Breakfast at the Barracks - Season 2, Episode 36

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Ernesto J. Cortés Jr
Co-director, Industrial Areas Foundation
Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, 2011


Ernesto J. Cortés Jr. is among the most dedicated and effective community organizers in the nation. He is the co-director of the national nonprofit Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and regional director for the IAF in the West/Southwest, which comprises 30 organizations from the Mississippi River to San Francisco Bay. Cortés and the West/Southwest IAF empower a multiethnic range of people through over 900 faith-based institutions, civic groups, schools, and trade unions by helping them to improve their neighborhoods and their lives through reorganizing the relationships of power and politics in their communities.

Cortés has led the West/Southwest IAF for more than 30 years. A graduate of Texas A&M University, he conducted postgraduate work at the University of Texas where, as a student activist, he organized a statewide support group for the farm workers union. Cortés trained under the legendary community organizer and IAF founder Saul Alinsky and joined the IAF in 1972. In 1974, Cortés worked to establish Communities Organized for Public Service, a church-based grassroots organization in San Antonio. Three years later, he organized a similar group in Los Angeles. He went on to found the Metropolitan Organization in Houston and many other community groups that eventually linked to form the West/Southwest IAF network. Through political but nonpartisan actions, West/Southwest IAF organizations have built better schools and improved learning, provided job training and access to better jobs, tackled immigration issues, and had positive impact in other important areas such as health care and economic development.

The leadership of the IAF Texas organizations led to the approval by Texas voters of $250 million in grants and low-interest loans to build water and sewer systems in rural, unincorporated communities in South Texas that lacked such basic services. Cortés has helped develop several important workforce development programs that have trained more than 11,000 people, many of whom were formerly unemployed or earning minimum wage, but who now earn an average of $40,000 a year. He has also had notable success in the area of public school reform. In addition to helping Texas increase public funding for education, Cortés and his colleagues launched the Alliance Schools Strategy, an initiative aimed at providing leadership training and civics education, and engaging communities of adults in public education. The work of the alliance has led to improved attendance records in the schools and higher test scores.

Cortés is an intellectual of the first order who reads widely and deeply and incorporates centuries of social thought into his organizing work. He has trained hundreds of community organizers who have gone on to carry out effective work for the IAF and other groups. Widely honored for his accomplishments, in 1984, he was one of the earliest recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. He won a similar award from the John Heinz Foundation in 1999. Cortés has served as a visiting professor at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as a member of many distinguished panels, commissions, and boards. The honorary degree Cortés will receive from Rutgers pays tribute to his lifelong dedication to helping people develop competence, confidence, and leadership skills to identify and take action on issues of importance in their communities.