The driving question in Wilnelia Rivera’s work is “What makes women of color successful?”
It is this kind of focus that helped Ayanna Pressley win a Congressional seat with the slogan, “Change Can’t Wait.” Rivera was Pressley’s chief strategist and advisor, and Pressley credits Rivera’s “unique acumen for identifying untapped voters” as the key to her win. Rivera understands that women of color don’t win by doing things the traditional way.
But Rivera wasn’t always this clear.
“It’s not a practice I read in a book, or just one experience. It’s the manifestation of a set of experiences.”
Rivera began her career in what she calls “the very white male union world of politics” where being progressive meant working with communities of color in “allyship,” but she quickly noticed that the role of people of color was to approve their agenda, not shape it.
“It meant working on what they think are priority solutions versus what we think they are. Are we going to fight for minimum wage, or education equity and get at the root cause? Do we want to approach this from a place of love and joy, or anger, when our people are already struggling with trauma?”
Her lesson from that experience? “That approach manipulates the heart and dedication of women of color. We think that getting a seat the table will move the dial, but they’ll remind you that it’s not your seat, or your table.”
Rivera’s time with former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as Director of External Affairs also shaped her approach. She tells NPQ, “It was an eye-opening experience to witness the limitations and barriers he faced. Being at the pinnacle of political power in the state did not translate into being the most popular with the state legislature or having the most political power. The contrast of current Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s popularity with Beacon Hill legislators and voters more generally offers another view of how race, class, and gender impact our political participation in the political process as people of color.”
These experiences moved Rivera to leave formal politics. Further, she says, “while women of color are called on for all kinds of help, we’re not the ones being asked to run; we’re not the ones being supported.”
But she was drawn back to the work, with insights and a resolution to focus on women of color. In 2015, she launched her consulting firm, Rivera Consulting, Inc.
She says, “When you build a team for her, it has to be based on her values, and you have to understand that she’s more than just this one person. She’s the backbone of her family. She’s the backbone of her community. You have to build a team that’s going to be able to emotionally understand that they’re not going to change a woman of color’s loyalty to her family or community. Further, because of the roles and lived experiences she will have had, she’s probably going to have some trauma.”
So, Rivera asked herself, “How do you build a team that can contain this so that she can leverage her greatness?”
She continues, “How you get a woman of color that’s in a position of leadership to realize that she doesn’t have to be everything to everyone, and that the people around her are actually responsible for building a culture and system around her that supports the fact that she is responsible for juggling multiple roles beyond being a candidate?”
For Rivera, this starts with hiring. When building a team for a woman of color leader, she looks for people that understand that working for a woman of color is not about working for the person that inspires them. She says, “I’m looking for someone who’s going to work harder than the woman of color.”
Rivera refers to Erykah Badu’s song “Bag Lady” to illustrate. “I need to hire people who understand that their job is to relieve her of one of those bags. That’s what she needs. Someone who will remove the pressure, the burden, not add more.”
One of the ways she assesses this is by asking potential hires if they’ve ever worked for a woman of color before. She notes, “You get real answers from people one way or another.” She says, “They have to understand that they’re working for a woman of color with decision-making authority—it’s different!”
For Rivera, supporting women of color leaders also means that her role is often to act like a buffer between her and her team, so that she can focus on leading. She says, “Too often, when women of color are the leaders, we expect them to do everything. We want them to manage the emotional labor. We want then to create the systems. We want then to execute the work.”
Rivera points out that her approach is different. The traditional approach in asking women of color to lead is “to let them deal with the brunt of situations because they’re so good at it.”
Rivera builds long-term relationships with the leaders she supports, getting to know them and the kind of people with whom they work best. She finds that people get excited about women of color leaders, but these leaders often have small or nonexistent teams.
She says, “We need to deconstruct what we’re asking of leaders. We need to create a culture where we’re asking other people to step up. We can’t build systems that ask women of color to do more with less. That’s actually what we do. Every single time! We’ve always created change with less. Imagine what we could do if we were supported.”
Rivera says people of color need to be at the forefront of rebuilding the country. “It is those that have the biggest stake in healing the system and improving it so that it reflects those of us who are excluded. We are the only ones that are going to do the work. We’re the only ones that have that cause. No matter how much there are white people are allies or co-conspirators, they don’t have the same stake in addressing systemic inequities.”
She concludes, “It’s time for some people to follow.”
Rivera sees this bias towards white leadership in the nonprofit sector too, even in racial justice efforts that invest in established white organizations to help them become more inclusive. This “too big to fail” thinking hurts people of color leadership. She says, “The big infrastructure organizations are not built for us. And that’s okay. We can figure out where we have connections, but if it’s not completely for us, it doesn’t work for us.”
