, you do it to me. Rather than, so therefore, the antidote for that is—is—is to, is relationality, the antidote for that is teaching people to know about each other’s stories, their histories, their backgrounds, their fears, their anxieties, O.K. So, on the basis of that, we can act on small things and develop some trust and some understanding of reliability and develop what Hannah Wren in her essay calls public friendship, the friendship that emerges among colleagues, or people who fight together, argue, dispute with each other, but always maintain their relationship. And, so to teach people how to do that is the critical thing. Now, we did this in Dallas, for example, where people like Gerald Britt, an African-American minister, coalitioned Dallas Area Interfaith and organized and, with Latinos and people from the, what we call in Texas, for lack of a better term, the Anglo community, which is not really accurate, O.K. But, you know, Lutherans, and—and—and Methodists, and other Protestant denominations on behalf of after school programs and
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got the Dallas School Board, O.K., to vote, O.K., Latinos and African-Americans to come
together when they had been divided around these after school programs. So the question is, how do find issues where people can begin to come together. They were able to recently to get bond election passed, the largest bond election, 1.3 or 4, I forget, billion dollar bond election that has been passed in the United States, O.K., in recent years, O.K., by, again, going through this process of individual meetings, house meetings, research actions, teaching people how to negotiate with each other, teaching them that they could get things for their schools, for their communities, O.K., if they collaborated and worked together, and negotiated. I’ll work for you on your issue, but you got to work for me on my issue. It’s not rocket science, this comes out of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which is one of the reasons why he thought American democracy might work, because he saw that Americans had, they developed the institutions which enable them to do this kind of trade off, reciprocity, political engagement.
DT: How do you keep you from taking the exit strategy and moving to their enclave in the suburbs and remaining somehow interested in …
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EC: By pointing out to them that they can gain as much through the voice strategy, O.K., if you will. Albert Hirschman’s book, Exit Voice and Loyalty, O.K., has three ways you deal with problems: one is exit, two is voice, third is loyalty, O.K. Third is loyalty, you just stay in, O.K., because you are loyal to the institution. Exit, you get out, find another alternative, O.K.? Voice is, your raise questions, you articulate, you negotiate, you confront, you challenge, O.K., and to teach people the effectiveness and the implications of the voice strategy.
DW: How does it work, though, when you’re trying to organize people, you know, I hear about the House meetings and the things, yet your organizing in communities where you have multiple adults having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and the constraints of… You know, the people who need to do and say the most are, by the very institutions that are oppressing them, have the least time of all the commodities to do it. How do you convince them to put in the two hours, four hours, of it’s not their own child who’s sick, or it’s not actually touching them personally, how is made to be worth their time?
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EC: It’s worth their time because, the ones you start off with, because they want certain kinds of, because they’re not satisfied with the life as it is. And so, even though, it may have—it may not directly, immediately impact their child, or immediately impact their community, O.K., it impacts them and the quality of their life as they see it, O.K. One of my organizers was telling me a story, Pearl Caesar in Dallas, about a woman named Bettis, who got involved in the COPS organization in San Antonio, St. Alphonsus, got involved in a big issue, and it was a very contentious issue and because of it, there were some thugs, O.K., who burned her house down, O.K. And, but the community came together to help her and back her up. And, she wrote a letter because her daughter was killed, O.K., in a very tragic situation, and the organizer had written her, you know, about condolences, etcetera, and she wrote back in saying,” Thank you very much. We really appreciate your recognition. And I want you to know that I just got a house through the organization.” Anyway, this was twenty years later that she got this house, and for some reason she felt that she had gotten enough out of the organizing that it sustained her over the period of time, O.K., through good times and bad times, O.K. And you find enormous capacity on the part of people to find dimensions of their lives which are effective, O.K.? So, yeah, it has to do with the immediacy of a particular issue, but there are people who, and—and a lot of organizing is founded on that because, I mean I’ve been in situations where I organized people around a particular problem, O.K., cleaning up a ditch, etc. But once that was done, they left, O.K. Or, you organize them around getting a new school. And, once they got the school, they were out. The question—to build an organization like COPS, or Metro Alliance, or Valley Interfaith, or Apeaso, you have to find people who want more than that. They want more than just their house fixed, they want more than just a new school, they want more than just a lot, they want those things to be sure, and it has to be about those things, otherwise they won’t stay in it. But they also want something else. And those something else are quite intangible. But they’re just as important to them, and they have to do with their ability to understand the world, they have their ability to find meaning in their lives, have to do with their meaning—ability to deal with relationships and to understand relationships and—and to understand what the human condition is all about, O.K., and all the questions that plague all of us and have plagued all of us from time immortal, O.K.?
