Willis Francis’s Legacy Project choice was author, playwright, and activist James Baldwin. A figure dedicated to the open discussion of identity, race, and sexuality, Baldwin’s own experiences helped him develop his focus on human rights and justice. Willis has been reading Baldwin’s works for years.
“I became acquainted with James Baldwin’s writing many years ago while taking a course on African American literature in college. His book ‘Notes of a Native Son’ is one of my many favorites. As I learned about his biography I was moved deeply by his experiences and migration. James was an African American gay male who sought refuge from both race and LGBTQ based discrimination by moving to France at the age of 24. He broke ground in literature by incorporating stories on homosexuality in his writing. This courage allowed him to be a beacon to many closeted members of the LGBTQ community who connected to his writing during an era, not so long ago, that had criminalized sexual orientation.”
Willis himself has been a leader at Heartland Alliance for the better part of a decade. As director of our Youth Residential services, Willis ensures that boys and girls without the parents or guardians are treating fairly, safely, and comfortably. Willis works hard to ensure that his programs foster an atmosphere of family and security, providing support to the emotional, legal, medical, educational, and recreational needs of the children until they can be reunited with their families either in the U.S. or in their home country. He finds that his participants can share in James Baldwin’s experience of being a stranger in a strange land.
“His story not only connected with my experiences as a gay male who shares in the African American heritage, but it also reminded me of the stories of many participants I work with at Heartland Alliance. The people I serve have left their countries of origin to escape very real, and at times lethal dangers tied to LGBT prejudice and oppression. James’ bold honesty continues, even today, to provided solace to many and a voice to the voiceless. He is an LGBTQ hero.”