Too many of us hold back from community involvement because we think we don't know enough to act on our beliefs, or don't have the standing or confidence to take a public stand. When we see a woman who begins with no money, no power, no education and no status in the community, and then becomes a powerful voice for change, it should inspire us all.
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Virginia Ramirez, of San Antonio, Texas, could easily have lived out her days without ever discovering her ability to speak out. She left school after eighth grade to get married. "That was what most Hispanic women in my generation did. My husband, who drives a taxicab, went to work after sixth grade." Although dropping out seemed normal at the time, she felt frustrated when she couldn't help her five children with their homework.
When Virginia was forty-five, she realized that an elderly neighbor was getting sick every winter. The neighbor was a widow who lived in a house so dilapidated that it couldn't retain heat. "She was one of those people who always paid her taxes on time, always faithfully making out her little money orders. But she couldn't afford to repair her house, and everyone around here was just as poor. So I went with her to city agencies trying to get help. They kept sending us from place to place, from department to department. Finally she died of pneumonia. The paramedics said she'd never have died if her house hadn't been so freezing cold.
"I'd never been so angry in my life," Virginia recalls. "This woman had done everything she was supposed to, and now she was dead because no one could help her fix her house. Someone said there's this community organization called COPS, and maybe they could help."
At that time, the largely volunteer-based COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) had been around for eight years. The organization grew out of The Industrial Areas Foundation, a network established community organizing Godfather Saul Alinsky. COPS began by working through churches to organize San Antonio's desperately poor Latino population. The group successfully pushed for municipal investments in storm sewers, parks, and schools in the town's long-neglected barrios, and got major downtown businesses to hire their residents. COPS eventually secured over a billion dollars of public and private resources for their community through a combination of grassroots organizing and innovative protests. But Virginia had paid the organization little heed.
So it was with some hesitation that she attended a COPS meeting at her church, where she raised her hand and said, "I have this problem. This neighbor lady of mine died because it was cold and they wouldn't fix her house. I want someone to do something about it." A few days later, a COPS volunteer knocked on Virginia's door and asked her why she was so angry.
Virginia was angry, she said, because she'd tried to help the old lady and failed. She was upset because her kids weren't getting properly educated in school. Because she'd given up on her own education and dreams. Because she'd had to watch her father, whom she'd adored, be humiliated again and again by police and store owners when they drove from state to state to pick crops. No one seemed to care about her community. The volunteer didn't advise Virginia to do anything in particular. She just asked if they could talk again. When she returned, she suggested that Virginia hold a house meeting, to see if her neighbors had concerns too.
Nine people came. Virginia had never conducted a meeting. Her legs shook so much she almost fell over. She could barely open the door. But gradually people began to talk of their problems and experiences. Their neighborhood had been thrown together at the cheapest possible cost, built for workers at the now-closed nearby slaughterhouses. It lacked sidewalks and adequate sewers. Most of the houses were crumbling. As she listened, Virginia realized this was about the future of her community.
Virginia and the other COPS members painstakingly researched documents at City Hall, discovering that the city had built a street in a more affluent area with money earmarked to repair their barrio homes. Virginia's next step--testifying before the City Council--felt terrifying. When she walked to the podium to protest the diversion of funds, she was so nervous she forgot what she was going to say. "I didn't remember my speech. I barely remembered my name. Then I turned around, saw the people who'd come with me, and realized I was just telling the story of our community. So I told it, and we got our money back.
"It was hard to stand up to politicians and tell them what we wanted, because it's been embedded in my mind to be nice to everybody. It seemed rude at first. But I began to understand the importance of holding people accountable for what they promise."
As they did with other newly energized community members, COPS trainers helped Virginia reflect on each step she took in every campaign, and acquire the skills to research, negotiate, articulate a point of view, analyze people's needs, and channel her anger. They also introduced her to a new community of people who were similarly involved. Even with this support and inspiration, Virginia's journey into public life wasn't easy. She often prayed over whether her newfound path was right, asking God for guidance, "like what am I doing with these crazy people and where is it going to lead?"
Yet her involvement also strengthened her faith, giving new meaning to biblical lessons that had once seemed more remote and abstract. "Suddenly you read these stories about injustice from thousands of years ago," Virginia says, "and it seems like they're talking about today."
Virginia's choices still raised difficult tensions, particularly in her family. "It was like twenty-four-hour guilt. You're torn between your home and your desire to grow as a person." After Virginia returned to school, acquired her GED, and enrolled at a community college, she was studying for a college test--her first test in over 40 years--when her husband came home. Virginia was sitting with books spread across the kitchen table, and no supper ready. He ran his finger over the furniture to show her the accumulated dust. "Look at this house!" he yelled. "It's going to ruin. You're not taking care of anything."
"I'm preparing my future," she responded, her voice trembling. "If you don't like it, that's too bad, because I'm going to do it." She'd never talked to him that way, and he was shocked. "I'm sorry," Virginia said, "but this is a priority." It took her husband a long time to get used to her new attitude and concerns, "to realize," as Virginia says, "that I was going to keep on going to school and to my meetings." He realized I was getting involved for both of us."
College gave Virginia the credentials to secure a new job, training and supervising over 300 volunteers who do health education outreach in low-income neighborhoods. During more than 20 years with COPS, she's moved up in the organization, first training people in her parish, then working with other local churches to develop their members' leadership skills as well. She's focused particularly on women like herself. Using her own unexpected journey as an example, she's taught them to find their own voice and speak out for their communities, despite any doubts or hesitations they might have.
By now, Virginia was negotiating with the mayor and bank presidents on major community development projects, pressuring local corporations for decent jobs, and working on after-school literacy projects. "We have a new business incubator and a teen center so kids have someplace to hang out besides the streets. The city gave people money to fix up the crumbling houses. Now they take so much pride in it. We're still a poor neighborhood but we finally have hope."
Virginia realized how far she'd come when she went to Washington, D.C., to testify before a U.S. Senate committee on an innovative job-training program that she and other COPS members had helped develop. The night before, she "prayed to God that I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself," but she said that she'd been far more afraid "talking to my neighbors the first time, and speaking at that first City Council meeting. By time I got to the U.S. Senate I was used to it." Afterwards, standing outside on the steps of the Capitol, Virginia thought "about how this process has changed me, developed potential I'd never have dreamed of. When I started, I was a stay-at-home mother. That was my world. Never in my wildest imagination could I have thought that I'd be here. Now I tell people I learned all my talents and confidence at the University of COPS. The people there found some spark in me. I never knew I had it."
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times" by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, "Soul" has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful...rich with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity."