Politics Is About What's Possible

Alumna Wilnelia Rivera talks to a Tufts audience about fighting for change in our cities—and on the ballot

For political strategist and activist Wilnelia Rivera, growing up in Lawrence, Mass., made her witness each day to the realities of injustice, and at the same time it gave her the experience of persistent hope. 

Rivera brought both—the understanding of injustice and that continuing hopefulness—to her virtual audience at Tufts on Feb. 17. The occasion was her recognition as the inaugural recipient of the Lyon and Bendheim Citizenship Award from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.  

Rivera, A04, AG14, is the founder and president of Rivera Consulting, Inc., a strategist consulting firm for movement-building and policy-driven causes, candidates, and organizations. After earning her undergraduate degree from Tufts, she worked with Neighbor to Neighbor, where she helped reform the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, making it illegal for employers to ask about a person’s criminal history on an initial job application in Massachusetts, and assisted in the push for the city of Lynn to invest in interpreters and translation services for non-English-speaking parents and a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ students.  

As a political strategist, Rivera was instrumental in helping to elect Deval Patrick as Massachusetts’ first Black governor—and Ayanna Pressley as a U.S. congresswoman after a groundbreaking primary victory against a 10-term Democratic incumbent.  

During the hour-long Tufts event, Rivera characterized the role of organizers and activists as “hold[ing] the moral arc of what's possible . . . no matter what the congressional cycle says, no matter what the election cycle says," she said. "They're going to hold on to that and we need that. We need people in society that are going to hold on to the most important values of justice of who we should be as a country.”  

Rivera also offered insights about what’s missing in our democracy and how we can reclaim it, her responsibility to those on whose behalf she advocates, and the key to effecting change in politics. (Watch the talk here.)  Here are three takeaways from the discussion, which was moderated by Kalimah Knight, deputy director of media relations at Tufts.

Politics is only moveable when movement comes in. The best advice Rivera ever received? “When we're in the building—whatever the building is—our job is to make it possible.” But Rivera has pushed that advice still further: “So, I would say, ‘Well, OK, I can do that. But what if we have a movement that changes what's possible?’ And how do these two things speak to one another so that it's actually more coordinated and we're not just screaming and having a fight about all of our differences, yet not really making progress where it matters the most—in the buildings where laws and rules of engagement are made every day?” 

From her time spent in both the electoral and the activist spaces, she has learned that “politics is only movable when movement comes in.” As a timely example, she offered the call to defund the police as an opportunity for Black Lives Matter to draw attention to “something that, for hundreds of years, we've been trying to get more attention on. It now creates the opportunity for politics to be possible.” She also called for finding common ground around urgency. “We spend too much time saying, ‘My thing is more urgent than yours,’” she said, and not focusing enough on developing a shared understanding of what's urgent for both parties.  

The power of a new kind of conversation—and listening. Presented with a question about the tension between individuals involved in electoral politics and those with an activist perspective, Rivera saw reason for hope. It’s a question, she observed, that has become more popular in the past two years: “That's an important indication of the recognition that organizing and politics actually do exist in the same democracy.” Further, instead of thinking about our democracy as we see it today, she encouraged attendees to consider ways in which they have begun to see evidence of both electoral politics and movement actors starting to work together around the country. 

Rivera also invited a reframing of this tension as “discomfort” resulting from a multiracial society in which there is no single identity. She encouraged the audience to consider the politics of difference and the strategies that we must learn to be able to address that discomfort. She offered a framework of self-reflection—of asking yourself, “Why am I uncomfortable? What do I have to learn from this?”—as a means to open up a “new conversation.”  

Even if you are in dialogue with the same people, including people with whom you are going to continue to have differences, that self-reflection about your discomfort can enable you to really listen, she said. “That’s the core of what's missing in our democracy and our society: We don't know how to listen to one another,” she observed. “We can do campaigns; we can write press releases; we can do all the different tactical things… but the art of the conversation with each other is falling by the wayside.” 

People matter—and so do money, power, and systems. Rivera cited a valuable lesson from her early days in community organizing and outreach work—one that she offers to activists and change agents today: People matter. But that's not enough. She said, “What I learned from those early years is that power matters, money matters, and systems matter . . . and how they interact with one another ultimately dictates the conditions for what's possible or not.” She encouraged her audience to carefully consider those interactions as part of their organizing and outreach so that they can actively move the work forward. 

With this understanding, she said, comes an obligation to those with whom she works. “I'm usually inviting people . . . to give up a part of their everyday life to something that's bigger than them,” she said. “And I feel it's my responsibility to be knowledgeable on power, money, and systems so that I can create a baseline of understanding for why it's going to be tough, for why it's going to take a long time.”  

In addition to that forthrightness with her partners in activism, she is also committed to giving people the opportunity to consider, “’Do I want to be a part of this?’” She terms that responsibility “a moral compass” for activism and organizing—and “an integrity that frames and drives everything” she does.  

The Lyon and Bendheim Citizenship Award is the successor to the Lyon and Bendheim Alumni Lecture Series. That series was initially established by J.B. Lyon, A85, and Tom Bendheim, A85, to bring to campus prominent alumni—often leaders from the private sector. The new award, of which Rivera is the inaugural recipient, is intended to recognize individuals who have shown a commitment to civic engagement through successful initiatives, creative solutions, or bold leadership and to connect them with students and alumni on campus.  

At the start of the Feb. 17 program, Bendheim spoke on his own behalf and Lyon’s about the original lecture series and its rededication as the new award. “We’re really proud of all the business leaders that we brought to campus," he said. "But times change . . . and we wanted to broaden our focus and expand the opportunities for Tufts students to connect with leaders across the professional and civic spectrum who are making a difference. We couldn’t imagine a more deserving recipient for this new award than Wilnelia Rivera . . . someone who exemplifies how to pursue political change and having a lasting systemic impact.” 

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