Martha Gonzalez-Cortes has leveraged an educational background in cultural anthropology into a career focused on helping people — often those from marginalized communities. A West Michigan native from Oceana County, Gonzalez-Cortes joined the Kalamazoo Community Foundation at midyear to serve as the organization’s vice president for community investment. With a 20-year career in public service, Gonzalez-Cortes most recently served as the community relations director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Previously, she was CEO of the Hispanic Center of West Michigan and state director of the Office of Migrant Affairs during part of the Granholm administration. Gonzalez-Cortes spoke with MiBiz about her new role in Kalamazoo and her outlook for how she can help effect change through philanthropy in Southwest Michigan.
How did you end up with extensive careers in both public policy and nonprofits?
I’m a cultural anthropologist by training and have interacted extensively with philanthropy doing work with nonprofits. I love public policy, civil rights and social justice work, and I have dabbled in the government sector for several years. In my first stint, I worked for five years based out of the Department of Human Services in Lansing. Most recently, I was at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. My desk was in Lansing and I made a life for myself and family in Grand Rapids, but when I was commuting to Lansing, it was anyone’s guess where I would end my day.
Describe your interaction with the philanthropic sector.
Over the years I have interacted in lots of different ways with the philanthropy world and sat in the grantmakers chair to review requests. I have also done some consulting work with some of our Michigan foundations, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where I have a very productive relationship with their equity work.
Why did you take the job at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation?
The absolute conviction that the best impact work can happen locally and I’m not someone who has had a 20-year career path inside the world of philanthropy. I thought I would be the right person at this time. … When I saw the job posting, it seemed like a new and wonderful opportunity. I have three young children who I had barely seen in two years because of my government job. I wanted to know what life could be like if I was doing impactful work in a community. Pieces of my work and career have been consistent — mission-driven, purpose-driven work in a meaningful way at the state and local level. Some of the most remarkable impact work happens in local communities.
What in your past experience prepared you for this role overseeing community investment?
One, my work as a director of a nonprofit agency, which has been really formative foundational work for me. I understand the position of grant giving for organizations trying to get funding to fulfill their dreams. Two, the experience at the state government level and making decisions about funding with state or federal dollars. This gave me exposure to grantmaking. Three, the collaborative and systems work done at the state and local level. I’ve done lot of work in the last eight years putting together diverse coalitions … around issues like early childhood, capacity development for anchor organizations in the diversity delivery world, and the community organizing space.
What will your role at the foundation entail?
I will interface and interact with community organizations. I lead a team of program managers who do site visits and gather information so we can best use the resources the community has blessed us with.
What do you see as some of your top challenges?
My first challenge is the time it will take to have me get to know the community of stakeholders and partners. I have lots of people to meet and organizations to visit. I don’t believe in people coming to me, I like to go out into the community. I have a rigorous schedule of onboarding and training. I have been here for one month, and I only just started to venture out into community. The second challenge will be to start conversations around barriers or challenges that might exist in this community that might have kept us from doing stronger collaborative work. … A third challenge is taking a deep dive into the foundation’s culture and understanding the roles it plays compared to other community foundations across the state.
Are we making progress in terms of diversity and inclusion in a timely manner?
It definitely is part of my life’s work to ask that question about marginalized communities and making sure they have a presence in the room and that we are listening to invisible voices that are never heard. … I worry about the category of unpopular people and causes. This is definitely a lens I bring into that work. There is reason to be optimistic about the change taking place at the nonprofit level. We’re starting to see some best practice models emerge.
Why is important to highlight those best practices?
The work for diversity, inclusion and equity is so difficult, and the only way to learn is through example. Part of my work historically has been this business of identifying people and organizations that are doing work well and being able to lift them up. People have to be true to their mission and work in the world. To the extent that we can make community and organizations visible to all, that’s my ultimate dream.
Where do you see the greatest need for investment in the community?
I think that there is work to be done to strengthen the early childhood education space. There’s such a remarkable return on investment in the 0-5 space. The more we can do in the 0-5 pipeline to prepare kids for success will pay huge dividends. People have a sense that we’ve over-invested in the K-12 pipeline, but there is more work and investment needed. There’s also an opportunity to stand and grow the work around racial equity, diversity and an inclusion base. I’ve been involved in that work for a number of years, and I think Kalamazoo and the team at this foundation has a real opportunity to take that work statewide.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I think people are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m an anthropologist. I’ve met more anthropologists here in Kalamazoo in the last three weeks than I’ve met in a long time. Because I’ve taken leadership roles on a number of difficult issues for marginalized communities, I think people think that’s all I do. I know enough about different sectors to be dangerous. I love economic development conversations and housing discussions. I love to work in very diverse sectors, and some of it is just endless intellectual curiosity. It’s that perspective of wanting to be a generalist and wanting to know a bit about everyone’s work.