A Survivor’s Story
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
Rosemary “Rockie” Rivera started her career in the movement as a directly impacted volunteer. Growing up as a Nuyorican in the system, Rosemary experienced first hand the injustices within multiple systems. In 2005, she joined Citizen Action where she learned about systemic oppression and how it works. Rosemary began as a community organizer and, in 2019, became the Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York and the Public Policy and Education Fund. She serves on several boards and is the State Chair of the Alliance for Quality Education.
Narrative Initiative: Tell me who you are.
Rosemary Rivera: My name is Rosemary Rivera. I found out that my name was Rosemary Rivera at the age of 25. I never knew my own name. I am writing a memoir. At this moment, it is called Disposable — and no, it’s not about garbage disposals. It is a memoir about my life. I never thought that I would be at such quote unquote lofty heights. I never imagined that I would be leading one of the most important political organizations, surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in politics and some of the most caring and compassionate people about the issues and the oppression that we face.
I was abandoned in a hospital. I’ve gone through every system of oppression that you could possibly imagine and so, when I stumbled into the movement, I felt like its poster child. I was a prostitute. I was a drug addict. I was incarcerated for many, many years. New York State is my mother and father and now I like to fight it just like any good rebellious child. And I do say I am like any rebellious child. I got clean and stayed clean when I actually got into the movement and got this particular job. I started as a volunteer, due to being in a group home and having been in trouble.
Then I stayed clean through the movement, so I feel a debt in my life to the movement. Not only did it help me understand the world that I live in, and why the things that I went through happened to me in systemic terms, but it surrounded me with the kind of people that I admired and I did not want to let down. The movement not only gave me my values and my morals, it was the best damn anti-poverty program I ever joined. If you do the work, you actually get compensated and have an impact. So I have really turned my life around through the movement. I became an organizer, then the Organizing Director for 10 years, traveling the state, creating campaigns, working on elections, working on issues, doing leadership development for others, bringing them into the movement. Then I became the Co-Executive Director. That in and of itself was a challenge like no other that I’ve experienced. It has been an incredible journey, but also one that also comes with some criticism about the movement and how we’re moving on the left.
In leadership, we learn how to break down walls, how to invite community, how to do these things. That is a joy. But I learned that, as a leader, you actually have to reconstruct walls in these executive positions. You know, [with] the kind of life that I lead, the traumas that happened, the fact that I’m talking to – I don’t know – Senator Chuck Schumer is always pretty fascinating. I always said, “My God, I feel like an astronaut.” I [had been] sleeping in a box. The movement propelled me to become a better person.
I have a gentleman who works for me who did 50 years in prison. He went to prison as a Black Panther because he was fighting for his people. He had these morals about uplifting people and went to prison for that. I didn’t have any values. I didn’t have any morals. I wasn’t fighting for anyone. I was an angry and hurt child who hurt people because, as the age old saying goes, Hurt people hurt people. It’s a real thing. I had no purpose – except to take.
When it comes to power, there are similarities between the streets and the movement. I understood that from the very beginning. What is fascinating to me is that I use my street knowledge and experience to help me in the movement. There’s a really deep difference in the why we do [what we do], right? Once I started not only just caring for myself, but for others, it really changed my life. I work hard every day to have integrity and to be ethical. If you’d have met me, I don’t know, 20 years ago, I was probably not the kind of person that you want to talk to.
Narrative Initiative: Do you work with people who are incarcerated? Is that the focus of your advocacy?
Rosemary Rivera: For both Jalil Muntaqim – the Black Panther I was talking to you about – and myself, the thing that makes our heart pitter patter is actually education. We work on the whole spectrum of social justice. One of my problems these days is, when you see injustice around every corner and inequities, how do you say no? We’re in a triple blue state and we still have all of these inequities and harsh realities facing us. Democracy became very important to me and, like I said, I understood power. Once I realized where power lies, democracy really became that underlying issue. For the world that we wanted to live in, the key barrier for us was housing, education, and criminal justice. So, while we worked on many issues, [criminal justice] is not the issue that I lead with. It’s working on all of the areas that we need to invest in to produce a society that doesn’t leave a kid, you know, strung out at 11 years old on heroin on the streets.
The stigma around criminal justice is interesting. Although my former Executive Director knew that I had been in prison for years and so forth, it was not something I told people. It wasn’t until Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, that took the blinders off of people. People started waking up — not that these problems hadn’t been there forever. It allowed people like me to come out of the closet – I don’t know if that is the right word. I’ll never forget I came out in a church. I had been organizing in Rochester, New York. There was about about 200 or 300 people in the room and a reporter sitting in the front who I’d worked with for years. When I finally told people that I had been in prison, his mouth literally dropped open.
After that panel discussion, I ran out of that church feeling this heat and shame. Did I do the right thing? Did I just tank my entire livelihood here? Will I have the respect that I need in order to move issues forward? Will people still accept me? Or will they only tolerate me? That’s a question I still have to this day when I have to walk the halls of Albany. And I’m afraid that once this book comes out and every edit [will] expose me and all that is really ugly and beautiful. How will that impact the work that we’re trying to do as a movement?