Rather than focus on formal politics or particular issues in the nonprofit field, for Rivera, supporting women of color leaders means going to where they are. She observes, “Right now, they are in the Midwest and the South, and the reproductive justice field. Luckily, there are funders, like Groundswell Fund, willing to support these leaders by providing coaching and executive management support.”
Rivera notes, “You don’t really see that in the economic justice space. You don’t see that commitment in electoral organizing.”
Further, she has learned a lot by working with women of color leaders. “Working in community with these folks for the last few years has been really great for me because the reality is that we don’t realize how elitist we can be in how we define winning and how we talk about our work—our successes and failures—in the east coast.”
For example, “If you ask activists from the South how they feel when they go to DC for a conference with people from around the country, they say, ‘I don’t feel that comfortable because people talk about the South like we’re a wretched place and we don’t exist, that we’re not creating joy in our communities.’ We make invisible our own people!”
She says she heard dismissive responses to Louisiana’s abortion ban; meanwhile, activists are putting their lives on the line. She says, “These activists are organizing their communities, whether for harm reduction or revolution, they’re trying. Not only do we have to stop pooh-poohing it, we need to invest in it.” That’s why Rivera thinks people of color need to focus on building bridges with each other.
She notes there is a misperception that black and brown people don’t live in the south, but they are the majority. The idea that only parts of the country matter is not a conservative or liberal thing; it is what people feel.
She says, “Ultimately, politics is not about changing culture. It’s about changing policy. It doesn’t change people’s hearts. I’m acknowledging culture now as a form of creating change in a way that I wouldn’t have before. Organizations that combine political and cultural organizing do more transformative work.”
Rivera finds that bringing left-of-center activists that want to do politics outside of the Democratic Party into other structures, like 501c3 and 501c4 political action committees (PACs), allows them to build their grassroots lobbying and, in some cases, their own independent political power, grounded in their issues, their liberation. So, she focuses on changing the political infrastructure through leveraging these other vehicles that are more peripheral to the system, building them up, and leveraging them against the system to change the culture.
She says, “The reality is that we need to shape and transform these structures.”
Rivera says having mentors of color has made all the difference.
More than decade ago, she met Phil Thompson, current Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives of New York City, and Dayna Cunningham, director of the CoLab at MIT. The two are married. She says, “I consider him my political and intellectual mentor. I had never met black intellectuals that were leveraging academia and relationships for powerful social change. It made me feel more seen. In a way that I’d never felt in politics.”
In her experience, the approach of political leaders is, “Do what I say because I know better.” This doesn’t work for her. “I’m not a sheep. I’m not going to believe something works just because you’ve done it for 20 years. I need to arrive at my own conclusions.”
She found that Thompson and Cunningham weren’t like that. “They saw that I was an intellectual first and that the political work I was doing was a means to bigger structural ends.”
She recounts how the couple saw her curiosities and pointed her in directions she could go, and that they supported her as a woman of color by giving her books to read and exposing her to many experiences, including a trip to Panama. She says, “It shows me that in my surroundings people were limiting me because of their biases.”
When she started her consulting firm, Thompson was the first to give her a gig. “The way that Phil would talk about me to other people, I’d tell him to tamp it down, until one day he said, ‘You know what, you need to forget about being shy because the truth is that you’re a badass and someone needs to say this about you.’”
For Rivera, this brings us back to the genesis of this conversation—what do women of color need to be able to lead?
Rivera admits that she chose to be number two in organizations for a long time because it was comfortable. “I could protect myself from here. But the truth is, it wasn’t everything I wanted.”
Seeing Pressley up close, day to day, for a year helped too. “She was able to channel her insecurities into her biggest assets. I realized I was nowhere near my leadership capacity because I refused to touch my insecurities. I operated from the place that made me feel really confident.”
Rivera reflects, “It’s hard to transcend your insecurities, but Ayanna taught me that when we do that, we go to places we don’t even know we can. And you don’t know how many other people need to hear that.”
She concludes, “I grew up thinking that politics is part of what sets you free, but the reality is that politics will never set us free. It’s not designed to. It sets the rules of engagement for the public commons, but it doesn’t provide spiritual freedom. When we go into politics looking for freedom, we’re always going to be disappointed.”
That’s how she’s able to do political work, by separating the two. And it’s important to say that when she still sees young organizers putting in 80-90 hours a week, burning themselves out.
How do we engage each other as people of color from a space of power?
Rivera admits, “It’s something I’m trying to figure out.”
She notes how hard it is. “To stand in your power, to navigate the world and communicate from that space, is hard. Some days, you feel you’re on it. Other days you’re not up for it. It’s like a roller coaster. You just get exhausted sometimes from trying to do the work from such a deep place. But I’m committed to being conscious of my process of liberation.”