Alumni Q&A: Wilnelia Rivera Part II

Wilnelia Rivera is pictured. Courtesy of Wilnelia Rivera

The Tufts Daily (TD): After Tufts, you got into politics. How did that start?

Wilnelia Rivera (WR): I actually started off as a union organizer with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). What made that a unique experience, and what also made it political, was that it was a multifaceted organizing campaign that I was part of. It’s called the Resurrection campaign — Resurrection Healthcare is a chain of Catholic hospitals in the greater Chicago area. And by multifaceted, what I mean is it wasn’t your traditional workers’ rights campaign where you’re trying to get workers to sign on to a card and be part of a union — it also had a community organizing element. We had a legislative organizing element because we were also trying to organize a safe staffing bill around it. There was also a corporate responsibility element. So coming out of college, first of all, I actually got training to be an organizer, which is not something that a lot of people get. And then second, I got an experience over a three-year period where I was exposed to all the different kinds of organizing that can exist. In experiencing all of those different forms of organizing, I realized the part that I really enjoyed the most was the pieces that brought community, politics and planning together.

Coming out of Tufts, I struggled a lot because a lot of people just told me I should go to law school. I ended up in organizing because I actually took the time to ask friends, to ask peers that were a little bit older than me, and tell them, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” I knew I didn’t want to be a social worker because I don’t have the patience for that — it’s just not who I am. I believe in meeting people where they are, and more importantly, allowing them to build the capacity to make their own change. Because when people don’t have agency, you can give people subsidies and you can do whatever is necessary for someone to survive, but what are they going to do beyond that survival? Within the union organizing world, I saw that politics and planning were about changing systems, and ultimately when you change systems, you change the capacity of all the actors in any region, whatever the issue might be.

I grew up in an immigrant family where the number one goal was to get good grades and go to college. I grew up in a family that was raised in a dictatorship. My mom was the first one to go into a democracy when she came to the United States. So my time at AFSCME was important because it really gave me an introduction, beyond just what the labor history and the books said, and the reality of how all this stuff really works. The reality of what I learned was that, if I’m going to do this work anywhere, I’m going to do it at home — I wanted to dedicate my life in service to the place that gave so much to me. It’s also why I ended up focusing on state-level policy, even though that’s not what I studied at all when I went to college. I do think it’s better to spend more time on domestic policy, especially at the state level, and that’s why I’ve really forged my work around that. Neighbor to Neighbor was a perfect combination of all those things. It did local organizing in local communities. It did capacity building and political education within those communities. It did lobbying at the state house, and it did political campaigns with labor and other organizations. So I really got the opportunity to be the jack of all trades, but also got to focus on the parts of the trade that I really enjoyed: the political pieces, the coalition pieces, the policy pieces.

What I experienced a lot were environments where the results of the work were more rewarding for the people doing the work than for the people they were trying to impact. For me, I’ve always told myself I don’t and I can’t be a part of that, because of how I grew up, where my family comes from and because I actually do believe that we can bring the Commonwealth forward and the country forward if we start looking at our problems from a different perspective, instead of having an outdated debate about what the right answer is, because we’re all wrong. So for me, my pursuit and my desire to eventually leave the regular organizing world really came out of that analysis — I really want to think about this work and I want to think about solutions in a creative way and not necessarily because the politics of today say that’s possible. As a strategist, that is your job, but you’re really trying to think about things more expansively. I’m a big believer that we need to think in Cadillac terms so that wherever we end up it’s a better option, because when we think in terms of just a small step, what we get is nothing. I think that’s also part of what led me to become a consultant, because the reality is that when working for a state government, or working for an elected official or working for an organization, you have to adhere to protocol in a way that’s very different. Whereas as a consultant there’s more nuance. I can get to pick and choose who I get to work with.

TD: Before you started out consulting on your own, what were you doing?

WR: I was working in Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration. I was the director of external affairs and I was a senior staff member there. While I was there, I was also finishing up my planning degree at Tufts. The combination of those two experiences is where I really decided that I wanted to take my political experience that I had acquired up to that point and really combine it with policy and projects. I really wanted to do implementation work. I wanted to get away from campaigns and everything to do with that.

Before the governor’s office my political home, as I always like to describe, was as an organizer. I spent 10 years as an organizer. I started off in Chicago, right after I graduated Tufts, at AFSCME Council 31 as a union organizer. I was there for maybe two or three years, and some of my friends kept telling me that this amazing man was running for governor of Massachusetts and that I should come home. And that man was Deval Patrick. At the time I didn’t know who he was, but I wanted any reason at that time to come home — so I did. I ended up working at Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts as a political organizer and became the political and policy director there. Honestly, that’s where I spent the majority of the last 16 years. I always called it my political home because it’s where I really learned the nuance behind doing this work. You can learn the training, you can go to school, you can do the entry-level work, but it’s not really until you understand the nuance that you can really get good at understanding what it takes for systems and people and opportunity to come together to really make an impact. I was at Neighbor to Neighbor for six years before I went on to the governor’s office and from there launched my career into being a consultant.

