Episode 2: Lillian Rivera

In this episode, Lillian Rivera, Executive Director of Hetrick-Martin New Jersey, talks about what inspires her, what brings her joy, and her hopes for our collective future.

The song in this episode is "Garden" by Spazz Cardigan.

Episode Transcript

joi foley: I'm joi foley, and I'm your host for this episode of Rockwood's Leading From The Inside Out podcast.

joi foley: The guest for this episode is Lillian Rivera. Lillian is the executive director of the Hetrick Martin Institute, New Jersey. She's a writer, advocate, youth ally, and a Latino lesbian wife and mother to two girls. With over a decades worth of experience in youth development, she has facilitated workshops and trainings across the country on working with LGBTQ youth, and was nominated for the Presidential Advisory Council in HIV/AIDS. She's written articles on her work and her life as a Latino lesbian mom for Huffington Post and Feminist Wire. She's an alum of the 2015 Fellowship for Racial and Gender Justice Leaders in the HIV/AIDS Movement. Lily joined me via video chat, and I asked her 10 questions about her leadership.

joi foley: Can you share more about the kind of work that Hetrick Martin does?

Lillian Rivera: Absolutely. Hetrick Martin Institute, and specifically Hetrick Martin Institute, New Jersey, where I'm the ED, is nonprofit organization, and we serve LGBTQ youth. What we do is we have a unique model where we create the environment where LGBTQ youth are affirmed and nurtured in ways that they aren't in other spaces. So we have a youth development sort of do the same youth work that other adolescent providers do, just through the lens of LGBT affirmation. I like to go beyond inclusion. Right? I want to affirm and nurture our young people in order to have them internalize that they are whole, beautiful individuals that have a great life ahead of them, and their gender identity and sexual orientation and race and class, all of those things, are just facets of who they are and they're all beautiful and they all should be valued. And the rest of our work is really youth development work, giving young people the skills and the resources they need to thrive in their life.

joi foley: Do you have any favorite moments or memories from your work there?

Lillian Rivera: Yeah. We had the unique experience to be able to work with young people from the age of 13 to 21 in New York City. They worked with them until they're 24, so you see a huge progression in their growth. I think every time a young person reaches a milestone and they succeed around things that they thought they weren't going to succeed, it's a huge celebration. So they graduate high school, it's a great celebration, or they get their first job and they get their first paycheck. It's amazing. Or they get their name changed and they're affirmed in ways that they've never been affirmed, or for some kids is just us saying to them, Oh, you want a binder or you need a binder? Sure, let's go to the pantry and get it.

Lillian Rivera: And that one small thing just let's them move in the world in ways that are transformative. For another person, they might miss that opportunity, but we get to see all of that beauty, in terms of their growth and their blossoming, because we are affirming things that other people will alienate them around.

joi foley: Do you ever get inspired by the youth that you work with?

Lillian Rivera: Yeah, I am inspired every day. A lot of the young people that we work with are battling extreme poverty. I see their hope and their inspiration and I see their possibilities and I see them having that thirst for life that I think for me, someone who's been doing social services for so long, I could not have sustained myself if I weren't working with young people. I had the experience of working with adults in the past who were HIV positive and were either homeless, had a history of homelessness.

Lillian Rivera: They're usually battling mental illness, managing the addiction, and it just really crushed my soul because the world had been so unfair to them. The world had not put anything in place to address the issues that they were dealing with, and that's when I knew I had to work with young people. I had to work with young people, one, because they are not cynical or bitter, regardless of their life situations. They are a light to follow. I also find that I make the best decisions when I let young people lead. They're on top of things. They understand things in the world that my 47 year old mind doesn't understand anymore and they're a constant inspiration to keep going, to be able to give them platforms to lift them up, open doors for them, because their ability to innovate and think of ways that older folks don't is new and vibrant.

Lillian Rivera: I think I've always relied on youth leadership, and the older I get, the more certain I am that I want young people making decisions. I want them not only making decisions about technology and the stuff that I don't understand, but I want them making decisions about the world in general. I want them to impact the environment, I want them to, because they're going to do things in innovative ways, like the glasses on my face. Right? My 10 year old picked out because I would've never picked these out. But she's just like, yes, do it, go for it. I think that's what I get from young people every day. When I understand their world challenges and I understand that they're struggling with this and they're struggling with that and they're going to bust out this dope ass ... Sorry, this dope poetry that speaks about the future, that speaks about possibility, that speaks about like the beautiful many identities that they, you know, thrive in.

joi foley: Why were you born for this time?

Lillian Rivera: I think I was born for this time because I need it to be born working class. I needed to be born Puerto Rican. I needed to be born in New Jersey and I needed to figure out that I was a lesbian. And I needed to figure out all of those identities in order to create visibility for folks who look or sound like me or who come from where I come from or all of those important things. And I think the class issues that are surfacing today because of our current environment deserve the critical analysis that someone from my background brings forward. Right? And I think even in the nonprofit sector, I think I need to be there to challenge how these issues play out, right? I will often find myself amongst other nonprofit leaders, the only check off whatever box you want.

