Texas Organizing Project
Texas Organizing Project "organizes Black and Latino communities in Harris, Bexar and Dallas counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve".
Origins and mission
Today much of the urban organizing work is done by the Texas Organizing Project, launched eight years ago by alumni from ACORN, the community organizing giant that collapsed in the face of a conservative assault early in the Obama era. The TOP’s approach is to bring politics down to the level where it’s felt most immediately in people’s lives. Its first campaign in Houston revolved around blue tarps that still covered the roofs of homes in the city’s poor neighborhoods years after they had been damaged by Hurricane Ike; with the TOP’s backing, low-income communities compelled Houston’s Democratic mayor to scuttle an effort to repair the homes of wealthy residents and fix their roofs instead. In San Antonio, the TOP is organizing around sidewalks and streetlights.
Last fall, while Clinton largely ignored the state, dropping in for fundraisers and to mobilize volunteers to make phone calls to other states, the TOP and allied groups focused their attention on Harris County. They ignored national politics and instead worked nonwhite neighborhoods by talking about something called 287(g), a voluntary agreement that the incumbent sheriff had signed with the federal government to deport undocumented residents picked up for nonviolent offenses. Most people hadn’t heard of it—but everyone knew someone who’d interacted with the cops.
“We were trying to get the vote out, and we would engage voters in the presidential election conversation and they were fed up—’Yeah, I don’t want to vote, both candidates are terrible,’ that type of thing. And this was the Latino community,” said Carlos Duarte, state director of Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that worked alongside the TOP in Harris County. Then he would tell them about the sheriff race. “People were saying, ‘Okay, so who’s running?’ They would grab a piece of paper, grab a pen, and then write the names of the candidates.” On Election Day, Democrats swept most Harris County offices, all the way down to tax assessor.
Those gains may beget more gains, the theory goes, not just because nonvoters have now joined the democratic process, or because they are now electing officials who speak their language or look like them, but because voting is simply easier in Texas when Democrats are in power.
In previous years, the Republican-run office of the tax assessor for Harris (a county of 4.5 million people) refused to prioritize registering voters and even testified against a proposal to move registration online. And though Texas high schools are required to hold voter registrations on campus at least twice a year, some Houston public schools declined to follow that policy. The new superintendent and the Democratic tax assessor plan to coordinate registration drives in every high school in Houston, and the assessor’s office has turned into a community organizing hub. In April, it hired a new staffer to work full time on registration drives. His previous job? Organizing the county for Battleground Texas.
Few places in America moved as sharply toward Democrats last fall as the Harris County district currently represented in Congress by Republican John Culberson. The 7th District, which Mitt Romney won by 21.3 points in 2012, went to Clinton by 1.4. Culberson, a loyal Trump supporter, has faced mostly token opposition since being elected 17 years ago to the seat once held by George H.W. Bush, but at least six progressives have signed up to run against him, and local party members and grassroots groups have already held two candidate forums. Those challengers include Jason Westin, a cancer doctor who’s worried about budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health, and Laura Moser, the founder of Daily Action, an online organizing hub that directs its members to make one call per day to oppose the Republican agenda. Members of the local chapter of Swing Left, one of the most popular of the new resistance groups, have packed town halls, protested outside Culberson’s office, and canvassed and phone-banked their neighbors. Democrats smell blood in the water, and it’s finally not their own.
