Monday, May 9, 2011

Training Citizens for Living Wage Jobs Could Threaten Politics in Texas - Seriously?!

This legislative session in Austin has been a tough one for those looking for state government to avoid further burdening our more economically vulnerable citizens.

Whether its been health care, predatory lending, education (public or post secondary) or...well just about anything, the inability overcome a political and fiscal ideology that confuses cost with value has been bent on taking a dull machete to anything that amounts to spending. The only thing that hasn't been proposed has been cutting the lights off in the state capitol an hour earlier everyday.

But it has included attacking programs that have a proven track record of providing living wage jobs - with money that is actually there!

Dallas Area Interfaith's efforts to access job training funds for extension of its nationally recognized, San Antonio based Project Quest program fall in that category and has encountered opposition from Tom Pauken, head of the Texas Workforce Commission.

"Dallas Area Interfaith leaders [are] especially alarmed that both chambers' budgets would zero out money for public-private partnerships that retrain adult workers so they'll go from dead-end, minimum-wage jobs to post-graduation positions that pay an average of $38,000. The program, called Jobs and Education for Texans, or JET, recently awarded a $400,000 grant to Project Quest in Dallas, a nonprofit that was spun off one in San Antonio by the same name. It is now training about 50 people and this fall will have 120 trainees, including employees at Baylor University Medical Center."

Trainees of the jobs-driven program will have access to work with employers that actually exist and have openings in the areas for which they are trained.

So what's the problem?

"Some of Texas' grass roots conservatives and one of their alums -- Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken -- are complaining that Comptroller Susan Combs recently awarded $2.45 million of state funds to local skills development programs launched by left-leaning groups tied to the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation."

"There's so many needs out there and she gives out the first ... of the money to a bunch of affiliates of Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation," Pauken."It's just ridiculous. I mean, these organizations have a political agenda."


So this radical group of political insurgents - Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests, Protestant clergy, parents and grandparents, survivors of hurricane Katrina, now established and now engaged in civic life in Dallas and north Texas, along with their congregations and neighbors, are seeking to undermine Texas politics by training people for (gasp) jobs?!

Let's get this straight. Yes, DAI and her network of affiliate organizations throughout Texas are organizing citizens to improve the quality of life in their communities. The organizations take no government money. The money seek provides targeted funding for job training based on relationships they build with businesses in Dallas (like Baylor Hospital). Neither the organizations, the organizers, nor any of the leaders of the organizations get one dime of the money. 

The training is provided through the Dallas County Community College District. The non-profit (Quest Dallas/Collin Counties), hires minimal staff - staff which does NOT come from the leadership of the organization. The organization has also raised matching funding, both in cash and in-kind donations (CitySquare, for instance, is providing office space). And Project Quest, the progenitor of the operation in Dallas, has a near 20 year track record of successfully taking people from working class poverty to living wage employment! 

Oh, yeah, the 'political agenda'...because, of course, the only people influencing politics in Texas are those who don't have a 'political agenda'...(that is, if you believe that the TEA Party doesn't have a 'political agenda').

The political agenda of Dallas Area Interfaith is to make certain that the voices of ordinary citizens are heard amidst, if not above, the din of lobbyists, businesses and political ideologues that have flooded the State Capitol this session. It has always seemed strange to me, that when corporations or favored political interest groups organize it's hailed as 'democracy in action'. But when the people who live on my street organize to educate themselves to adequately (and successfully) represent their own interests, its seen as a threat to western civilization. 

Yes, DAI is an IAF affiliate. Yes, they organize in the political interests of people across a broad spectrum of American life, without regard to color, ethnicity, class or even political party. They meet and engage with politicians of both parties (some of the most dependable allies we had when I worked closely with the organization were conservative Republicans who actually had the public interest at heart!). And mature politicians (statesmen, if you will), who actually believe politics is a noble means by which we make government a servant of the public interest, are never afraid to work with them. 

Pauken says his main concern is "...the ideological clash raging in South Texas, El Paso, San Antonio and Austin. All places, he noted, where she's indirectly funding and thus legitimizing IAF affiliates." 

I would suggest Pauken's real concern lies elsewhere - the fear that there really is a wisdom in poor and working class communities that if transformed to political power, might actually strangle the life out of the simplistic reasoning that ensnares our public life. And if that gosh, we might actually have a government that works for people who don't have a great deal of material wealth. 

What a scary proposition...

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