DT: Sounds like those are special people.
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EC: Yes they are.
DW: I met Jonas Salk one time on a panel discussion and he said he actually believed the evolutionary biologists, that there might actually be a gene for altruism that certain people actually have. It’s not—and it could be anywhere in the whole human population, it’s not only the rich people or the really smart people, and it’s geographically divided, and as those people would begin to coalesce and come together, that was his belief in the sort of thing. I wonder if you thing that anyone could be made an organizer or there are those people who are just genetically programmed to care in that way.
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EC: I don’t know enough about genetics to know whether or not it’s—it’s genetically programmed. I happen to believe that there are—that there’s—there’s some cultural determinants to this, O.K. I think it’s like, you know, we’re learning now about the brain, that—that—that learning does not stop, O.K., at age sixteen or seven or whenever it is, O.K., that people learn from the cradle to the grave, that even the brain researchers show that people in assisted living situations can learn new skills and new ideas, O.K. Maybe it’d take ‘em harder and longer. Brain researchers tell me that can, that they’ve seen Japanese adults, O.K., in their forties and fifties, who find it important to learn how to pronounce, you know, the English language in ways which is not revealed, which do not make them feel insecure and anxious. And, you know, that they actually—through effort and through mentoring and etcetera, that they’ve actually seen connections in the synapses of the brain brought about. So, I’m not sure whether or not it’s genetic, O.K. I think there—I think a lot of it has to do with culture and institutions, O.K. I think there are institutions which can cultivate relationality, in which, can cultivate these dispositions, these adequacies, these attitudes, O.K. I’m sure there are some dimensions to the—to what Dr.
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Salk said, I’m sure that he, I mean he’s a wiser man than I am, in those areas. But the answer to your question is yes, there are special people. But, I think there are a lot more than we think, than we give credit for, than we give humanity credit for. And I think part of the challenge is to find people who, who can become transformed and—and—and the whole foundation of all the great religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, is that—that these attitudes and these dispositions are not just for a few. A few can inspire, a few can challenge, a few can agitate and motivate, but the—but that, but the multitudes can be the beneficiaries and—and—and profit from and learn from these attitudes, these dispositions. That’s what makes me a Democrat, O.K., because I happen to believe that people can learn these, the skills that are requisite for democratic culture. And that they can learn, in your words, to be special. But, yes, there are special people. And I would have to argue that these people are very, very special. And precious, because of that.
DT: Is it that faith in people’s ability to learn and do new tricks that gives you the belief that there’s time and that gives you the optimism that there’s reason to feel that you can solve some of these problems?
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EC: Yeah, I’m not an optimist. I’m hopeful, O.K.?
DT: What’s the distinction?
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EC: Well, an optimist is somebody who—who looks, who just kind of looks beyond reality, O.K., in my humble opinion. Hanna Wren put it this way, she said that in order for things to change you need anger and humor. She said, hope, unfortunately in her terms, which I’m going to use optimism, jumps over reality, O.K. And so, you don’t engage reality. Anger teaches you how to engage reality, O.K., and humor situates you in a context so that you don’t take yourself too seriously and notwithstanding your appropriate anger and so therefore, you can have perspective, O.K.? So that combination of hope and anger, that synthesization of it, O.K., which forces you to engage the world as it is, at the same time situates you in the—in the perspective of—of—of, if you will, geological time. So that you don’t take yourself too seriously, O.K. And, therefore, don’t burn yourself out. That gives you hope, and that’s what I mean by hope, O.K., is that understanding of the world as it is, and not recognizing the challenges and the daunting nature of what we are trying to strive for, we can still recognize the possibilities.