Personnel, December 2017
Texas Organizing Project Board
- Steve Halvorson, treasurer
- Rosie Castro, director
- Monica Lindsey, director
- Liz Davila, director
- Nayely Ruiz, director
Texas Organizing Project Education Fund Board
- Patricia Ward, president
- Debra Walker, director
- Carol Barger, treasurer
- Bonnie Mathias, director
- Yolanda Crosley, secretary
- Carmen Rhodes, director
- Ashindi Maxton, director
- Jessica Azua, State Immigration Organizer
- Daniel Barrera , Communications Coordinator
- Allison Brim, Education Campaign Director
- Brianna Brown, Deputy Director
- Juan Carlos Cerda, Community Organizer
- Blanca Espinoza, Data & Office Manager
- Laquita Garcia, Community Organizer
- Tiffany Hogue, Policy Director
- Rashd Ibrahim, Community Organizer
- Tarsha Jackson, Criminal Justice Director
- Empress Lindsey, Community Organizer
- Constance C. Luo, Community Organizer
- John Moore, Administrative Coordinator
- Mary Moreno, Communications Director
- Tim Morse, Director of Finance & HR
- Kimberly Olsen, Political Field Director
- Mitzi Ordonez, Community Organizer
- Laura Perez-Boston, Campaign Director
- Daisy Romero, Community Navigator Organizer
- Anita Scott, Community Organizer
- Alpa Sridharan, Operations Director
- Michelle Tremillo, Executive Director
- David Villalobos, Community Organizer
- Gloria Villarreal, Data & Office Manager
- Dorothy Wagner, Lead Organizer
- Liz Wolff, Training Director
- Crystal Zermeno, Director of Political Strategy
- Safer Streets in San Antonio: Our membership in Bexar County asked for help making their neighborhood streets safer. TOP mobilized and met with the local police department, as well as members of San Antonio’s City Council. In partnership with community allies, TOP successfully petitioned SAPD for more frequent patrols and the city council increased the original streetlight budget by 3x the original amount to just over $1 million! This victory, in coordination with increased patrols by SAPD, exemplifies our ability to successfully advocate on behalf of our membership.
- Winning School Discipline Reforms at DISD: TOP has organized hundreds of parents and also established a broad “Coalition for Education not Incarceration”, a table of nearly twenty civil rights, religious, policy, and community organizations. TOP and the Coalition, together with our strategic policy partner Texas Appleseed, were successful in securing a pilot Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) program at Spruce High School in Pleasant Grove.
- Hurricane Recovery and Neighborhood Revitalization in Houston: After Hurricane Ike, the City of Houston received a historic amount of federal funds to help low-income homeowners recover from the storm. A two year campaign by TOP-organized community leaders culminated at the end of 2011 in an historic agreement between TOP, TOP Ed Fund and Mayor Parker that secured an unprecedented level of funding dedicated to low income homeowners impacted by Hurricane Ike and a lead stakeholder role for TOP in the process of identifying and prioritizing neighborhoods for future community revitalization programs.
- Stopping Valero Energy Tax Breaks: TOPEF and TOP successfully fought back against Valero Energy’s efforts to receive a $92 million tax rebate from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that they had been requesting for over four years for upgrades made to their refineries that they claimed reduced emissions. The TCEQ felt little, if any pressure to deny the rebate until TOP organized parents from impacted school districts and residents around the Valero refinery to take action.
- Voter Engagement: In the 2012 general election, TOP and TOP Ed Fund conducted our largest non-partisan voter turnout program to date. We targeted a universe of 110,000 low-income, largely unlikely, Latino and African-American voters, including newly registered and 2008 surge voters, in Harris, Hidalgo and Dallas Counties. Our program exceeded expectations, turning out 56% of targeted voters, with 46% of these voters casting ballots early.
- Healthy Communities: Recent accomplishments include winning the establishment of the Port of Houston Chairperson’s Citizens Advisory Committee to influence decisions and policies as they relate to port side communities. TOP has representation on the committee. In 2014, TOP members in Houston demanded the city, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) clean up the abandoned CES Environmental plant in the OST neighborhood. The plant caused a threat to residents who lived merely a block away, with leaking chemicals and toxic air. The EPA and TCEQ quickly put together a plan to clean up the plant by the end of the year.
- Neighborhood Victories: No victory is too small at TOP, and that includes the neighborhoods we organize. For example, in Houston, TOP members came together to save two HISD schools from closing in Spring 2014. In the summer of 2014, San Antonio TOP members got more police patrols in the Westside neighborhood to crack down on drugs and prostitution. In 2013, Dallas TOP members won a stop sign for a street where speeding cars threatened the safety of the residents and their children.