This profile is part of a series spotlighting the five winners of the 2023 Integrity Icon Award, a collaboration with Accountability Lab to “name and fame” City of Philadelphia employees who demonstrate the highest integrity in their work. Read all five profiles here, then vote for the “people’s choice” winner here.
Growing up in Colombia, Maria Andrea Giraldo Gallo’s childhood influences were decidedly homogenous.
“Diversity was not acknowledged,” she says. “It was assumed that everyone should follow the same pathway: Look the same; practice the same religion; associate only with people from their same socioeconomic class.”
This made Giraldo Gallo feel lonely and isolated. She dreamed of learning English, having been told early on that it would open doors. She dreamed of being an anthropologist. As it turns out, her life would take her in a slightly different direction, one that has landed Giraldo Gallo not only among hundreds of Philadelphians who’ve relied on her services, but also among a select group of 2023 Integrity Icon awardees.
When she was 16 and her parents moved to Japan — her father is a pilot — Giraldo Gallo stayed in South America to finish school. That’s when she decided to push beyond her comfort zone. She went to college to study international relations, which required fluency in five languages. It opened her eyes to different religions, lifestyles, ways of being. It expanded her appreciation for the many intersections of her own identity: “I am Latina and Queer. I was raised Catholic, have Sephardic Jewish ancestors and practice Islam by choice.” she explains. She speaks Spanish and English at a professional level, and enjoys studying Turkish, Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Japanese.
“For me, each language opens a world, and I consider myself a global citizen,” she says.
Moving to a new country
When, after two years of marriage, her husband was accepted to a PhD program at Penn, Giraldo Gallo excitedly came along to University City, finding work first as a language tutor, then as a computer support specialist for the School District. Ultimately, she found a job in the City’s accounts payable department, before moving over to the Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she quickly rose to Director of Language Access Programs.
Giraldo Gallo knew that immigrants’ degrees are often viewed skeptically in the U.S. And as a newcomer and an introvert, the most comfortable way for her to get to know people, she felt, was to prove herself professionally. “I thought if I do good work, then I can be invited to have more conversations or be given more projects or they would promote me because they would know that I have more capacity,” she says.
“Philadelphia feels like home. I learned empathy from this city, its spirit.”— Maria Andrea Giraldo Gallo
Capacity is an understatement. Technically, Giraldo Gallo’s job description calls for her “to provide technical assistance to all of the City agencies and commissions and boards for them to have a language access plan, to make sure they have a language access coordinator, and to ensure they report on an annual basis how they’re doing.” Her role is designed to make sure that our city is compliant with a home rule charter requirement.
“Language access is a civil right,” she says. It doesn’t matter how many resources are available in Philadelphia if people are unable to take advantage of them because of language barriers. “It’s really difficult to come to another country and not know if it’s OK to open a door. You don’t know the culture, so you don’t know the boundaries, the authority, and you just want to be respectful,” she says. And the burden shouldn’t be on residents to bring translators with them to get a library card, register their child for school, use public transportation.
For her commitment to recognizing the humanity of all Philadelphians and her focus on instilling a sense of pride and dignity among oft-overlooked communities, this year’s panel of Integrity Icon judges were proud to name Giraldo Gallo a 2023 Integrity Icon.
The Citizen has run in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Accountability Lab since 2021. The goal of the program: To hold up the city workers who model how we can all go above and beyond to make a positive impact in Philadelphia.
This past spring, the public nominated dozens of excellent city workers for the award, using the following criteria: They are a high-integrity public service employee who is respectful and caring; know their work makes a difference to people’s lives; act in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treat everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and go above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.
A panel of high-integrity judges reviewed the candidates, and selected this year’s honorees. The judges included 2020 Integrity Icon Richard Gordon IV, assistant superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia who spent years as principal of Paul Robeson High School; 2022 Integrity Icon Rebecca Lopez Kriss, a deputy commissioner in the City’s Revenue Department; Angela Val, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia; Amy Kurland, former Inspector General of the City of Philadelphia; and SEAMAAC Executive Director Thaoi Nguyen.
Respect and empathy
Her colleagues say that respect and empathy are at the heart of Giraldo Gallo’s work.
“Maria’s commitment to ensuring language access for all Philadephians is palpable and fervent,” says her supervisor, Amy Eusebio, director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs. “She’s working with community members to understand not just whether content is translated correctly from a grammatical standpoint, but culturally. Meaning, are these words presented in ways that honor how you talk? Is it stiff and overly formal, or approachable and welcoming?”
Eusebio credits Giraldo Gallo with often reminding her that immigrants arrive in Philadelphia with a variety of experiences that may make them wary of government — and then working across departments to shape City procedures to be welcoming, easily understood and accessible. “Maria’s a marvel and in a very short span of time has made an indelible mark on this City,” Eusebio says
When, for example, 27,000 Afghan immigrants came to Philly, Giraldo Gallo showed up at the airport every day for over a month, to assist contracted translators; she even brought prayer mats with her. She did this again when migrants were bused here from Texas last spring. Colleagues say she gained translators’ trust in emergencies and pushed the Emergency Management Office to translate their documents in multiple languages.
On top of her work, Giraldo Gallo pursued a Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership at Penn, graduating this past May with the Richard J. Estes Global Citizenship Award, presented to a graduating international student who embodies a commitment to social impact, has a record of academic excellence and is committed to using their talents and knowledge to make a difference in the world.
Ironically — and sadly for Philadelphia — Giraldo Gallo’s visa expired in July, meaning she could no longer stay in her role. Lawyers are working to get her the documentation she’d need to come back. For now, she’s traveling the world with her husband, learning new languages, experiencing new cultures, hoping to come back as soon as she can.
“Philadelphia feels like home. I learned empathy from this city, its spirit,” Giraldo Gallo says. “When I joined the City of Philadelphia, they heard me, they trusted me. I think you should be where you’re heard and you have friendships and where people appreciate you.”
Integrity Icon Philadelphia is made possible in part thanks to the generous support of Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation.
MEET OUR 2023 INTEGRITY ICON WINNERS