Roberto Rivera earned a degree in Social Change, Youth Culture and the Arts – a major he built for himself – from the University of Wisconsin in 2004. He went on to earn a master’s degree in youth development from the University of Illinois – Chicago and is now a doctoral candidate back at UW. He is also the President and Lead Change Agent of The Good Life Organization, which publishes multimedia educational tools and trains educators, youth workers, and parents in connecting positive youth development to community development.
Rank your Top 5 MCs.
- Lauryn Hill
- Black Thought-The Roots
- Mos Def
- Lupe Fiasco
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? I once heard someone say we are the average of the five people closest to us. I have kept this idea at the forefront of my mind and have been blessed to surround myself with some amazing people. These folks have supported me and helped me to be greater than I know how to be on my own. In light of this, even though I would in no way say my closest people are doubters, part of what makes them great is that they have not been afraid to challenge me in love. I remember when I got my first gig to keynote a conference in L.A. I was feeling nervous about it and tried to back out, and my wife Jennifer was like, “there is no way I am letting you back out of this”. She was right. The opportunity stretched me and was the door opener to my speaking all over the country and starting a chapter in L.A. with Good Life. In general, I believe our best supporters speak the truth in love and help us grow. Thanks again wifey!
What does it mean to be Latino in Madison? To be Latino in Madison means to be the first and the last. It means to be the first because in many ways as a Latino man trying to actually do something “out of the box” means you might actually be the first Latino to do it. My dad Napoleon “Leo” Rivera wanted to start a citywide baseball team that was comprised of all Latinos here and he did, it was the first, and they were the first to win the city championship. My mentor, Juan Jose Lopez, wanted to run for school board here, he did, he was the first, and it showed me that I too could step out even if I was the first. I ended up being the first Rivera to graduate from college, I created my own major at UW-Madison, and I realized being in Madison and trying to walk in purpose meant being comfortable being first at some things.
Being a Latino in Madison also means being the last. I remember when my wife and I were finally ready to buy our first home here. We decided to not hire an agent and we found dozens of homes we liked and called them ourselves. My wife Jennifer was called back immediately each time she left a message, but I was never was. Finally, I got ahold of an owner, I introduced myself as Roberto Rivera, and he told me right off the bat that he wasn’t “renting” his home he was “selling” it. I explained to him I was not looking to rent but buy and his response was like I was the last person on earth he could imagine selling his home to. I then conducted an experiment and when I left messages and said my name was “Robert” instead of “Roberto” I was called back immediately every time. I also remember presenting at a major conference here, I was setting up in the room and when people came in, a woman asked me “who is presenting this session”? When I told her I was, she laughed at me in my face as if I was the last person she could imagine having something to present at this conference. That is another reason I always bring my “A” game to conferences, I like to see stereotypes people assume about me at first get shattered at the end.
What three leaders in Chicago under 50 have impressed you the most? Samuel Dyson, Director of the Hive Chicago Learning Network: Mozilla Foundation. This brother is doing a great job creating an alliance of youth development organizations and programs throughout the city and helps to provide support in these orgs infusing digital media in their organizational DNA.
Tehray “Phenom” Hale, Co-Founder of Lyric Mentoring and Super Emcee. This brother was not only named one of the top five artists in the city of Chicago, but he is literally a phenomenal youth worker and community change agent. He has touched countless lives and has mentored youth who also embody being dope artists and amazing community workers.
Jacinda Bullie, Co-Founder of Kuumba Lynx. This young woman has helped create and lead one of the top spoken word and hip-hop organizations in the country. Not only have her youth won several national slams but she has found ways to infuse hip-hop programs with the park district in a way that is transforming systems and impacting community.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? Two major things stick out to me: First off, there is an overemphasis on what is going on that is wrong with people of color and their communities. Although it is crucial to have a critical analysis of reality, an overemphasis on the deficits people of color have is not the most effective way to develop a movement that will adequately address these disparities. Imagine for a moment you were applying for a job and you were asked to share only your weaknesses, failures, and insecurities. Would you feel empowered to give your best in that position you were applying for if hired? Probably not, so why do we use this as a strategy to create grassroots movements?
In my work in L.A, Chicago, and other cities around the nation; we found that it is in helping people recognize and utilize their assets, strengths, and beauty that actually empowers them to transform their lives and impact their communities. Making people feel like victims to their circumstances is not what we need to do with the proposed strategies. People need support to feel like victors, capable of authoring new narratives for themselves and their communities. This shift requires more capacity-building initiatives and working “with” people instead of working “for” them.
Lastly, I would say that there is a lot of talking about disparities facing young men of color, but not many young men of color who are given a platform to engage in dialogue and actually be heard. I am not sure if this stumbling block is strictly racial; I think it is generational as well. To this, I would encourage people to remember that every successful social movement in the last 50 years had youth at the forefront of it. From the civil rights movement and youth sitting at lunch counters and boarding busses; to Apartheid in South Africa with youth challenging the Bantu system of education; to budget cuts in Brazil and the role youth played in getting their congress adopting the UN’s Rights of a Child; they all had youth in the front. In the same way Madison will never adequately address the root issues creating these disparities without the voices of people who are most impacted by these realities having more of a voice and presence of power in these discussions and actions.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? I really aspire to do many things in my life but at the top of the list is to be an excellent father. To do this well, I realize I need to be an excellent husband. To do that well, I need to exercise faith to be the authentic and patient change agent God wants me to be.
