A vintage C.O.P.S. button is pinned on a members shirt. Photo by Scott Ball.
A vintage C.O.P.S. button is pinned on a member's shirt. Photo by Scott Ball.

Nearly 1,000 leaders across Texas will come together on Saturday, April 30, to celebrate more than 40 years of service that began with the founding of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio. Since its inception, COPS’ broad based organizing and non-partisan model has been replicated through new projects in every major metropolitan area of Texas including San Antonio, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, and El Paso, as well as in the Rio Grande Valley, Lubbock and Del Rio.

These organizations, now part of the Network of Texas IAF Organizations, have worked together with our friends and allies to make political life more inclusive for all of Texas residents. Similar organizations are active throughout the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Australia.

COPS San Antonio was founded in Nov. 1974, by ordinary people angry with their city governance system which blatantly directed its resources to the more affluent areas at the expense of the less affluent. Our neighborhood projects were listed on City bond issues, but that was not a guarantee that the approved money would be spent on them. When asked why this happened, one councilman replied, “because priorities change.” Today, thanks to the actions of COPS, funds passed on bond issues must be spent on listed projects.

COPS has been a significant and powerful part of the history of San Antonio. In the 1970s, we confronted the city’s power structure with “tie up” actions and forced them to recognize the needs of our families and communities. These actions were necessary to jolt our local power structure and get them to see that working together we could find creative and realistic solutions to those needs. We broke no laws and no one was arrested.

Since my time as the first president of COPS, I have participated in the creation of over $1 billion in capital improvement projects: drainage, neighborhood parks, new and rehab housing, traffic lights, streets, sidewalks and curbs. Together, with the Westside YMCA and Prospect Hill Yellow Jackets, we created Rosedale Park.

In education, we passed a library bond (1970s), which included seven libraries in COPS communities. With our sister organization, The Metro Alliance, we worked with Alamo Community Colleges as well as San Antonio, Harlandale, Edgewood and Northeast Independent School Districts to pass needed bond issues. We were the impetus in the creation of the After School Challenge Program, Education Partnership (1989), Project Quest adult job training (1992) and Palo Alto Community College (1985).

On wages we changed the City’s tax abatement program: no more 10 year, 100% abatements to businesses without job and wage stipulations and no incentives to companies paying poverty wages. Our living wage campaigns began in the 1970s. We publicly challenged our economic development sector to erase the stigma San Antonio had as a “cheap labor” town. Throughout our history COPS/METRO has worked with the city, county and school districts to set the example and pay living wages to their employees. As tax payers we should not subsidize poverty. This campaign goes on even today.

Ms. Bea Gallego, the second President of C.O.P.S. addresses leaders at their annual convention in 1977. The convention marked the organization's earliest efforts to combat the problem of low wages in San Antonio. Photo courtesy of C.O.P.S.
Ms. Bea Gallego, the second President of C.O.P.S. addresses leaders at their annual convention in 1977.  Photo courtesy of C.O.P.S.

COPS was at the forefront in changing San Antonio from a Good Government League controlled at-large city council to one of single member districts. Along with the Aquifer Protection Association we passed a referendum to protect our Edwards Aquifer in the 1970s.

Today, in San Antonio, we see thousands of children using the libraries; students, many the first in their families graduating from universities; adults being trained, going from poverty wage jobs to living wage careers; students attending college in their vicinity; and our economic development sector recruiting high wage, high tech and manufacturing jobs.

However, our April celebration will not just celebrate the past, but will also mark the beginning of a new vision for the future of organizing in Texas.

This new focus of our organizations will set the stage for a return to a culture of discourse, compromise, and bipartisanship that seems to have been long forgotten. Only by organizing a strong constituency of voters around issues like education, workforce training, healthcare, infrastructure and economic development can we provide opportunities for moderate candidates of both parties to take stances on these issues without committing political suicide.

Our plan is to move the front line of locally driven (small “d”) democratic politics beyond the inner city and into the homes of families still strongly connected to religious institutions, school PTAs and workers’ associations in the suburbs. Organizers would work with these families to develop what Pope Francis referred to as our full humanity – which necessarily includes our “politicalness” which is an essential element of personhood for Aristotle’s “animal politicus.”. This work includes non-partisan voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts in targeted state legislative districts where both Democrat and Republican candidates can be influenced to support this agenda of issues. This would be a four year campaign so that by the 2020 there are enough Democrat and Republican representatives committed to these issues to make a difference in the direction of the state.

This year, the Texas IAF Network is stepping up to the plate to ask candidates and our elected officials to have adult conversations about important issues, instead of adolescent rants and temper tantrums. To do this, we are beginning to expand our reach into suburbs, exurbs and rural areas to undertake the time-proven work of leadership development within our faith and civic institutions. Our goal is to create new cultures of relationship and collective action. Only by developing capable civic leaders within our churches, schools, synagogues, and civic centers, can we bring the hopes, dreams, and struggles of families to the attention of leaders of both political parties. This expansion of our efforts is essential to articulate a non-partisan, political vision and strategy that can unite Texans for a major get out the vote effort for 2020 local and state races.

Stickers and C.O.P.S. buttons are held as a conversation is given before the press conference asking SAISD for a higher living wage for employees. Photo by Scott Ball.
Stickers and COPS/Metro Alliance buttons are held as a conversation is given before the press conference asking SAISD for a higher living wage for employees. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Texas legislature elected in 2020 will create new election maps based on the new U.S. Census. Decisions made by these officials will shape Texas public policies for the next ten years. Previous redistricting processes eliminated most competitive and swing-vote districts, which proved disastrous for working families. Extremist office-holders have had no incentive to move to the center because their legislative districts are gerrymandered to the point that moderate competition has been all but eliminated.

By picking strategic districts in which to focus our time and money, statewide politics can begin to change. Only once we start working across lines of partisanship, geography, and socioeconomic status can we develop the political infrastructure to create a more mature political discourse that will ensure a brighter future for all of Texas’ children.

In recognition of the founding leaders of COPS, I invite all children, grandchildren, relatives and friends to celebrate COPS and Metro Alliance’s 40 year anniversary at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 30. The event will take place at Edison High School, located at 701 Santa Monica St. Join us to honor the COPS legacy, but more importantly, to be a part of its future.


Top Image: A vintage COPS button is pinned on a member’s shirt. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

COPS/METRO Alliance: 40 Years of Community Change

SAISD Employees Get Wage Increase

County Approves Plan to Fund Road Repairs in Highland Oaks

SAISD to Consider Raising Minimum Wage for District Employees

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Andy Sarabia

Andy is the founding president of Communities Organized for Public Service (C.O.P.S.) in San Antonio.