DT: What’s meant by “cold anger?” I read a book about you…
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EC: The term comes out of a reflection on—on the whole burning bush story in the Book of Exodus, which we’re—you know, we’re told that—I don’t know if you know the story of Moses, you know, he gets in trouble because of his anger, O.K., because he finds out he’s—he recognizes the fact that he is Hebrew and he identifies with those people who are Hebrew. Those who are outcast, and he strikes and kills an Egyptian because he sees an Egyptian overseer repressing a Hebrew. And the Scripture says “Seeing no one, you know, he struck and killed.” And, I used to think there was nobody else around, but a rabbi pointed out to me what that meant was there was nobody there—else around to act like a mensch, O.K. So, seeing nobody ready to act like a mensch, Moses then strikes and kills an Egyptian. Well, he gets in trouble for that, O.K.? And the next day, he comes across two Hebrews arguing, and they’re fighting, and he says—he says you ought to be collaborating, you ought to be working together, and they say, “Why? So we can get in trouble like you’re in trouble?” You know, who made you our leader? So then, I tell the story, Moses splits, he goes, you know, and runs away, and of course, we know he goes to the Land of Midia and marries Jethro’s daughter. Or as I put it, he goes to the suburbs and marries the boss’s daughter. But, the problem is, that—you know—but we also realize when his passions had cooled, Moses encounters this burning bush, this fire that does not consume. And, the way I like to interpret it is, is that that burning bush is a reflection of his own anger, and it’s because his anger has now matured, his anger has now come to grips with reality, and his anger, which led him into outrage and—and—and destruction, and then to—to—to depression and despair, O.K., and withdrawal, now forced
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him back to deal with what he—as—as—the Book of Exodus puts it, “I hear the voice of my people crying out.” And so the stories and the memories of people suffering is so powerful to him that it forces him to act, O.K. Notwithstanding his inclination to withdraw, notwithstanding his inclination to be fearful. And so he confronts his own self, as I put it, or as I like to think of it, his authentic self, in that burning bush experience, and he hears Yahweh’s voice, he hears God’s voice, challenging him to go out and—and–to act, and he says, “Well, wait a minute here, I can’t do this, they rejected my leadership.” And God says, “Don’t worry about it, they don’t—tell them that the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Sarah and Jacob and Rebecca and—that God sent you. So, I—I—as I put it prosaically, God organizes a sponsoring committee for Moses and he gives him a credential. And Moses says, “You know, I don’t speak. You know I stutter, I’m not a good spokesperson, I’m not a good leader.” And God says, “Don’t worry about that. They’ve got lots of leaders. You’ve got your brother, Aaron, he can speak, he’s eloquent. Your sister, Marion, they don’t need a leader. They got Joshua; they got Caleb. They need somebody who’s got the capacity to organize, to develop their leadership and to teach them how to be effective.” And so that’s what I mean by cold anger, is that understanding of the role of the organizer, that combination of anger and humor and perspective, that maturity to know that anger is not hatred and—and—not outrage, because Aristotle teaches—his ethics talks about anger, the word praus, O.K., being that capacity to be angry at the appropriate time, and in an appropriate way, and in a disciplined kind of way, that’s the mean between two extremes of rage and hatred and apothea, the stoic idea of withdrawal. Well, that word praus, p-r-a-u-s, which Aristotle talks about is this kind of prudent, disciplined anger. This translates in English as meek. And so, the word meekness means praus, this kind of anger, and I never understood that, and I was always confused by it, and in the Book of Numbers it says, “Now the man Moses was the meekest man who walked the face of the Earth.” Well, I could not understand how Moses could possibly be meek until I looked up the word meek, and found out it comes from the word praus. And so, that when Matthew says, “Blessed are the meek,” he’s referring back to Moses as the kind of quality of capacities to sustain anger, the capacity—disciplined anger, anger which is not destroyed, does not—and the kind of anger that leads to forgiveness, because Aquinas talks about that kind of anger as
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leading to forgiveness, O.K., and requiring forgiveness. But, he again makes the distinction between anger and hatred. Hatred is when you hate somebody because they hate them, they didn’t do anything. Anger is when somebody wrongs you, specifically. But then it requires when you point it out to them and confront them as you’re supposed to, and they rectify their behavior, then you have to forgive them. So that, Aquinas argues that anger leads to forgiveness. Well, that kind of anger is what we mean by cold anger, where you—you’re willing to act of outrage for—not only injustices done to you, but to others. But, that leads—that requires you, when they make amends, O.K., to forgive them.
