This article was originally published on October 8, 2019.
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 them to create the systems. We want them 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 Midw