Dennis Gutierrez is a man with a message. He has never been afraid to speak up, and that stick-to-itiveness has served him well in every new vocation and every cause he’s promoted, including that of his alma mater UCLA.
“I’ve had nine careers in my life,” he said with a laugh reflecting on his own personal resume. “It’s like, ‘What do you do?’ Look, I learned a long time ago that you follow your passion. If you do not follow your passion, it’s work, and if it’s work, you’ll never be good at it.”
Gutierrez is the recipient of this year’s Howard Welinsky UCLA Advocate of the Year award, named after UCLA’s longest serving advocate. The 1975 UCLA alumnus admitted that he didn’t initially have plans to go to the university he has so passionately advocated for.
First, he wasn’t really part of the demographic, or so he thought. Gutierrez grew up in Monterey Park and he was Latino. “I was the first [in my family] to graduate out of a grammar school, a high school and college,” he said.
After high school, he went to East Los Angeles College, and had plans to go elsewhere rather than the local UC. But UCLA came knocking, and on a whim, Gutierrez decided to attend a presentation.
“I decided, why not go and see how I do?” he said. “And the minute I got onto campus, took a brief look around — I was just overwhelmed. The location, the history behind it, it was really amazing. I decided then and there that this was the campus I wanted to come to.”
Gutierrez was accepted as an engineering student, but it didn’t ultimately hold his interest. The 1970s were an especially tumultuous time politically on campus. Also, the bottom fell out of an engineering job boom, which led many to pivot away from that vocation.
“I wanted to do something that made a difference, and that’s how I got into political science, and became involved with a lot of the political discourse going on there.”
Gutierrez especially has fond memories of his time with the Chicano newspaper, “La Gente”, where he served as photo editor. Beyond politics, he also found himself taking film and television courses. After graduation he decided not to follow his political activism streak, but instead do grunt work for television.
“You graduated from UCLA, why are you doing this?” a colleague once asked him, but that is where passion struck, and he stuck it out, eventually landing on one of the most important shows of its time, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”
“We were given the responsibility of doing all the deep background on science,” Gutierrez said. “But it also included all the other elements of the production that went into that series. We were getting paid for having fun.”
Not everything in Hollywood was like “Cosmos”, however, and Gutierrez found himself burnt out: “The ego that just permeates the room can ruin the production,” he said, and many places differed from the collegial teamwork of “Cosmos”.
He retreated from the hustle of Hollywood, buying a place in Paso Robles, back when it was still a small town. He enjoyed the simple life for nearly a decade before coming back to Los Angeles, taking on the challenge of sound and visual effects and digital restoration.
As an outlet, he joined his newly retired mother in Optimist International — his passion for helping and activism became reignited.
“It’s a service club that focused its attention mostly on youth and helping them become good citizens and gain an appreciation for good government and leadership,” he explained.
Gutierrez’s civic passion was newly reborn, and he became manager of the Monterey Park East Los Angeles Office for the U.S. Census. Previously, the office had been investigated because of its tremendous undercount.
Gutierrez the political messenger might have been born at this time.
“The challenge was, ‘How do we get the message out there and get people to participate?’” he said. “I was never a public speaker or anything, and enjoyed working behind the scenes, but I was the face of this office and went out and made presentations and made connections with community leaders. If you wanted to get through to an Asian community, you needed to find the community leader to get them on board, and then everyone else would follow. The same applied to East Los Angeles, for example, with undocumented immigrants. In the end, the office became No. 1 in the nation as far as total response. We turned it around.”
Gutierrez was resonating with the community, and his power at the Census had the ear of local civic leaders and elected officials. This, among other jobs at the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder’s office and a local credit union, made him a civically plugged-in person.
Enter UCLA Advocacy. In 2000, Gutierrez attended a candidate debate at East Los Angeles College, where he spoke with Ramona Cortes Garza of UCLA Government and Community Relations.
“This was an opportunity to give back for all I had learned and the talents I had acquired — to do something positive for my community, the university and for the students who wanted to attend UCLA. Some of us, we graduated a long time ago. We walk onto campus and we see those students and tell ourselves we were damn lucky to get on campus and be enrolled at UCLA.”
Gutierrez has used those connections, but he’s also used his experience, boldness and quite frankly, frankness to mentor a generation of advocates on how best to address elected officials.
“Look, as far as I’m concerned, I’m their boss. They are supposed to work for us. They are looking to you for information. They want to know what’s going on in the community. You are more important than the staff member, you’re coming from the real world with first hand information.”
Gutierrez has plenty of fond memories of taking control of the room: a state senator he didn’t back down to that he told “you don’t have a clue who your constituency is” and “he was just kind of flabbergasted that someone would kind of do that.” But if that’s what was needed to get the point across, then so be it, he said.
Another trick of emphasis is to be prepared, Gutierrez said, which sounds simple but must be creatively implemented. For example, when he led a group in Washington DC to Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard, they were told by staff that they only had five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, Gutierrez just happened to bring up her hot button issue — voter registration. “And she just went into this 20-minute discussion. She closed the door on them (the staff). That’s the way you try to maximize your time, you find ways to get your message across and to absorb as much time as you can.”
Advocates must believe in their cause passionately, he reiterated. “Be honest, be sincere. They’re looking for information, and you don’t have to be scared of this. If you have an issue, make it personal, make it your own.”
And no matter what the issue in his own life, Gutierrez has done just that.