#WomanCrushWednesday – Inspiring Women in the Community: Gloria De Leon
Leadership in the community is deeply inspiring and incredibly powerful. Here at GENaustin we like to recognize women that are doing amazing things, not only for themselves, but also for those around them. Shifting gender narratives and making an impact in the world takes an incredible amount of time, dedication, and passion. This week’s #WomanCrushWednesday, Gloria De Leon, spoke with me to share her insight about community work and her trajectory as a leader.
A native of McAllen, Texas, Gloria De Leon, has been working with youth and communities for as long as she’s had a waking thought. She has devoted the majority of her life’s work to developing youth leadership among the Latina\o population. Serving as the co-founder and Executive Vice-President of the National Hispanic Institute, Gloria has had the opportunity to connect with high achieving youth, challenging and inspiring them to contribute to the community’s growth and development.
The National Hispanic Institute is a leadership-training organization serving high school students each summer through a series of programs that aim to challenge current social narratives and instigate change in our community. Gloria has been the chief architect behind the design of the high-intensity, “game technology” training models used by NHI today, along with co-founder and President Ernesto Nieto. The Lorenzo de Zavala (LDZ) Youth Legislative Session, NHI’s most successful program, is a meticulous creation of De Leon that challenges youth to analyze the guiding values and beliefs that shape their lives. Many NHI members, including myself, consider LDZ a life-changing experience.
Karen Gaytán (KG): Please tell us a little about yourself and your involvement with youth.
Gloria De León (GDL): I always knew that I was going to be engaged in the community. During my undergraduate studies at The University of Texas – Pan American (now UT Rio Grande Valley), I was part of the first community service program. My backgrounds is in social work, and I initially thought my involvement was going to be counseling. As part of a very selective first year community service program at UT Pan American, we were supposed to volunteer every semester. I started working in the Medical Health Center counseling teenagers. Even though I loved my work, a couple of months before graduation it dawned on me – I completely assimilated who they were and what they were going through. It became very personal to me. About a month before I graduated, I realized that I wanted to do more with my social work background – that’s when I started considering other options.
KG: Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
GDL: During my time at the University of Texas – PanAmerican and the community service program, I was very fortunate to meet Hermila Anzaldua. Not only was she my academic advisor, but my personal mentor as well. I was deeply inspired by the way she lived her life. She was a single 40 year-old professor that would constantly travel. She was part of the Southwest Council of La Raza Board Of Education Project, which later became National Council of La Raza (NCLR). As a first generation Latina from the Rio Grande Valley, I was amazed that she had stepped out of a traditional box. She created the community service program, which I was a part of, and later counseled me about potential ways I could go with my social work degree – education, counseling, service. She constantly challenged me and believed in me.
KG: How did you begin your work with the National Hispanic Institute?
GDL: When I moved to Austin, Ernesto and I were working in the same place. He was the second in command, and I had the opportunity to work very closely with him. When he was let go in 1978, he calls me. I ask him, “So what are you going to do?” “I want to start an institute for Latinos.” “If anybody can do it, it’s you Ernie.” So he started having conversations with different people and so on. At this point I was still working with the state. In 1981 I left to work on a political campaign, and when it was over, I did not want to go back to work because I was bored. After the 3 day LDZ in 1982, Ernesto came to me and asked: “Could you expand this into an 8 day program?” I had to think very deeply about what I wanted the experience to be like. I went to a facilitator’s training in North Carolina and it was a transformational experience for me. The triggers that I went through, even though with different simulations, are very similar to the LDZ program we have today. It was an emotional and spiritual experience and I wanted students to feel the same thing.
KG: What is one of the biggest life lessons you have learned?
GDL: At one point it became very clear to me – no one had to convince me or confine because I knew that everything I wanted to do was going to be in my hands. I had to refuse to be identified by somebody else’s standards. If you look at my transformation throughout the years, I have been living my reality, my vision. There is not one day that passes by that I don’t speak to a young woman, and that is something deeply satisfying to me. I will always be known as the co-founder of NHI, and the chief architect of the LDZ. I am happy that it is still going on. I am thrilled to hear that it’s been over 100 sessions and it continues to have the same impact it did when it started.
KG: Why are you passionate about girl’s issues and what do you think is the most prominent issue girls face today?
GDL: I grew up in a family of strong women. Being a woman was never seen as a challenge, but as a strength. I am happy I have grown up with women and around women. We always made sure to empower one another. One of the things that plagues me is seeing this phenomenon: women are studying to be engineers, and lawyers, and doctors. But all of a sudden they meet a guy and their aspirational level drops. And all of a sudden everything they have worked for gets shelved. Don’t get me wrong; I think companionship is a beautiful thing. It’s okay to be in a long-term relationship, but take your time. You need to know who the heck you are first.
KG: What has contributed the most to your success?
GDL: I have always dance to the beat of a different drum. I have to thank my parents for seeing something different in me, and always communicating that – either directly or indirectly.
In my heart, I have always felt that if you do something with goodness in your heart, people embrace it. That is the approach I always took with building the community. Cuando haces las cosas por la buena (when you do things with a good intention), everything will work out. And if it doesn’t, just let it go. My mom would always tell me: “No nos falta nada, mijita (We are not missing anything). There will always be another opportunity.”
KG: What leadership qualities do you most admire?
GDL: I love that young women don’t carry the same belief system as we did back in the day. It’s becoming more and more obvious that Latinas cannot be held back. There are so many more encouraging women, so much more dialogue. Back then, if you had aspirations you had to keep them to yourself. Today, I am happy to be involved with a group of women that empowers one another. My sorority, Kappa Delta Chi, is one filled with amazing women that are strong, ambitious, service-driven and supportive. It’s inspiring.
KG: Finally, Gloria – what would you tell your 13 year-old self?
GDL: Believe that you can make a difference in the world. I always told myself that. Believe.
Karen Gaytan, current communications intern at GENaustin has been a highly active member of The National Hispanic Institute serving in numerous leadership roles and volunteering her time to build a vision for the future of the leading Latina/o community.