DT: Well, is this how you keep activists from burning out? Did they come to some sort of mature outrage, some kind of anger that they can sustain, that’s a cold anger that doesn’t consume them?
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EC: Well, I hope it is. I don’t know if I can keep anybody from burning out, I mean, I can keep myself from burning out, and if it helps me, I point out to people what sustains me, and what gives me energy and what gives me the capacity to go on. But, they have to figure that out for themselves. Now, I’ll be more than happy—I am more than happy to work with people to help them figure that out. But, everybody’s different, O.K.? Not everybody does—enjoys what I enjoy. And so, part of the job that I have is to try help people figure out what is it that makes sense to them? What is it that is meaningful to them; where is the joy in their life. Because you can’t do this work if you can’t find some joy in it. If you don’t find meaning in it, if you don’t find significance in it, over time, I mean, because it’s not enough, I don’t think, O.K., to rectify a situation. It’s not enough to, you know, even do things that are important, big, I mean, we—to make it possible for people to have a living wage job, that’s very significant, very important. To make it possible for people to have water that didn’t have it, that’s very important. But after a while, it—you know—that’s not enough. And so—but people have to figure out what is—what is it else that will sustain them in this work.
DT: What is it that sustains you? I mean, lots of people read about this stuff in the newspaper and it doesn’t touch them.
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EC: Well, I, frankly, am nurtured by the relationships with the people that I work with, the other organizers, the other leaders. (inaudible) The Virginia Ramierez’, the Christine Stephens’, the Frank Pearsons, the Tom Hollers, the Pearl Caesars, the Mary Beth Watkins’, there’s a whole—Judy Donovans, Elizabeth Valdez—OK, there’s just a whole group of people that—who are kind of colleagues with me, and they give me lots of energy. They challenge me. Sometimes they scold me, correct me. But, I also find that it provides the basis for important conversations with my wife and my children, O.K.? And, so as long as that’s—there’s the capacity, I’m not saying it’s easy to integrate these two worlds of mine. I think I’ll stay in the work. I enjoy it. I get paid to do it. I like doing it. My life is not without it’s moments of happiness. Like everybody else, I got to confront the eternal questions, O.K.? But, and uh, so far I’ve been very, very, very fortunate.
DT: What do you think the questions are, especially the environmental questions, that we’re going to confront in time?
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EC: Well, the environ—the critical environmental question that I think we have to deal with is our own arrogance, O.K. And, as our unwillingness to look at limits, and we think that we can continue to do—I was reading a very discouraging article in the New York Times, I think it was, about fishing, and how we’re not, you know, being very careful about making sure that, you know, that the fish of the sea are being sustained and replenished.
DT: The Sea of Cortez?
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EC: Yeah. And that was a very distressing article to me. Same time, I’m concerned because people depend upon their livelihood for fishing. And it’s not so easy to tell somebody who’s all their life been a fisherman that you can’t fish anymore, O.K.? And, so therefore, we have some responsibilities, I think, to say to those folks, you know, O.K., we just can’t say to those folks, well, go become a computer—you know, there was a state senator in the Rio Grande Valley who is a good guy, but he told these fisherman, well you got to take job training. Well, a 55-year-old guy, who’s never been through—you know, who’s made a decent living all his life as a fisherman, you tell him you gotta go become a computer analyst? Well, come on now. Give me a break. So, we gotta learn how to deal with these—you know, if we’re going—I was always taught that the key to successful economy is that when you have a dynamic economy, O.K., that it is the obligation of the winners to share their winnings, O.K., with the losers, if, in fact, in order for you to be successful and win, you have to basically devastate them, O.K. So, what I mean by that is, that, for example, if you have a dynamic economy where there is, you want innovation, you want creative—(inaudible) about the creative destruction where whole ways of doing work are destroyed, O.K. You can’t just say, well, that’s tough. O.K., they gotta—you know—they gotta pay inordinate—they’re not gonna put up with it, they’re not gonna allow you to do that, and that’s—that’s—that’s the road to continued persistent and polarization and destructive kind of conflict. On the other hand, if we can say to somebody, look we’re going to make it possible for, maybe for your children or your grandchildren, O.K., to find meaningful work through, you know, education and other—and we’re going to be really generous with them, then you might be willing to sacrifice your livelihood, you might be willing to, as long as you don’t have to totally give up your dignity and—and—and be totally humiliated in the process. You follow what I’m saying?
