When Cecile Richards says, "I believe in the power of grassroots organizing," you can bet she ain't whistlin' Dixie. Before founding the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) in February 1995, Richards, daughter of former governor Ann Richards, spent 15 years as a labor and political organizer in Louisiana, California, and Texas. During her tenure with the Service Employees International Union, she helped launch the now-famous Justice for Janitors campaign, perhaps the most successful unionization drive in recent U.S. history. In the process of "coordinating mainstream Texans to provide an alternative to the far right," Richards has garnered an honor most civil liberties activists can only fantasize about. Last November she became the target of Ralph Reed's personal ire. "We're gonna give her lots to monitor," Reed declared in a short, ineloquent order at a San Antonio gathering. I talked with Richards at her Austin office in March.
How did you become involved in organizing opposition to the Religious Right?
I had a semi-religious experience in 1994. I was traveling around the state during the gubernatorial race, and I was totally unprepared for what I encountered among voters. They were really on a mission to eradicate the state of [what they saw as] godless, pro-homosexual, anti-family elected officials. They were angry, irrational, and incredibly motivated. It was frightening.
You know, I'm a Texan and I'm raising my kids here, and I realized that the Religious Right has spent the last six to ten years organizing a grassroots movement. Not only was it going to be determinative in the '94 elections, but in every election in the foreseeable future. It became clear to me that we had to do something in order to organize an alternative in the state.
I talked to people who are experts on the Religious Right, and I realized there was a lot of concern and that people were fairly well informed about what was happening, but we weren't doing enough to really take it on. So, we started the Texas Freedom Network in my living room. My first volunteer was Lily, my daughter, who is 9. My first donor was my grandmother, because she hates Pat Robertson.
How has your experience in the labor movement shaped your approach to this kind of activism?
The bulk of my years in the labor movement has been spent organizing low wage workers, particularly women of color who work in hotels and nursing homes, and as janitors. I really believe in the importance of grassroots organizing in this country in order to affect political change. That's what led me here.
Fundamentally, I think it all comes down to issues of economic justice. How can we reduce the gap between rich people and poor people in this country? We need to think more about the community as a whole, and the effect of public policy on all people.
You work with a lot of people who have been involved in defeating or dis-electing Religious Right candidates at the school board level. What makes people decide to speak out?
Their kids. When you find out that nationally or locally there are political groups that want to take over the political system, you'll fight to the death for your kids. And not just your kids, but other kids. It's interesting. A lot of the people I've met through the local school boards are not political people. They may not even necessarily vote in other elections. But when they learn that groups like the Eagle Forum or Citizens for Excellence in Education are planning to take over the local school board, they become political very fast.
Attendees at Texas Freedom Network events can count on hearing from religious leaders who are fed up with Religious Right rhetoric. Involving clergy seems to be a very intentional strategy on your part.
The most interesting lesson I have learned this year is that people in the mainstream and progressive community really need and want to talk about issues of faith and morality, about family, and the decline of this country. I feel like we have abandoned discussion of those issues. The challenge is to learn how to talk about issues of faith, how to build a faith-based response to the Religious Right.
Involving clergy changes the dynamic of what we are doing. It allows them to have conversations with other religious leaders and with lay people to explore these things. We can help clergy begin to be a broader voice in the community. I think that's critical.
You recently celebrated the first anniversary of the TFN. What are you most proud of, as you look back on year number one?
It was very significant to see the commissioner of education reverse a decision to refuse AIDS education money for the state of Texas. The commissioner had decided not to apply for $1.2 million from the Center for Disease Control. Basically, he was concerned about the heat he was going to feel from the Religious Right, and legitimately so. It's gratifying to see people stand up and say we are going to make public policy not based on who yells the loudest, but on what's right for the kids.
The other thing that was nice about that fight was that it brought together the medical community and the religious community and the education community; it was not an issue the gay community had to fight. I think people are beginning to understand that a crime against one is a crime against all.
The Texas Freedom Network can be contacted at P.O. Box 1624, Austin, TX 78767, or by e-mail at email@example.com.