Gonzalez-Cortes Back In GR

March 25, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — After a five-year hiatus, Martha Gonzalez-Cortes is back at the helm of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.

Her first stretch at the Hispanic Center came in 2000. Gonzalez-Cortes was encouraged to apply for the chief executive officer position by some friends who were close to the organization. She said it was an incredible leap of faith for the board to hire her and the most difficult interview she has ever had, lasting for more than an hour with the full board.

The board had some concerns, but liked her résumé so much they hired her.

“I remember them telling me afterwards that they were very impressed with my résumé but had thought that I was such an academic geek that they wondered if I was one of these people that didn’t know how to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Gonzalez-Cortes.

It turned out to be a great match and Gonzalez-Cortes stayed with the Hispanic Center until 2003, when she was recruited away to her “dream job” as the state director for the Office of Migrant Affairs at the Michigan Department of Human Services in Lansing.

Name: Martha Gonzalez-Cortes

Company: Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

Title: Executive Director

Age: 35

Birthplace: Hart

Residence: Kentwood

Family/Personal: Married; two daughters, ages 5 and 2.

Business/Community Involvement: Hope Network, Michigan League for Human Services, State Bar Association, Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes

Biggest Career Break: Being put in a leadership role at the Hispanic Center in 2000: “Somebody really took a chance on me.”

The previous director had passed away unexpectedly, and Gonzalez-Cortes, who remembered the director from her youth, was encouraged to apply. She got the job and had to say some hard goodbyes to the people at the Hispanic Center.

Gonzalez-Cortes summarized her job for the state as having two parts: dealing with public policy, and being permanent chair of a commitee dealing with the heads of all farm-worker organizations and coordinating services to those organizations. Because of the second part of her job, she was an advisor to the governor on topics pertaining to farm-workers.

During her time with the state, Gonzalez-Cortes wrote two pieces of public policy, mostly on Medicaid and raising minimum wage for seasonal workers. She also feels she has a better understanding now of the system and the process involved when working with complex and large organizations.

“If you’re able to learn how to work successfully in that system — not just survive in that system, but work successfully and get things accomplished in that kind of environment — I think that’s a really important tool to add to the toolkit,” said Gonzalez-Cortes.

Her decision to work in the nonprofit community came during her college years at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, one of the original seven sister schools in the Northeast. She grew up in a farm-worker family and traveled between Michigan, Florida and Texas, where she spent her senior year of high school, graduating with honors. Once in college she decided to major in anthropology, and even though she graduated summa cum laude, her parents were not too pleased with her major.

“My parents were not impressed with me when I graduated with a degree in anthropology,” she said. “They really hated it, because they thought I would die poor. When I told them I really loved working in the nonprofit world, they thought, ‘Well, that’s even better. You’re never going to make any money.’

“I think what’s important to understand about that is, when you work and grow up in a farm-worker family, all of the kids contribute to the family income. I was working in the summers full-time for full adult wages by the time I was about 10 or 11 years old. So as your kids grow up and move away for an education, you’re really, really hoping, as a parent in this kind of an environment, that your kids are going to do well for themselves. And that when the time comes for you to start thinking about retirement, with no safety net, you hope your kids are well enough established that they’ve got a way to sustain themselves and maybe help you out.”

She doesn’t understand why her parents were so surprised with her major. She described her father as being a wonderful historian who always wanted books and magazines around and had a “standing subscription” to National Geographic.

Gonzalez-Cortes fell in love with anthropology and especially enjoyed studying communities.

“You’re trained to be a professional stranger,” she said. “I thought it was a very cool thing to be educated and paid to hang out in my community.”

Both of these attributes felt familiar to her after spending so much of her childhood moving around. She said studying her changing communities was a vital part of surviving her junior high and high school years, especially for a self-proclaimed “nerd.” Gonzalez-Cortes had trouble reading and writing and did not learn English until she was 8. Still, she was a bookworm and had to train herself to be more extroverted, something she continues to work on today. A large part of that training was joining the debate team in junior high. She eventually became good enough to compete on the state level.

All of this came in very handy when she got her first nonprofit job while still in college. She was employed by a farm-worker organization on the east coast that did labor, social and community organization work in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Gonzalez-Cortes said the job taught her a great deal about community development and organization. Once she received her undergraduate degree, the organization applied for a grant to keep her on and sent her to travel and give speeches throughout the country.

She then came back to Michigan and landed a job as a secretary for Migrant Head Start. She was there for shortly over a month before she began working for Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project in 1995. She worked there summers and spent the school year at Stanford University in a combined master’s and Ph.D. program. She only needs her dissertation to finish the program.

“I’ve gotten off-track with career stuff, so that Ph.D. is on hold.”

Gonzalez-Cortes loved the work she was doing at Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance and became its head paralegal and outreach coordinator, but in order to advance, she would need to go back to school for a law degree. She didn’t see herself as a lawyer, but worked for the company for five years until she was recruited to work for the Hispanic Center in 2000.

Much like her work for Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance, she felt her job at the Michigan Department of Human Services had a narrow focus on the work of seasonal farmers and neglected the other parts of their lives. A major draw to coming back to the Hispanic Center was the broad range of issues the center is involved with.

“There are some very artificial boundaries to the group of people that you serve when you’re in the farm-worker advocacy world that suddenly disappeared when I came to the Hispanic Center,” she said. “Sometimes people have life problems that have nothing to do with the work they do.”

This reflects the heart of her business philosophy: inclusion. Gonzalez-Cortes said she focuses heavily on building her team and making sure they have the tools needed to move forward. More specifically, in nonprofit, she believes organizations can be “premier” work environments and points to four main attributes: good teamwork, creative work, treating employees well and doing right by the community.

“When I came into this work in early 2000, I tried very hard to put almost all of the dollars to work directly for the community by providing direct services,” she said.

“This time around, I will be paying more attention to the sustainability issues. It’s a disservice to the community to run one pilot project after another … and then not be able to sustain long term. I think it’s important to run a fiscally tight ship.”

Many organizations across the state look to Grand Rapids and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan as a leader, but the organization is still striving to grow. The top programs Gonzalez-Cortes looks to further develop are for students, domestic violence and mental health, and immigration.

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