DT: I think so.
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DT: What if you’ve got a situation where people’s livelihood is not at stake. It’s not the Sea of Cortez situation where you’ve got fisherman who no longer have fish to catch, but you’ve got a systemic problem that is so large, just climb to change, that everybody is probably going to suffer, but nobody’s going to suffer in particular, nobody’s going to lose their livelihood apart from other people’s careers. How do you get people to confront those kinds of problems?
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EC: Well, I think part of it is, you have to, first of all, create institutions which—which—which begin to teach people the implications of it, and you have to mug them a little—with a little reality, O.K. And,…
DT: You mean by mugging…
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EC: That’s what I mean by agitation, in other words, you confront people with reality, O.K., you have to learn how to dramatize. And by that, I don’t mean deceive, I mean lift up the people, the implications of what’s going to happen. Because part of the problem we have is that, if it’s not immediate and specific, it’s hard for us to focus on, O.K. Because of our short term time horizon. So, the only way that I know how to do that is to create institutions which teach people how to act in immediately, but at the same time, teach them that the implications of these immediate actions are going to have on the long term time horizons, O.K. So, you know, as they begin to become successful around smaller things, they can be able to focus on bigger and bigger things. Because our capacity to think about those things depends upon the amount of power we have. We feel powerless, then what’s the point? O.K., I mean, why talk about something we can’t do anything about? So, part of the difficulty is—is, I mean if you know, Alan Greenspan is not going to worry about what I think about him. I don’t have any power to affect what he does. Even though what he does affects my livelihood, O.K., but, until I begin to have recognition and standing, O.K., then there’s no point in my getting into it. So, the ques—the critical way to get into this is to create institutions which teach people how to act, how to get power, how to get recognition, how to get standing, so at some point, they got to be dealt with, they got to be listened to, O.K.? Then, they’ll be open to these kind of questions.
DT: How do you treat environmental groups that are increasingly becoming a minority…
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EC: I know, but we try to teach them these kind of things early on, that a lot of them just would not listen. That you just can’t—you can’t just exhort and scold people. It doesn’t do any good, it just gets their back up. Now I’m not trying to say I don’t believe in confrontation, I’m not trying to say I don’t believe in tension. I think, unfortunately, that—that’s the law of change, you know. That all change comes about either through pressure or threat, O.K.? That there is no nice way to get change. What I’m talking about is if you’re going to get people to act in such a way that they’re willing to bring about pressure, if they’re willing to create the tension, then they gotta under—they gotta have some sense of power. And if they’re always involved in institutions where they’re being told, being told what to do by experts, after a awhile, that’s not gon—they’re not gonna sustain themselves in those kinds of organizations.
DW: What I’m curious about, and help me here, because I’m involved with so many, at home where I live, activist organizations and sometimes, the few people who, quote unquote, emerge as leaders get together, and we get really upset because the nuclear waste committee meets in my apartment, the next day I go to someone else’s house to oppose the biosolid sludge, and after a few days of this, every week, and the piles of lists serves and e-mails. I begin to think, “Maybe they beat us by divide and conquer, by having us have to run after fifty different small issues—and that wetland is going to be made into a Home Depot, and this and that.” And somehow we get sheer exhaustion by having to keep up with a hundred small fires to put out. And then, yeah, people drop out and they don’t continue to come to the meeting and I’m losing how to help focus that back.
