Ernesto J. Cortes, Jr.
Ernesto J. Cortes, Jr. receives the Heinz Award in Public Policy for his dedication to making government more responsive by increasing citizen participation in the political process at the community level.
Mr. Cortes, who serves as Southwest Regional Director of the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation, has worked to organize communities in the poor neighborhoods of Texas and throughout the Southwest. He emphasizes the development of local leadership, training cadres of organizers who become a permanent resource capable of mobilizing their communities at the grassroots.
This approach has proved highly successful in increasing the political power of the traditionally disenfranchised populations with whom Mr. Cortes works. In his commitment to helping these populations master "the system" rather than be discouraged by it, Mr. Cortes exemplifies the importance of individuals who speak sensibly about issues, work publicly for their goals, debate subjects on their merits, and give voice to others who lack ready access to power.
Ernesto Cortes left post-graduate work in economics at the University of Texas at Austin at the same time he recognized the power of community organizing in improving the lives of others. His early commitment led him first to Cesar Chavez and the farm worker's movement, and then to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1971, he moved to Chicago to study at the Saul Alinsky Training Institute. Founded by the legendary labor organizer, the Institute provides leadership training to poor communities.
Returning to his native Texas in 1974 under the auspices of Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Mr. Cortes founded the first IAF affiliate there in his hometown of San Antonio. Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a church-based grassroots organization, has gained national recognition for transforming fragmented, low-income neighborhoods into an organized and politically savvy group capable of taking on the city's power structure. As neighborhoods became organized, junkyards were removed, drainage systems installed, and traffic signals erected. Increasingly aware of their own power, residents began to reach out across neighborhood boundaries to develop a master plan for public service equity, ultimately resulting in new libraries, innovative economic development initiatives, and new parks.
In the more than two decades since Mr. Cortes began his involvement with the IAF, the foundation has grown to include more than 50 such organizations nationwide. The Southwest Region of the network includes 23 organizations, many of which he originally founded, and all of which he now supervises as director of the region. These organizations represent some 500,000 families across the Southwest, for whom Mr. Cortes plays the role of teacher and facilitator and not, he stipulates, of problem solver.
Possessed of a deep respect for the dignity of the people he seeks to help, he adheres to what he calls the "iron rule" of community activism: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Rather than seek to impose an outsider's view of what a community needs, he helps citizens organize and develop the tools they need to exercise power on their own behalf.
Ernesto Cortes has successfully translated his passion for justice into helping the politically disenfranchised of all races and faiths discover their political strength. That passion burns as brightly today as it did over 25 years ago.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD
March 2006 - Cortes delivers the keynote address during the CityFutures luncheon at the Congressional Cities Conference in Washington D.C. In his speech, Cortes addresses how "local officials and others can create a culture and society that fosters inclusivity." - National Cities Weekly
April 2005 - Cortes is selected by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a part of a newly-created 15-person committee to be known as the Governor's Advisory Committee on Education Excellence. The committee will be responsible for studying "ways to overhaul the state's public school system" and will make recommendations concerning in the areas of funding, governance, and teacher and administration credentials. - The Los Angeles Times
April 2004 - As keynote speaker at the 5th annual Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community lecture, hosted by the University of California Santa Cruz, Cortes discusses "individual participation in American politics and the importance of agitation, confrontation, and compromise in the democratic process." - University of California Santa Cruz
January 2002 - Cortes is the keynote speaker at the first Alliance Schools Education Conference held in San Antonio, Texas. As the founder of the Communities for Public Service/Metro Alliance, Cortes and his organization are responsible for locally representing the new Alliance Schools program, a campaign that unites parents and public school staff members in a push for maximum parent involvement in youth education. - San Antonio Express-News
August 2000 - Cortes leaves Texas to go back to Los Angeles where he and other community leaders are "working to link unions, churches, synagogues, and school parents' groups in LA and nearby suburbs around issues that cut across race and neighborhood." He will lead the somewhat fractured Los Angeles branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation in an effort to improve the overall quality of life in L.A. - The Nation
November 1999 - Cortes' latest project, the Alliance Schools Initiative, receives an Annie E. Casey award of $500,000 for its contributions to bettering the lives and economic status of low-income families. - Austin American-Statesman