Lillian Rivera: Right? So the landscape is changing. I think our role in society is changing as nonprofits and if we don't figure out how to sort of dismantle systems of oppression within our own organizations to be possibilities of hope within society, then we're going to become obsolete. So I think my lived experiences from a kid whose dad was a farmer and then became a factory worker and whose mom also worked in factories. Understanding what the unions did for our society. I think I need to be here talking about that as white presenting or red Latina. I need to be working on anti-blackness in the Latino community, right? And being the person of color in spaces where on some level I need to be the one doing that talking, using my privilege to do that talking. And I think LGBTQ youth needed me. They needed me to to say, hey, you are worthy and you are valuable and you are beautiful and the world is better because of you and we need to hear your stories.

Lillian Rivera: Everyone needs to hear your stories. And I needed to be that messenger for some kids, some really valuable kids. And there's still a whole bunch of them that hopefully I'll get to talk to you.

joi foley: What's on your heart?

Lillian Rivera: Yeah. I think on my heart, what's on my heart today is, or at this time, is staying hopeful, stay hopeful and centered and in the community. I'm lucky that I'm in Newark, New Jersey, now, or Candor, New Jersey because Newark is a small city with big, big heart and getting, you know, I think in big cities like New York, you can get lost and lose sort of the connection to community. And in Newark it's what I need to keep going. Like I need to be in community with folks. I need to know that these conditions within our country will be over. I want to stay hopeful for the work and for my family.

Lillian Rivera: And you know, just stay focused that this'll end, this too shall pass and we will be stronger for it and our voices will be the loudest.

joi foley: Who is leading today that you'd love to work with?

Lillian Rivera: Well, you know, well anyone that I'd want to work with, I think I've got to the place where I'm feeling just a little insular and I feel that because I need to take care of my community, right? I'm feeling like I need to work with Latin x folks and I need to do that because the assault on us has been nonstop when Mexicans are called rapists. You're calling me one as well. You're calling my children one as well, calling all of my family one as well and I think I need to work with that community and I need to be there for our folks.

Lillian Rivera: I think we don't have the national infrastructure to be able to say, hey, let's have this convening and do this as you know, as Latin X folks. But I think some of us are working to do that and to stay connected and to take care of ourselves. And you know, I love hearing about what other leaders are doing in the Latino, Latina, Latinx community. I love hearing what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is doing and because I think she gives me hope and possibility, because she's in there fighting our fight. So I'm working with Elicia who is another Rockwood fab person. So staying in community, building those networks, making sure that we're taking care of each other. And you know, we do a lot of healing. Justice is where I think our community is right now. Like I said before, these assaults are too great for us not to be impacted by them.

Lillian Rivera: So how are we going to heal from this and how are we going to create and sustain a healing network for ourselves?

joi foley: What was most memorable about your Rockwood experience?

Lillian Rivera: I think the most memorable transformative thing about my Rockwood experience is one that I understood myself as a leader. Ah wow. Right? When society tells me lots and lots of things that I've internalized, right? Working Class, Puerto Rican, lesbian from Jersey City. That's not a leader, right? That's what I thought. But I am. Right? And people reflecting that onto me helped me internalize that. So not only did I learn, but I internalized and I created that expectation for myself, which is beautiful, right? You're going to lead. Does everybody believe that you're a leader? Doesn't matter. Are there things that you need to say in this world that are important that may impact people's lives.

Lillian Rivera: That's what matters, right? Is there space you need to create to welcome everybody? That's what matters. Are there connections that you can make to build community? That's what matters? So I think me internalizing that I'm a leader and me connecting with such beautiful people that were in the same spaces I was, right? Our cohort for our leadership too, was really focused on HIV around race and gender. And these people are incredible thinkers. Incredible, have incredible big hearts. People who are doing work in places where it can be dangerous to do the work and they do it anyway. Building that community for myself, people is invaluable. And then knowing that, you know, we're part of a legacy of folks who have been through Rockwood who are changing the world. That's a little scary, right? That's a little scary. Like what's my contribution to this?

Lillian Rivera: But it's beautiful and in inspires and I can't tell you how many people that I've said to have you gone to Rockwood? Do you know about Rockwood? Like so many people that I come across that I see could really benefit from the space and the knowledge that's shared in the community that's built in the moments that transform us during a Rockwood training.

joi foley: What message would you want to share with future generations?

Lillian Rivera: I'd want to share with them that we're living in a really horrible time and that we are able to come together. And the most important thing about the coming together is that the coming together today is happening with people not in segregated communities but from all communities. Right? We all care about black lives matter. There's no sort of qualifications for that. Bottom line. Black lives matter. We all care that children shouldn't be separated from their families.

Lillian Rivera: Families belong together, we all care about that, we all care that black trans women should be killed, we all care about that. And we're coming together across class, across race, across sexual orientation and gender identity. And we're coming together, this horrible time has taught us how to come together, build community, take care of ourselves, and really strive towards that nation that we know we could have. So if we can do it now in this really difficult time, there's no holding back what future generations can think about in terms of possibility, all sorts of possibilities, right? What does equitable language look like besides the things we're thinking about now in terms of condominiums, that sort of thing. There's a lot of possibility for generations to come and hopefully they're able to inhabit our planet because we haven't ruined it to the point where they can't.

