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Reimagining the Answers: Natasha Daniella Rivera, EPM'18

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Education Policy and Management reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.

Natasha Rivera
As a young girl from Queens, Natasha Daniella Rivera participation in programs run by Prep for Prep — a leadership development organization for gifted students of color in New York City public schools — opened doors to many opportunities including a scholarship to an elite private school and paid internships. Although grateful for the experience, Rivera was also struck by the cost: Why did she have to leave her community in order to gain the academic experiences she craved or to be considered a leader? What did it mean that a measure of success was whether students of color could learn to navigate predominantly white institutions?

Rivera’s questions only grew deeper as she began her education career working in nonprofits. She often encountered policy issues that prevented the organizations from operating most effectively to improve outcomes for all students. She enrolled in the Education Policy and Management (EPM) Program seeking answers to her questions about education organizations and how they run, as well as innovative thinking on how they could run. But rather than definite answers, Rivera found more questions, especially about marginalized identities and social justice, subjects that have always concerned her.

“My experience here has made me realize that I have more questions I want to ask, in order to understand rather than solve,” says Rivera. “Questions like: How is education complicit in inequity? How can educators resist a system that uplifts meritocracy but devalues resources for education? Why does white supremacy persist in the face of resistance? Where do we begin? I want to reimagine what an answer would look like.”

After graduation, Rivera would like to work to empower youth to become decision-makers. In anything she does, young people will be directly involved, including her dream job of creating and delivering anti-oppression workshops for educators. “I don’t want to be doing anything for them, I want to be doing it with them,” she says. She also hopes to help organizations with long-term strategic planning to become truly social-justice and healing-oriented.

Rivera will be receiving the Intellectual Contribution Award for EPM at Convocation on May 23.

“Her devotion to community, her peers, and advancing productive dialog make Natasha a perfect choice for this award,” says Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, faculty director of EPM. “Her colleagues consistently noted that her presence as a critical listener and thought partner was vital to their learning at HGSE. Through her work as an Equity and Inclusion Fellow, she leaves this school a better institution than the one she joined.”

Here, Rivera reflects on her year at HGSE and looks at her future in education.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?
I learned how to have difficult conversations. It was the last thing I expected to learn but perhaps has been the most salient. I learned the conditions and skill set need to approach conversations that are uncomfortable but deeply needed from a variety of perspectives — personal and professional.

Is there any professor, class, or experience that significantly shaped your time at the Ed School?
Being an Equity Fellow dramatically affected my experience here. It was amazing to be a part of a group tasked with examining how diversity, equity, and inclusion shows up at HGSE. It was truly an honor to be selected as that work is deep, complex, and much needed. I was grateful to do that work at HGSE with an amazing group of people and a thoughtful leader, Tracie Jones. As an Equity Fellow, I learned how important good facilitation is — good being balanced in understanding power and privilege, self, and the mission at hand, while also navigating how each of those show up in difficult conversations. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be trusted in facilitating important conversations on campus — conversations that need to continue to impact change.

Christina Villareal showed me what it means to be a teacher as a calling – her Ethnic studies class was incredibly transformational in content but it’s her ethos of teaching that truly blew me away. She brings all of herself into it- and tells her students so, making the process of learning a more humanizing one. It’s mind-boggling to me that her class is an elective.

Karen Mapp’s Leadership in Social Change Organizations class continually surprised me. I never expected to take a class that asked me to deeply consider who I am before learning leadership and organizational frameworks for social change. That class catalyzed a lot of advocacy work on campus for me solely because it asked me to consider what parts of myself show up the most as a leader. I strive to one day achieve the presence Dr. Mapp evokes when she walks into a room.

The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was …
Gaining national news coverage for the first ever protest I planned (which was also planned in under a week). Within the first month of being here, I found out Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was scheduled to speak at Harvard Kennedy School. A few days later, a few newly made friends and I decided to protest her appearance. Unknown to us, there were several groups at Harvard who wanted to protest, and by leveraging our networks, we connected across schools. The protest aimed to elevate concerns of Harvard’s complicity. In inviting DeVos, Harvard passively aligned itself to the harmful policies that DeVos and the administration she represents, continues to enact. I never imagined that it would gain the media attention that it did.

As an organizer of this protest, I’ve often thought about the collective power that went into the planning. We were mostly graduate school students. We cared about the intersection of all of our issues. We all were willing and able to take the risk of being arrested because we were all documented citizens of the United States. In the time that has passed since the protest, I’ve reflected on the privilege of that fact. I’ve thought about my friends who wanted to participate in the civic right of protesting but couldn’t, as an arrest could mean deportation or hinder the potential of ever becoming citizens. I’ve thought about how the protest didn’t necessarily lead to any outcome and demand from the institution- I’m still not sure what that means. However, I’m deeply grateful that the protest created life-long bonds and friendships.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?
Welcome and expect discomfort. In fact, I’d say if you aren’t uncomfortable at any point of your time here, you haven’t made use of this learning space as deeply as you could have. Welcome the uncomfortable feeling of reconciling multiple experiences that are valid and true, of the implications of making policy decisions with peers who have no direct experience with the population being addressed. Learn how to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. Learn how to listen to learn and not listen to respond.

Learn more about the Intellectual Contribution Award and read about all of this year's recipients.


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