Prophetic Action and Imagination

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The 12th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture

Ernesto Cortés
Industrial Areas Foundation

Date: March 26, 2013

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Social entrepreneurship has an important role in democratic citizenship; innovative public and social action adds value to the world around us by fostering relationships and strengthening communities.  At its best, such action increases the capacity and diversity of a mix of talented leaders to respond to community issues through planning, collaboration, and reflection.  What social action can we take today to embolden prophetic witness and imagination tomorrow? 

Speaker Bio

Ernesto Cortés

Ernesto Cortés is the Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which provides leadership training and civics education to poor and moderate-income people across the US and UK. He is also the Director of the West / Southwest IAF which consists of 30 broad-based organizations spanning ten states including: California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and Iowa. Cortés’ affiliation with the IAF began in 1972, after participating in the organization’s leadership training institute in Chicago. In 1974, Cortés organized the San Antonio Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), the well-known and highly successful church-based organization of San Antonio’s West and South side communities. Cortés has been honored by the MacArthur Foundation, the Heinz Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government in recognition of his accomplishments in the field of community organizing. He completed a year-long fellowship as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cortés is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where he majored in English and Economics. He has received honorary degrees from Princeton University, Rutgers University, Southern Methodist University, the University of Houston, Occidental and St. Edward’s University.

Event Photos

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Boisi Center Director Alan Wolfe introduces the 12th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecturer, Ernesto Cortes.

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Ernesto Cortes (Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation) speaks on prophetic action and imagination.

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Nichole Flores (Boisi Center Graduate Research Assistant) asks a question from the crowd.

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The crowd engages with Cortes during the question and answer portion of the lecture.

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Alberto Godenzi, Dean of BC's Graduate School of Social Work, talks with Ernesto Cortes after the event.

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Alan Wolfe (Director of the Boisi Center), Erik Owens (Associate Director of the Boisi Center) and Ernesto Cortes talk after the event.

Event Recap

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.

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Further Reading

Alinsky, Saul David. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage, 1969.

Alinsky, Saul David. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Ayala, Elaine. "COPS/Metro Alliance Re-energizing Community Debates." Latino Life. San Antonio Express, 17 Aug. 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

Bornstein, David, and Susan Davis. Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.

Chambers, Edward T., and Michael A. Cowan. Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.

Dobson, Charles. "IAF Organizing." Citizen's Handbook. 2002.

Marquez, Benjamin. “Standing for the Whole: The Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation on Identity and Mexican-American Politics.” The Social Service Review 74.3 (2000) 453-473.

Moberg, David. "Obama's Third Way." Obama's Third Way. National Housing Institute, 2007.

Rogers, Mary Beth. Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics. Denton, TX: University of North Texas, 1990.

Stall, Susan and Randy Stoecker. “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment.” Gender and Society 12.6 (1998), 729-756.

Other resources:

West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation:

Industrial Areas Foundation:

Mobilizing the Latino Community: Ernesto J. Cortes, Jr.. Films Media Group, 1990. Films On Demand. 11 March 2013.