Early in my career as a community organizer, I heard Harry Belafonte, the activist and entertainer with whom I worked at the time, make an observation that has stayed with me for more than 20 years. After hard-won gains in civil rights, attention turned to parts of society, long inaccessible – education, housing, jobs, just to name a few.
“That’s why so many civil rights leaders went into politics,” Harry told me.
We’re seeing an important parallel today as the campaign for greater equity and inclusion expands from the political arena into the business world. At a time when national and regional politics are stymied (a polite way of putting it), we need an interconnected, holistic approach.
A key player that bridges nonprofit, for-profit and politics is Boston-based Rivera Consulting, founded by Wilnelia Rivera, who calls herself a “strategic disruptor.” The research, capacity-building and coaching services her firm has deployed in support of political candidates with an agenda for change – among them Rep. Ayanna Pressley and her historic congressional election – is being expanded and redirected into other areas in need of social change.
Today, Rivera Consulting is deploying its data-driven, deep democracy approach in urban planning and community development. It is active not only in Boston and across Massachusetts, but increasingly nationwide.
“We are trying to do things differently, not just in the public sector, but also in the private sector,” Rivera told me in a recent conversation. “Yes, we have to deal with regulatory outcomes. But people still need to live and work, get on the bus, and take their kids to childcare.”
Anchored in ‘Deep Democracy’
Leveraging Rivera’s 18 years in this space, Rivera Consulting remains anchored in “deep democracy,” a philosophy in which every person, every voice, every perspective and every idea matters. But the firm is also inherently practical – as Rivera is. Or, as she put it, “You can’t have an impact at the hyper-local scene if you are not doing the groundwork.”
Among the members of the Rivera Consulting team is Gina Christo, the firm’s strategic engagement director with a skillset that includes political and communications strategy, grassroots fundraising (she was Rep. Pressley’s finance director for her 2018 election) and coaching.
“We have the skills and the vision to change the environment,” Christo said. “We’re working with C4s [nonprofit social welfare organizations] and justice-based organizations to help them build their capacity and their vision for the equity they want to achieve.”
In this work, Rivera Consulting is partnering with individuals and BIPOC-led or focused organizations to advance social change. Its clients range from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a nonprofit involved in bus rapid transit systems and encouraging non-motorized transport, to the Real Estate Associate Program (Project REAP), which seeks to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in commercial real estate. Other clients are active across community-building, reproductive health and social justice.
“We work with clients who have teams and assets that we can build out together,” Christo added.
Where Quantitative Meets Qualitative
Complementing Rivera Consulting’s deep democracy approach is its reliance on data and analysis.
“Data is the instrument to analyze what people are seeing at the local level as we build the cities for tomorrow,” Rivera said. “It brings together geography, place, and race.”
Rivera Consulting calls it “mixed-method research,” a combination of its cultural competency and technical skills to produce bold and actionable plans. It blends data from multiple sources – e.g., census and land use – with qualitative social science such as engaging with and listening to constituents and other stakeholders.
“We are creating meaning and metrics for our clients, so they can create new tools,” Rivera said.
In talking with Rivera and members of her consulting team, it’s clear that the pivot from politics into urban planning and development isn’t a change as much as an evolution. It’s one I know well along the path of my own journey, which took me from community organizing into the corporate world, including as a bank president and now as founder and CEO of the Lazu Group, a DEI consulting firm.
As we’re seeing everywhere, real change will come through public-private partnerships. A compelling example is Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s commitment to reimagine the Boston Planning & Development Agency for more equitable participation in real estate development. After all, what is politics without policy?
Many of us who began our careers as organizers are still doing that work, but in different ways. The fact is to deconstruct power, you first have to go into those places of power. And that’s where Rivera Consulting is being drawn, because that’s where the work needs to be done.
“I do have a broad network in politics and the movement space across the country,” Rivera said. “But now it’s time to rethink, reframe, and retool.”
Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.