You built curriculum by using hip-hop. How does it help students learn and do you have data to show how well it’s working? I believe that Hip-hop culture (not to be confused with hip-hop industry) is one of the best case studies in the history of the world on how youth can demonstrate innovation and resilience, and create social change. Our transformative leadership and social skill curriculum called Fulfill the Dream, helps ground students in this relevant history that many are not aware of. We charge youth to create a legacy project in their school and community, and in the process, they learn about their strengths, how to think more critically, and work more collaboratively in the process.
Results from the program include: an alternative high school achieving its first ever 100% graduation rate after implementing the program in year one. We have seen youth deemed “unreachable” who only attended school 51% of the time in Chicago start attending school 96% of the time in one month. We helped the YMCA in Cincinnati infuse the program in all 28 sites across the city and after three years of implementation, they were named the top after school association in the nation for the Y by a third party evaluation. On the community side, we have seen youth create events that have led to gang peace treaties, we have seen youth create businesses, develop their own non-profits, and win countless community awards. We have also been able to publish some academic articles on the program in the last year.
What are the two biggest things you’ve learned from Chicago and Madison when it comes to addressing issues with education and community equality? Part of the problem with education is that we are still sending students through a system that is engaging them in the same way it was 60 years ago. Now that we are in the knowledge/innovation economy, youth need a different set of skills. They can look up almost anything on google, so the retention of useless information is not important, what is important is helping youth to think critically about the information they are exposed to. The top ten jobs last year did not exist six years ago, and one of the common denominators of these top new jobs is that they require youth to be creative and solve problems creatively. In addition to this, youth will need to be able to work collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds.
My experience in working with schools and communities and research as a Ph.D candidate, informs me that we can help youth develop these skills by preparing them to serve their communities effectively. By connecting what is happening in a class to what is going in the community makes learning more relevant and purposeful. The future of education should be innovative enough to both help youth thrive and communities flourish, because the two are intimately connected. Learning happens all the time, and youth are incredibly ingenious, we need to provide some guidance but at a certain point also get the heck out of the way.
How has your faith impacted your work? I have a very close relationship with the Creator. To say that my relationship with my own dad has been strained, is an understatement. I have come to believe that the Creator is my real father/grandfather and so I depend on Him for inspiration, direction, and strategy. When I go to work in a new community I ask the Creator to show me what is really happening there. I also look for where He is already at work in that context. When I partner with the divine work already taking place, there is always fruit. He is always at work in every context I enter.
I often feel over my head, but with the Creator in my life I have learned that it is okay to scuba dive in many of these situations. So when I get a call from the World Bank to speak to the Secretary of Education in Mexico or am invited to Spain to present at a major University, I lean heavily on the Creator to show me what to do and what to say. I do this every time even if I speak to a group of students in a class, because it always ends up better that way.
At the University of Wisconsin, you created your own major. Why do you feel the need to do that? After I helped to raise $700,000 at the New Loft Teen center back in the day, I realized that I could go after something big and pull it off. When I went to UW-Madison I knew I didn’t want to be schooled but wanted to get an education. That meant having an experience that would be relevant to me and the community. At the time there was no major for me that fit quite right so I dug deep and found out about creating an individual major. Once I realized that this was possible, I went for it. It was a battle, but I got some great support, and there is no doubt that this was a transformative educational experience for me. I created a film called Bridge da Gap where I interviewed several hip-hop pioneers and scholars and that put me on the path I am on today. Now I know that what I am doing has names like: creative youth development, hip-hop based education, youth and cultural organizing, and social entrepreneurship.
You gave a TedX speech. What tips do you have for people who want to do public speaking? Public speaking is like painting, there are so many ways to do it. I remember when I first got started doing it, I thought I had to do it a certain way like we are taught in school and I felt super uncomfortable and inauthentic. I hated it. Over the years I have learned that public speaking is an art form and there are many ways to do it with power and authenticity. I was really into freestyle rapping, spoken word, and theater coming up, so I started taking this passion and bridging it into the public speaking space. I love to share cutting edge research and tell stories that make the research come to life, so to me, public speaking is like doing a scientific and artistic theatrical production. There needs to be a beginning that captures the attention of the audience, each point needs to come to life like a scene in a play and move the overarching story forward, and there needs to be some conclusion and call to action at the end.
For some people public speaking comes so naturally, but for me it took practice. I used to do all school assemblies with my crew for free. We just wanted to help encourage the youth, and so we saw a need and wanted to meet it. I didn’t know I would be mastering a craft that would later pay me in a day what I used to make in a year back then. Just getting experience, being prepared, and being open to flowing with the context at hand are key pieces that have helped me. Hopefully, this helps someone else too.
What do you love the most about your wife and being married? What I love about my wife is that she totally has my back and is on this great adventure called life with me. I know she is my soul mate because being with her requires both of us to always grow mind, body, heart, and soul. She helps me in so many ways with family, business, and life; I can’t even lie she is the better half in this equation. People think that marriage is old and dull and so they run in and out of relationships without making a commitment. Relationships are like skyscrapers and only through a commitment like marriage can you actually get the key to unlock the elevator to get to the top, and it takes a lifetime to get there. So many brothers I know only get to the first floor or two of the building and leave out, but in 13 years of marriage, the view only keeps getting better, and I can’t wait to get to the 60th floor.