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Graduate Spotlight: Sylvia Rivera

Graduate Spotlight: Sylvia Rivera

Q: What was the journey you experienced in academia/life/work that led you here?

A: I am an Afro/Black- Puerto Rican woman. I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico- one of the oldest remaining colonies on earth under US control- where most of my family remains; I currently live in Portland, OR. My journey to OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, like many, is a constellation of many paths, checkpoints, and detours; it is primarily informed by my social location(s), politics, and lived experiences.

For example, my community- the Puerto Rican people- do not have the right to determine or govern their geopolitical future(s); we are colonial subjects. Understood as another structural determinant of health, colonialism has resulted in one social, economic, cultural, ecological and public health crisis after another such as widespread poverty, poor health infrastructure, unemployment and the imposition of austerity measures such as school closures and reduction/elimination of pensions. In light of such violent and precarious conditions, my family was forcibly displaced from their home.

In short, I’ve seen how past and current violent policies and structures can systematically and strategically determine one’s opportunities, such that choice becomes unavailable to minoritized peoples. My current trajectory is also influenced by years of deliberately working in partnership with systematically marginalized peoples such as communities of color, the poor, the neglected, and the disenfranchised. I am currently a Registered Nurse (RN) and was previously employed at a Level 1 trauma center, an STD clinic, and supervised a team of front line healthcare staff at a social services agency and federally qualified health center prior to pursuing an MPH.

All of these experiences have enriched my life, and are largely responsible for the values, worldview, and politics that serve as the foundation to my public health training.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a degree in Public Health, Health Promotion?

A: The inspiration to pursue a degree in public health is largely rooted in my professional experiences; my career as a Registered Nurse (RN) provided me many opportunities to be with a diversity of individuals and families from oppressed communities. I learned how to hold space for, and listen to, the testimony of those forced to live on the fringes of society- including persons with disabilities and those subjected to carceral systems of control. I have cared for adult patients experiencing medically complex conditions, various forms of poverty, houselessness, and comorbid psychiatric and addiction needs. Such proximity has enabled me to observe, reflect on, and ask critical questions about the social determinants of health that govern and harm those who exist in the margins. My work as an RN confirmed what I had long suspected: the institutions responsible for the public’s health are not, in fact, broken; they were designed as intended and further perpetuate long-standing racial, social and health inequities.

Finally, if COVID-19 taught me anything as an RN- it is what happens when you do not have leadership that is fit to lead the nation during one of the most challenging times in our modern history: someone’s Black, Native and Latinx mother, father, brother, sister, and/or friend dies in one of the wealthiest countries on earth. If COVID-19 reminded me of something- it is what can unfold when we refuse to see and act upon that which has always existed: the pandemic of racism will continue to plague the world.


Q: Did you face any challenges in entering the program or at any point during your academic journey that you were able to overcome?

A: My challenges were largely emotional/mental in nature. Many students from the margins- such as those who are first gen, who are disabled, and who are students of color; particularly BIPOC queer, trans and cis -women- come into academic institutions feeling that we are “not enough”. This is a complex, and nuanced issue, of course, but for me it resulted in feeling that I had to constantly go above and beyond in my academic work to demonstrate my intellectual “capacity”. I developed unreasonable expectations of myself. The result was overwhelm, feeling isolated and ultimately burnout. I don’t think students can “overcome” this; this is inextricably linked to white supremacy and it’s our collective responsibility to dismantle it. What helped me re-evaluate my thinking was my connection to other trusted BIPOC students and faculty; I frequently reflect on the wisdom they so generously shared with me throughout my time in the program.


Q: Who/what served as an inspiration during your academic journey?

A:The women of color in my life who have held space for and mentored me have been the primary source of inspiration during my academic journey. They include my two grandmothers, Aura Iris Rivera Martínez, and Maria Oquendo Encarnación who are with me in spirit but whose voices and stories guide my every move; my mother, Sylvia Luz Olmo Rivera, who always fought for me, and provided me with unconditional love and support; and my sisters, friends, and ride-or-dies, Dr. Kim Cameron-Dominguez, Andrea Treadway and Yessenia Villalobos- all of whom have generously shared their love, attention, time, and care, and reminded me to unapologetically take up space; to continue to stand, and dance, despite the many ways white supremacy “lands” on our minds and bodies every day. I am here because of their courage and determination to make a way out of no way.


Q: Who has been supportive to you in your academic journey?

A: My experience and training while at the SPH has been profoundly shaped by the guidance I received from my mentor, Dr. Ryan J. Petteway. Those who know him know that he is unapologetically committed to listening to, and supporting students from the margins in public health and beyond. I will always be grateful for his time; for the walks around campus and the many conversations, debates, ruminations and laughter we engaged in over café (dark roast, of course) about school, music and life while completing my training. Simply put, my academic journey at the school would’ve been a vastly different experience if not for his presence and care. As I enter the next chapter of my life I know that I can always count on him to show up; he is more than a mentor, he is a trusted friend.


Q: What kind of impact do you hope to make in the world of Public Health and why?

A: I am interested in interrupting intergenerational cycles of silence that are the result of epistemic violence. Specifically, I hope to engage a public health praxis that centers the voices and stories of Black/Afro Puerto Rican women, and other women of color; that provides the tools/resources necessary to bring forth the words buried deep within in order to speak for ourselves; to share the pain and joy that fill the pages of our sisters, mothers, aunties, and grandmothers’ unpublished stories as a counternarrative to the majoritarian narratives perpetuated within and beyond public health. By doing so we make visible that which is made invisible by systems and power structures rooted in white supremacy whose mission is to reduce us. My goal is to help other women of color become the narrators of their lives; to unapologetically ‘snap back’ at the systems of oppression that seek to erase us in order to realize a world that fundamentally values us.

If one woman is inspired to speak, that’s all the “impact” I need.