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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Prophetic Action and Imagination

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


Ernesto Cortés, co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), delivered the Boisi Center’s twelfth Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on Tuesday, March 26 in the Heights Room of Corcoran Commons. Cortés is a nationally recognized commu­nity organizer and Macarthur “Genius Grant” Fellow who has dedicated his public career to empowering poor and moderate-income communities. In the spirit of the Prophetic Voices Lecture series that has previ­ously featured Miroslov Volf, Robert George, Sister Helen Prejean and Rev. Peter Gomes, among others, Cortés delivered a lively, engaging, and challenging presentation on the role of imagination in prophetic action.

In a display of rhetorical power and intellectual depth, Cortés spoke on topics ranging from community organizing principles to biblical prophetic traditions to theories of power that inform community leaders today. He regaled the audience with stories about the power of ordinary citizens to improve their lives and the lives of others through the pursuit of their collective self-inter­est. At first glance, he noted, self-interest and the com­mon good appear to be incompatible concerns. While community advocacy is initially motivated by personal concerns, organizers will eventually identify issues that affect people beyond their own families and communi­ties. In this way, the pursuit of self-interest can enhance the common good.

Cortés also emphasized the importance of the IAF’s “iron rule”: never do for someone what she or he can do for themselves. This rule, which Cortés also identified as the principle of subsidiarity, provides a foundation for promoting intermediate institutions such as broad-based community organizations as agents of political empowerment and societal change. While he empha­sized the importance of intermediate institutions, he cautioned that subsidiarity ought not be interpreted as an excuse for larger institutions to neglect the needs of smaller communities in society.

Cortés’ presentation was rich in references to the bibli­cal prophetic tradition and its influence on community organizing. He interpreted the biblical prophetic narra­tives through the lens of the work of the IAF, emphasiz­ing the importance of building relationships and fram­ing issues as the basis of creating a just society. He also emphasized the significance of anger in the prophetic tradition. This anger, rooted in outrage over injustice, compelled the biblical prophets to critique institutional powers and to pursue change in their societies. These prophets inspire community organizers today by model­ing societal engagement rooted in passion for justice.

Finally, Cortés discussed the importance of power and politics in community organizing. Citing IAF founder Saul Alinsky, Cortés argued that there can be no politics without compromise. Although conflict is an inescap­able component of the IAF organizing model, Cortés emphasized the importance of building relationships that bridge political differences. Working with those who oppose one’s own interest, he argued, is necessary to make political gains. It is through this challenging political process composed of relationship-building, social conflict, and political negotiation that community leaders are able to produce concrete improvements in their quality of life.