Narrative Initiative: You come to movement work as someone who has been directly impacted many different systems. What ultimately compelled you to go forward and start writing this book? And who are you writing for?
Rosemary Rivera: I started this book as a self healing process during COVID. I’m really writing for myself. Sometimes, I feel like I’m writing to that little girl before she picked up that needle when she was 11. I’m asking the reader to take the journey with me. I’m also a survivor and I’m getting older. What can this world do to me that I haven’t done to myself or that hasn’t already been done to me? There’s nothing left. If I lose everything else, guess what? I’m going to be okay. That gave me the courage to say, “You know what, I’ll expose myself here.”
Narrative Initiative: I just want to back up. When I asked you who you were, you responded with, “I’m Rosemary Rivera, which I did not know until I was 25 years old.” That’s a pretty striking thing to say. Could you tell me more about that?
Rosemary Rivera: There’s a still a lot of mystery to my early, formative years that I have not been able to find out. I was left with a woman, Rachel Glover, who was schizophrenic, but I don’t think I was ever adopted. I knew she wasn’t my mother, but it got into my head that she was, and then it became very clear that she wasn’t. I was in group homes a lot. In my neighborhood, all the Black and Brown people are like, [rolls r] Rockie! Rockie! I went all my life and through public school as Raquel Soraya. Then, I was in the system. I was in jail under that name because I really thought it was my real name. I went to get a birth certificate at one point from Bellevue Hospital and they told me I didn’t exist. Literally. Those were the words that came out of their mouths: “I’m sorry, you don’t exist.”
Then I went to prison again. And when I was getting out, I was like, “I need identification.” I grew up not needing identification for anything. I was a street person. You don’t need identification to go rob people and do drugs; I didn’t do anything that I needed identification for. I got my GED in prison under Raquel, thinking that that was my name. Then, when I hit Rochester on a work-release program, I needed identification, and lo-and-behold, there was no identification for me. So the prison system helped me find that my name is actually Rosemary Rivera.
And so I became Rosemary Rivera in 1993 when I was released from my second-to-last bit. I became Rosemary Rivera, and people would say, “Rosemary,” and I would keep walking. I was not accustomed to that name. I was never adopted; I never changed my name. How did I go through the system this whole time with the wrong damn name? How does that even happen?
Narrative Initiative: As you’ve been writing this memoir, how has it changed your narrative on who you are?
Rosemary Rivera: You know, [there’s a saying] I heard in prison that I am holding onto now. The saying was, Accept me or reject me, but you got to respect me. It fits where I am now.
I’m not hyper individualistic. I really believe in [using] collective solutions and ideas to grapple with people. But there is a sense of “do you.” In the movement itself, people became so, You can’t understand me because I’m this individual. And I look at unions, which approach things as collective. And then I look at us really trying to acknowledge the individualism of everyone and I think that there’s a sweet spot in the middle. You can’t stay individualistic. You got to move to the collective or you spiral down. I don’t want to stay stuck in the past. I really want to move towards a bigger and brighter future. How do I become a better person? How do I not allow these things to stop me at all?
Narrative Initiative: What mentors or influences in your life have sustained you on this journey?
Rosemary Rivera: A lot of people. An organization named Metro Justice did. It was interesting because I used to hate white people and they were predominantly white. So I had this cognitive dissonance going. All my life, I believed that white people were all the devils – every single last one of them. Never had a friend that was white. Never had a romantic involvement with someone that was. It was just fascinating to run into all of these white people who poured themselves into me along with Billy Easton and Karen Sharp, the heads of the Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action. There were these unicorns in the social justice space that actually wanted you around. That was the fascinating thing. They even gave me keys. I was like, “No, you gave me keys to get off. I can come and take everything you got.” It was really fascinating to experience that. So there’s been a lot of people who have been kind and who decided not to tear me down in order to build me up; they just loved me in the place that I am.
They keep on doing that, despite the fact that I’m still a little bit of hell and quite rough around the edges. I’m still very self conscious about my history versus all of the other EDS in the movement. They all have degrees and so on. What helped me was that work works. I was ready to listen and learn and the teacher appeared – that saying is quite true. I was willing to do what they told me. They would tell me to go read something and I did.
Writing a book is really important to me because reading is what saved my life. When I was little, in these group homes, reading was my escape and prison reading was my escape. Even when I was on the street selling dope, it was my escape into these beautiful worlds that I encountered. I was attracted to books on the Holocaust and books on people that had gone through so much more than I had gone through. I cried for them, which allowed me to say my life isn’t quite as bad. I always found hope in that. So books are very, very, very important to me. And some books I take a lot from and some books, I don’t. So if it doesn’t apply, let it fly. That’s kind of what I’m holding for this book that I write. If it doesn’t apply and you can’t find something in it, that’s okay. But this is my story and someone will find something.