Francisco Cortes, the interim executive director of queer Latinx social-justice nonprofit GALAEI, will receive the Emerging Leader Award at the annual Tribute to Change ceremony hosted by Bread and Roses Community Fund.
Bread and Roses, which raises money to provide grants to local groups working toward racial and economic equality, has been giving out Tribute to Change awards since 1989 to recognize Philadelphians fighting for social justice.
Cortes, 27, is one of four individuals and two groups to receive a Tribute to Change Award in 2019. He and his fellow honorees were nominated by the general public, with final selections being made by Bread and Roses’ Tribute to Change planning committee.
Cortes received two formal nominations — from Judy Weinstein, who’s worked one on one with him as an executive coach, and Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of Women’s Medical Fund, a board member at Bread and Roses and the former executive director of GALAEI, who worked with Cortes when he first became affiliated with the organization.
“[Francisco] is the epitome of an emerging leader — and I would even go so far to say an emerged leader,” Gonzales told PGN. “He is really visionary but grounded, highly organized but also terribly creative. He has an ability to talk to all different kinds of people, and a really great balance of humility and confidence. Those are things I think are really important in a leader.”
“From the moment I met Fran, he just stood out to me as being head and shoulders above what I would expect from someone whose title is interim executive director,” she said. “He’s a standout person who possesses a perfect combination of energy and passion for justice, a vision for his organization and the skills to implement it. Having all those skills is rare for anybody, but especially rare for somebody in their late-20s.”
Cortes was born in Mexico, raised in Kennett Square and educated at Temple University. It was while studying there that, in 2012, he began interning in GALAEI’s youth development department.
Gonzales said he immediately began to blaze a path for himself within the organization.
“He stayed on as an intern after he was supposed to leave, because he felt really drawn to the work and was really good at what he did,” said Gonzales. “He became a part of the fabric of GALAEI.”
Cortes graduated from Temple in 2013 with a degree in psychology. The next year he took on a full-time role at GALAEI as youth program manager, where he was tasked with managing programs and initiatives, such as an after-school drop-in space and GALAEI’s annual LGBTQ prom, and he provided GSA support to local schools that predominantly serve Latinx youth.
“He not only led that youth program, but really expanded it and had a really strong vision for what it needed,” said Gonzales.
One of his biggest accomplishments in that role was creating an initiative called Project YEAH (Youth Education and Arts Advocacy on HIV), a 10-week comprehensive series where 13-18 year olds are tutored on HIV prevention and treatment, and given the opportunity to create and display works of art based on combating HIV stigma within the Latinx community.
Cortes moved into the role of interim executive director in May of 2018 and, according to Gonzales, has been able to “elevate the organization into a new dimension.”
“I think he really owns the role in a really powerful way,” she said. “He’s done a lot of tremendous work to elevate GALAEI, particularly with the youth program and connecting it more with community organizing. He’s remarkable.”
Cortes told PGN that his main goals as interim executive director are to boost the visibility of GALAEI, diversify and increase funding and create programming that reaches everyone within the community.
“In my role as a leader, I want to make sure that any program that I’m creating is intersectional and authentic, because as a person that lives at the intersection of various identities — being immigrant, being Latino, being queer — I know how tough it is to find a space where you can fill whole.”
This fall he’s launching a new initiative called Guerreras, a monthy social space for people who identify as femme, queer and Latinx.
“Historically, a lot of organizations in the HIV field do an incredible amount of work with gay men, but I don’t think there’s enough spaces for queer women to be able to build community, socialize and mobilize,” he said.
He’s also hosting forums throughout the fall, where community members can gather to talk about their past experience with GALAEI and give feedback about what the nonprofit can do to better support the community.
Cortes has also excelled as a fundraiser for GALAEI, something that particularly stood out to Weinstein.
“His ability to bring his organization up through fundraising has been very impressive. He’s a go-getter, but fundraising is its own unique skill — especially for somebody who hasn’t had years of experience in the nonprofit world,” she said. “It takes political workings, good writing, good communication and persistence, and I have been very impressed with his ability to do that.”
In the past year, Cortes has secured funding from Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and The Spruce Foundation to be able to host not one but two Project YEAH cohorts this year.
He’s also bringing back GALAEI’s DARLA Awards, a gala honoring local LGBTQ leaders, as a two-fold strategy to not only spotlight the work happening in the community but attract potential new donors to his organization.
“GALAEI has been around for 30 years. The work we do is so unique. It’s such a niche. But I don’t think we’ve done as well as I think we can in terms of spotlighting the organization across the city, across the state or even nationally,” he said. “That’s one of the things I want to do, because with more visibility comes more resources, more accessibility, more everything.”
On top of his duties at GALAEI, Cortes also serves on the commission for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and he’s a board member of Juntos, an immigrant-rights organization in South Philly.
The work that he puts into the community will be on full display when he receives the Tribute to Change Emerging Leader Award at the National Museum of American Jewish History on October 17.
He told PGN that the honor is both humbling and an incentive to stay on his toes.
“[Receiving the award] shows me that the work I’m doing is important and it’s impactful, so it just motivates me to keep doing it, to keep moving forward for the community.”