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EC: Well, I think, again, that’s why we teach, you gotta be selective. You gotta pick and choose your fights. And you gotta pick and choose fights which help you build an organization. So you gotta ask yourself, how does this fight, how does this issue gonna help us build the organization. And then, the activist will say, Yeah, but you’re not dealing with this issue, and this issue, and this issue, and all these things. But they all demand immediate concern, we just can’t deal with every single one of them at the same time, it just won’t happen, O.K.? And that’s part of the tragedy of life, sometimes the best solution gets in the way of a good enough solution and so sometimes you gotta learn, so that’s what I mean by learning how to understand politics. And, you know, we make all of our organizers read, you know, dialogue from Thucydidies Peloponnesian Wars, O.K., called the The Millennium Dialogue, which is about, really, negotiation, O.K. And, it’s really about learning how to negotiate when you don’t have that much power, and learning that sometimes you gotta take, you know, victories, and build for the future. And even though all those victories look like big, huge defeats, O.K. Or so you’re in a situation where, yeah, the other guys wins, O.K., you know, we’re not gonna stop development over the Aquifer, O.K.? But, we don’t have the power to do it right now. So, what do we do then? Well, we try to build, we try to get some concession, some victories, teach our people that at the same time we won, O.K., that there is still a larger issue out there which we haven’t dealt with, and haven’t addressed, but we gotta be able to organize and build capacity if we’re gonna deal with that issue. I don’t if I’m being clear or not.
DT: I get the idea, that….
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EC: So you don’t give up on the fight and you teach it, and you don’t pretend that there’s not a serious problem out there. But you also recognize that we don’t have the power to deal with that problem right now. So we gotta build some more power. This victory we got here today was good, it’s significant—it’s important and meaningful. But, is it the solution? No. Is it solve the problem? No. Is it—do the other side, are they still doing some horrible things? Yes. O.K.? Then, why are we negotiating with these people? Because we gotta live in the world as it is. And we gotta learn, that if we’re gonna be successful, O.K., we’re gonna have to figure out a couple of things. One is how to build our organization. Two is turn yesterday’s adversaries into today’s allies, or tomorrow’s allies.
DT: But those adversaries tend to be corporate and …
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EC: But they also, well, but the point is you gotta find, that’s why you gotta also find out who are the people who actually work and live in those corporations. And that’s part of why we organize in metropolitan areas and suburban communities, because those same, I mean, you name the worst corporate player, whether it’s Enron, O.K., and you can read the—the—the novelist, Indian novelist essay, [Arundhati] Roy, on The Return of Rumplestilskin, O.K., that’s the title of her little book, I forget the title of the book, but anyway, and uh, he talks about the role that Enron is playing in India and privatizing water and bankrupting, you know, Indian states, O.K., and degrading water, O.K. And so, yet, there are people who live and work in Houston, who work for Enron, who you can begin to organize around flooding in Houston. And organizing around environmental issues in Houston, who then you can begin to raise questions about, wait a minute now, as they begin to be relational and begin to understand the issues that touch them. You know, Enron’s doing some things, you know, in India, the subcontinent of India, which are just, if not worse, devastating. Now you may not get those people to take on their company right away, but eventually you might get them in other kinds of mechanisms, through congregations, through churches, and etcetera, to become part of a strategy to deal with congressional leadership, to begin much more effectively with some of these issues. It’s a longer-term strategy, and some people might say, well, we don’t have enough time to deal with this issue. Well, O.K., but frankly, we haven’t been that effective in these in these alternate mobilization ways, either, O.K. And what is your alternative, O.K.?
DT: I’m glad you’ve given us this amount of time. Do you have anything to add about environmental concerns and organizing?
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EC: No, I just think that—that—that the way to organize around people with environmental concerns is to teach them how they effect public health. And I think that the more effective way to do this is to talk about questions of health and quality of life and viability, O.K. Because otherwise you allow those people who don’t care about it to kind of paint you in a picture, or paint you—or put you in a corner, or stereotype you as people who are quaint and tree huggers or whatever. Which I think is not, does not, and—and—the problem with that is not that it becomes—it appears to become the province of very self-absorbed, very comfortable people, who’ve gotten theirs and don’t want anyone else to share in the bounty. They’ve got their nice home viewing the ocean and they don’t want anyone else to have—you know, to disturb their view, O.K. And so you become relegated to people who become self-absorbed and narcissistic. And I think that’s the biggest danger. For people who are concerned about the environment, is they gotta figure out a way in which it effects the lives, the quality of lives of people who are in minority communities and low-end communities. The average state, you know, guy who, basically, is just trying to make a buck for his family, O.K. Alright.
DT: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
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[End of Reel 2185]
[End of Interview with Ernie Cortes]