Rafael Zapata, chief diversity officer at Fordham, was honored by the Latino Social Work Coalition (LSWC) on May 6 with their Shaping the Future 2021 Outstanding Leadership Award. 

The award is given to leaders in the social work, mental health, and diversity and inclusion fields who have done significant work to advance the profession of social work. Recipients are executive-level leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to the LSWC cause and who continuously champion the work of social workers and adjacent professions.

Zapata grew up in the NYCHA Chelsea Houses just two miles from the Fordham Lincoln Center campus; much of the work he does hits close to home. The work of the coalition, he said, mirrors his own commitment to helping communities in need.

“I was truly humbled to learn that I was selected as an honoree by the Latino Social Work Coalition, an organization that focuses on the needs of some of the most vulnerable and underserved populations in our city,” he said.

The coalition was formed in 2002 with the primary goal of raising awareness of the shortage of culturally and linguistically competent professionalsLatinx social workersneeded to address the needs of New York’s diverse, largely immigrant, low-income, and rapidly growing Latinx community. Zapata said their work is vital.

“For 20 years the coalition has fostered partnerships to ensure that social workers of all backgrounds are trained to holistically serve the needs of NYC’s complex, ever-evolving, yet consistently misunderstood Latinx community,” he said. “Not simply clinical knowledge–which is vital, but how that knowledge might apply specifically to a third-generation monolingual English working-class Afro-Puerto Rican male high school student, or a 23-year-old Dominican-Ecuadorean woman who is a recent college graduate, or to a recently arrived Mexican immigrant and father of two who speaks both Spanish and Nahuatl. Their work truly aligns with Fordham’s mission and commitment to justice for others. To be recognized by such an organization for my work as an educator is a true honor.”

Since joining Fordham University in 2018, Zapata has been a champion for Black and Latinx students and faculty of color. He’s created critical partnerships with local Bronx organizationslike the ongoing lecture series with The Bronx is Reading that brought authors like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer to campus. He’s also helped to move Fordham forward by shaping the larger conversations around diversity and inclusion on campus and beyond. 

“Rafael Zapata has shown an extraordinary and heartfelt commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion since coming to Fordham. We are grateful to have a leader of his caliber at the University, especially during this time of self-examination for the University and the nation generally,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “I congratulate him on this honor by the Latino Social Work Coalition, and I thank him once again for all he has done and continues to do to address the needs of people of color at Fordham and in our communities.”

Elaine Congress, associate dean of the Graduate School of Social Service and board member of LSWC, called Zapata a “superstar.”  Congress worked closely with Zapata for a conference in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which changed the face of immigration in America.

“I thought he was such a leader. So often we focus on problems, but he really works on application, and that’s something he’s done at Fordham. So much of us in academia are very intellectualized, and it’s fine for us to do research and just talk about the problem. Rafael turns it into action—creating all these programs and encouraging diversity.”