Even though I was really comfortable doing that work for a couple years, I realized after the 2016 election that even though my life was pretty comfortable at that point, I’d pretty much achieved the things I thought that I’d always wanted, especially thinking about it from the viewpoint of my younger self. I just realized that my life was too comfortable, so I started doing political research for donor advisors here locally working as an executive coach to reproductive justice organizations, doing movement-building work which felt very safe.

Soon after doing this research and coaching work, I sat down with Ayanna Pressley. Even though I was always a big supporter, the last thing I ever would’ve thought was that it would’ve been me running this race. At that time, I took a six-year break because I, as a woman of color, had reached the glass ceiling really quickly at 30 years old, and that was a lot for me to handle. That’s really what motivated me to do my consulting work because I was like, “I can’t wait for the opportunity when I have to create it.” I think that that’s one of the things that I’m always deeply appreciative of from my time in the governor’s office of Governor Patrick because working for him — and also being part of his [reelection campaign] before that — you really get to understand that there comes a point where you make a choice on whether you can create your opportunity when it’s not available. That’s an easy thing for anyone to say and I understand that there’s a lot of privilege behind a statement like that, but at the end of the day, if the opportunity is not being given to you, you have to engineer it — I’m just a big believer in that. I share that because it’s what got me to say “yes” to Ayanna, because I knew that many people in the ether  would say over and over again, “Why would she run, it’s not her turn, this is Massachusetts, you’re not supposed to do these things, it’s the cardinal rule.” The reality is the majority of my working career, and also my [life] as an adult, in the district, whether that was in Somerville or whether that was in parts of Cambridge or in Boston which I’ve been in the majority of that time, it was almost like this is the ultimate graduation. Even though maybe she and I really believed that we could win, it took us a long time to get everyone else to jump on the bandwagon with us. I think we both recognized that we knew what the path was to get there; it was just a matter of putting basically everything we’ve ever worked for at that point on the table in order to really make it all come together. It’s one of those things where the result could have been very different obviously, but I’m glad that I’m on the other side of it.

TD: What was your role with U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s campaign?

WR: I was the chief strategist, which is a fancy way of saying that I hired everyone. I built all the policies, and by policy I mean infrastructure policy — who’s going to get hired by when, contracts, etc. My particular specialty within all of that was data integration analytics as it relates to electoral victories and electoral maps. So this entails crunching numbers and then understanding how those numbers change over time, and leveraging new and old tactics to understand how the support is actually moving over time … Which means basically that I’m behind the scenes a lot of the time. Part of the work I’m doing this year is actually becoming more external-facing, because I realized for a long time I’ve done this work pretty silently and pretty quietly, and I actually want to take on more work. I’ve been doing a lot of work nationally for a long time and Ayanna’s campaign is actually what made me realize that I need to double down back at home again. Which is why my firm is leading the way on two city council campaigns right now — we’re managing Alejandra St. Guillen for Boston City Council.

TD: What advice do you have for Tufts seniors, particularly those who are looking to go into consulting or the political field?

WR: Start reaching out to people whether they know you or not. And this honestly connects back to finding your peeps. That really shouldn’t be something you do one time and then drop it off and then think that because you’re just so uniquely smart and you went to Tufts that things will work out. The truth is, in this world, it’s about who you know. Will some people be impressed when you say “I graduated from Tufts?” Yes, but the truth is it depends on what part of the country you’re in. My whole advice is: Do not wait until your senior year to build the kind of network that’s going to build the rest of your life. And don’t think about the rest of your life as being like your whole life is going to come. At the end of the day, it’s all coming year to year, so you have time. My best story is this example — how did I go back to Tufts for grad school? At that time I was working full-time, so I was like, “I’m going to UMass Boston, it’s more affordable, I know I’ll be able to find easier grants and scholarships and it won’t cost me that much, fine.” My boss at the time at Neighbor to Neighbor, Juan, he’s like, “Oh come to this event with me.” I’m like, “I really don’t want to go.” He’s like, “No come with me” and I’m like, “Fine.” Who did I meet at this event? James Jennings, a tenured professor at the urban and environmental policy department at Tufts. I think in the world of networking, networking doesn’t mean you have a relationship with someone, it just means you’re a random connection. But if you come to an event or you come to something where I meet you and I see that you know this person that I know, I’m more likely to respond to you the next time you talk to me. All of this is to say: be relational. And it does make you uncomfortable, because it makes me uncomfortable. I’m comfortable with it now, but I spent most of my twenties fucking uncomfortable to be honest, being like, “Let me just email this person over and over and call them over and over” until they finally say yes because they’re just embarrassed because they’ve seen me at events so many times that now they’re like, “Oh my god let me just sit down with this girl.” I see a lot of young folks coming out of college and what they struggle with is that part. They know that they might have some connections here and there, but they haven’t really done the relationship building. Digital is important in terms of creating mass connection, but it doesn’t translate to job opportunities, or fellowship opportunities or learning opportunities for that matter. I feel like a lot of the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with over the course of my career, it’s because of networking.