Lillian Rivera: But I would say to future generations to pay close attention to the history that we're making today.

joi foley: What has changed or shaped your leadership?

Lillian Rivera: I think all of who I am. Right? Where I come from. And I think the idea is that, you know, I grew up in Jersey City in sort of the area that has been gentrified, but when I was growing up here in the 70s it was the bad area. Right? I think about like my brothers and cousins talking about, I don't understand why they felt it was the bad area. Right? And it was the bad area because my brother and his friends were walking around with a basketball. Right? And that's why it was the bad area because the Puerto Ricans came in and the black people came in. I mean, that's why it became a bad area. And my leadership was shaped when my parents took me out of this area and moved me into a predominantly white area.

Lillian Rivera: And I saw the differences and I experienced the stereotyping and I experienced sort of the lower expectations of people of color and I experienced how our lives are so different and how my difference was not welcomed. And I think that's what really shoot, I think in my heart, I feel that the world should be just always for everyone, regardless of whether I agree with them or like them or whatever. I just feel like it should be just, and maybe that's the Libra in me, right? We should be just the people. And as I grew up, I've always had a sense of who I was in the world and who I was to other people in the world, specifically the ruling class in this country. And I also have an amazing brother who's a social anthropologist, and he conditioned me very young to be a feminist.

Lillian Rivera: So I was really young when I received this branch and I was like, why am I reading this? I really don't understand. So he really worked to make sure that I knew my foremothers, that I knew the women who were paving the path for me and having sort sort of the [inaudible] and be able to say, hey, this is wrong, or we have to change this in order to make space for people. And I think the most recent sort of impact on my leadership is becoming apparent. As a parent, there is nothing I want more than for our daughters to be whole people and to stand in their strength and be able to make the choices that they want in life. And for no one to tell them that they can't. And I want that for their friends as well. They should have that as well, all of their friends.

Lillian Rivera: So I think I fight a little stronger now because it's not as abstract. It's about these children that I love and I'm going to, you know, call out or invite in whoever I need to to make sure that children are okay in kindergarten being who they are. It's okay for this boy to wear a pink skirt. It's okay. This is not the problem. Right? The fact that the child may not have dinner at night, that's the problem. Right? And how we have those conversations. So I think there's a lot of things that sort of shaped who I was. I also like come from a long line of women who have been really strong and have stood up for what the believed in. So I want that for my girls to know that as well. And believe it or not, I think, and this might not be a popular opinion these days, my Catholic upbringing, I am one of those fortunate kids who had a positive experience in Catholic school and all of the values that the nuns taught me around community, around giving back around how we live our lives are ingrained.

Lillian Rivera: I'm not a practicing Catholic. I will never be a practicing Catholic again. But those values are essential to the choices I make in life and the values that I won't compromise around because I believe that people should be housed. And I believe that people should have access to healthcare. And I believe that people should have food. And I believe regardless of their contribution to our workforce, right? Like that's what I believe and that will never change. So I think there's a lot of things that have influenced my leadership. And I have to say also the young people that I've worked for for almost 17 years, they not only inspired me to be the best person I can be. They also taught me that ... So I worked with a lot of ballroom children and they taught me that the world is a runway that we could choose to sort of sulk and hide away from the world.

Lillian Rivera: We can pick up our chin and do a fierce front way anywhere in the world and be okay and be celebrated.

joi foley: What brings you joy?

Lillian Rivera: What brings me joy? My children definitely. My family definitely brings me joy. If I could be with them 24/7, I would be with them. They make me laugh, they make me, they make me ... I feel safety with them, right? My entire family. I feel safe. I love that our youngest is a defiant little thing. I love that our oldest constantly sings musical theater. Like I love who they are as people. I love and I can argue about politics with my brother. I love that, you know, my wife is just part of who I am, like in my heart. Like she's just the, the Rock in our family. I love that. You know, my other brother, plays the congas and makes me laugh till I can't breathe anymore.

Lillian Rivera: Like, I love and get so much joy by being with my family. I also get a lot of joy by writing. Writing brings me a lot of joy to write my stories, and get them out there and have people you know, wonder about where does this stuff come from? How is this possible? It's awesome because I exist, right? So I think that brings me great joy. Playing video games, it brings me joy because it's a challenge and I love challenges. Ooh, cooking food and feeding people brings me great joy. That's sort of the Puerto Rican tradition and it's almost meditative for me to make food for folks. So I think there's a lot of things that bring me joy.

joi foley: That's all for this episode of leading from the inside out. Before you go, could you use some time away from your stressful day to day obligations to reconnect with yourself and your purpose? Grab your spot for the art of leadership. September 16th to the 20th in Leesburg, Virginia, right outside of Washington DC. Visit Rockwood, leadership.org/schedule to learn more. From all of us here at Rockwood, we wish you joyful leadership.

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