14:30 PM

Alumna Leticia Gutierrez: A warrior for the one and only Earth

Leticia Gutierrez (Ablaza) '00Never underestimate the power and pull of a mother. Leticia Gutierrez (Ablaza) ’00 has been called an environmental justice warrior for Earth. The University of St. Thomas-Houston alumna, who graduated in Finance and had an initial career in the banking industry, became an effective champion for environmental justice when her son was only four and developed upper respiratory problems. His pediatrician recognized the family’s zip code near the Port of Houston’s industrial facilities as a hub for health hazards. Gutierrez quickly learned that she and her extended family lived in an area known for polluted air, land and water.

First Step Was to Volunteer

This was when her “mom instincts” and a willingness to take action kicked in. Having stepped back from her securities and banking job to raise her two small children, Gutierrez jumped into volunteering for organizations doing air quality work. She says she learned the high value of volunteering while in school at UST.

“Some of my Business professors required volunteering at places like Casa Juan Diego,” Gutierrez said. “I remember one day we were helping to put a playground together at Casa de Esperanza. I saw the looks on the faces of the kids watching through the window, and that filled me up for an entire year. That’s where it all started for me, and that giving mentality has always stayed with me.”

Nine years ago, when a full-time position opened at Air Alliance Houston, she applied and had an edge thanks to her UST degree and bilingual Spanish and English skills. Today, she is that organization’s Government Relations and Community Outreach director.

The passionate activist who grew up in Mexico said, “This is God’s work. It’s a labor of love. There is no other Earth to go to, and I’m motivated by concern that we’ll leave a mess and dump it on the generations to come.”

However, that grim future will not appear if Gutierrez has anything to say about it.

A Win for Environmental Justice

Her ability to connect and empower people from neighborhoods like hers has led to success. For example, Gutierrez recalled when a concrete batching plant—a polluter industry that targets economically disadvantaged, minority communities—was trying to get a permit to establish itself in Houston’s East Aldine area. That permit never happened, and here is why.

“We did a great job of block-walking in that Hispanic community and got 150 residents to turn out for the hearing and let state legislators know how they feel,” she said. “We also supplied translators so the citizens could speak and have their voices heard. Before the hearing ended, the concrete batching plant owner chose to cancel their request for a permit.”

Frustrations and Hope

Gutierrez wants to see many more victories like that one. She says she is frustrated by elected officials who are not doing as much as they could. On the other hand, she sees today’s youth as a reason for hope.

She said, “I see their enthusiasm for pursuing environmental justice causes and how purposeful and effective they can be, especially with social media. I see them rolling up their sleeves, and that gives me hope.”

In the meantime, this activist’s scope of issues has expanded from environmental justice to include immigration and other social justice matters.

And what keeps this mother going?  Her children, of course, who are now 20 and 21, as well as her parents who also live within that eyebrow-raising zip code.