Roberto Rivera’s personal story is about the expansion of true consciousness in one young person, who was tagged early on as learning-disabled, then shunted from one alternative school to another. He got into trouble, and almost slid into an abyss of statistics that presumed his ultimate disconnection from family and community — from the “good life.”
Now, he says he is learning about love. How to love other people, how to love himself.
A turning point for Rivera was the death of his grandfather, who saw young Roberto in his wholeness, simmering and on the brink of something. “He didn’t just see the talent and passion in me,” Rivera says of his grandfather, “He saw my pain.”
Rivera is the president and lead change agent of The Good Life Organization (GLO), a social enterprise that catches young people who slip through the cracks of our educational and social systems. He catches them with hip-hop, storytelling, videography, and personal connection. He does it because he stepped out of the cracks himself in a journey that took him from “dope dealer to hope dealer.”
That’s how Rivera sees students in GLO’s afterschool Fulfill the Dream workshops, a series of encounters that draw out the genius of young people who are considered “at-risk”, but who have the impulse to give and create. Seeing the beauty beneath a rough exterior is what Rivera calls “Michelangelo vision” —the ability to look beyond like his grandfather could.
“He was my Michelangelo,” Rivera says. His grandfather was the son of immigrants. He went to college against the odds, sent money home to his siblings, and led an altruistic life grounded in the community. His death took Rivera off the “track to distraction,” the path that seeks a pleasure-centered life, filled with fleeting feel-good moments that leave an emptiness in their wake.
Ten years ago, Rivera started GLO as a service born out of love, he says. He works in underserved communities, mostly with young people of color who struggle as he did. “All that work is bursting out of the heart of a big brother who is trying to love these kids,” he says. “I want them to be great, to be walking in their dreams.”
As he pursues a Ph.D. in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rivera applies empirical evidence to what he already knows through experience: “Education can have the most profound impact on people’s lives.” But he is careful not to fall for clichéd strategies aimed at pulling kids from one side of the achievement gap to the other.
He notes that standard educational goals can produce high-achievers who go to Ivy League schools, earn their MBAs, join blue-chip corporations, and devise brilliant financial schemes that build immense wealth for the few on Wall Street, and chaos for everyone else.
It’s not enough to be smart, self-satisfied, and successful, Rivera says. “We want all kids on both sides of the gap to have a moral compass, to think critically, and to make the institutions that they’re a part of and the communities that they serve to be more just and more humane.”
At GLO, he reminds young people of their heritage in hip-hop, the most innovative cultural movement of this age. He tells them about the Jamaican-born, Bronx-raised DJ Kool Herc, who transformed the turntable into an instrument, got everyone break-dancing, and brought hip-hop into being. Kool Herc opened a space for joy and expression and thus transformed a culture. And he started out just like them.
“This is their history, and it’s important that they know it and claim it, and build off that foundation,” Rivera says. “If our kids today can recapture that narrative, realize their link in the chain of tradition, it’s not so farfetched that they might have the idea for the new Facebook.”
Rivera helps young people find their “inner GPS” and turn it up so that the reality of love dominates all others. “There’s a real clash of realities happening right now,” he says. “The one that will win is the one that people embody and live.”