Place yourself in situations where you are the minority. How often do we surround ourselves with others that are “like” us because, well, that is what we’ve been taught is our comfort-zone? Insert yourself in a community that is different from you, expanding your community which, in turn, expands your knowledge of what that community is about. Learn to observe and listen. Not “hear,” mind you. But truly listen. Be open-minded and curious; curiosity isn’t what killed the cat but what brought Alice into a whole new Wonderland. It is more important to listen to what someone has to say and understand where they are coming from. More community or networking events; diversify your world!
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Allie Rivera.
Allie is an actress, voice over talent and producer. Originally from Cleveland Ohio, she’s moved quite a bit and studied at the George Washington University in DC, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC, and continued education via Boston University’s first online degree program. After doing some musical theatre in NYC, she moved to LA where taught and directed children’s theatre at the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts and has since moved into film and TV where she’s performed and/or produced everything from Nickelodeon to Horror films.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Sure! I have moved around a lot, but mostly grew up in and around Cleveland, OH. I am Puerto Rican and Sicilian; both sets of grandparents were immigrants to this country and that is something that has always been a huge part of my identity, though I never quite understood a certain disconnect I always felt with others that didn’t have such a closely connected background to their culture. They, along with my big extended family were a huge part in raising us, my one Grandmother in particular, and we are very close. I have two sisters, (I am the quintessential “middle child”!) and scored the golden unicorn of parents who have been together since they were 16 and are still going strong over 40 years later! I spent my formative years at a very small Catholic School in Cleveland and moved to a huge public school in the suburbs in the middle of 6th grade. Most would have sunk with such a huge change but I really thrived there; I loved the new challenges and new faces-I’ve always been drawn to meeting and learning more about people. It also opened my eyes and world to a pool of diversity I had not yet experienced and made me feel like maybe I’m not so different than other kids. My father was a radio DJ and voiceover artist and introduced me to musical theatre at a very young age. You would always find me performing! Always. I sought the stage, sought the outlet of expression, and most importantly, the “theatre people” became my second home; a group that welcomes you by virtue of sharing a similar passion. We moved to Trumbull, CT in the middle of my sophomore year of high school and man, that was a whole new world. I still thrived in the theatre and competitive sports but learned very quickly that all opportunities are not created equal in this world. Living so close to NYC, I sought to create my own opportunities and studied theatre in the city over the summer at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and secured an internship at New Line Cinema when I was 17. I was cast as a host and actor for an educational series at 16 and learned that I also loved being on camera; it was such a different method and world of performing!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Honestly, I am almost ashamed to admit I was never much of a reader! I always joke that I had my sister (a consummate reader!) read the Babysitters Club, Box Car Children, Judy Blume and other serial books aloud so much that I didn’t “learn” to read until very late, and by then, why would I want to do it myself?! I also had my Dad; he would do all of the voices and it was so entertaining! I preferred making the stories up in my head and creating the characters through the stories I heard-I had so much trouble focusing on the stories when I was reading them myself!
This is probably why I have gravitated to mostly reading scripts when I find the time to read. In particular there are two plays that have resonated and stuck with me through the years that are, quite ironically, very relevant to this conversation. They are both written by Neil LaBute: “The Shape of Things,” and “Bash: Latter-Day Plays.” The first is about how far a person is willing to go to change themselves, and I mean almost everything about themselves, for what he perceived to be love. I found it so uniquely interesting and ahead of it’s time that the subject was the male changing for the female’s acceptance, not the other way around. She had him change small things about his appearance like wearing contacts instead of glasses, changing his wardrobe and other small outward things. It deepens when she ruins his friendships and even has him undergo plastic surgery to “mold” him into someone who is “better” in her eyes. As it turns out, he was the subject of her MFA thesis the whole time, and he is left with nothing tangible to account for everything he went through for what he thought was true love.
In “Bash,” a collection of three very dark one-acts, there are two with very Greek themes, (think Euripides) and they are fantastic, but the third is called “a gaggle of saints,” which I performed in Washington DC when I was in college. This one is also about bias, specifically a horrible hate crime against a gay couple in Central Park. The story is only told through two people with different experiences of the evening, a couple that never actually speak to each other: one is part of the actual act, while the girlfriend is having fun with her friends back in the hotel that night. The main takeaway from this is that we ultimately will believe what we want to believe, and you don’t know what you don’t know about a person — how dark and hateful they can be.
Both resonated with me specifically about identity, something I’ve struggled with in my life. How we are conditioned to fit in, to accept what we are told without questioning whether that is in acceptance of who and what we are, or of what other people want you to be. Both texts have had a part in shaping my own identity, how I see myself in relation to others and how to be self-aware of the way others might see me and what I’m presenting about myself to the world.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have so many! There’s a whiteboard by my desk with a couple of quotes, one of my favorites is from Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m Possible’!”
During my conservatory training, each student is evaluated through “exam” performances before being invited back to the next year. When my exam came up, I learned my Grandmother had passed away so I went back to Cleveland for the funeral, missing my exam play. They offered me a makeup-but it was with an instructor that did not, uh, “play nice” shall we say with the female students. She was very bitter, and many talented actresses historically did not pass her classes. She told me, “if you put your family ahead of your career, what else would you put before it? You are not serious about your career then, are you?” I was so heartbroken and left seriously questioning the path I’ve chosen and spent my life cultivating. Each student is required to do an exit interview however, and mine was with one of my favorite instructors, who I really looked up to. She sat across the relic of a desk in this exquisite historic building, where I so badly wanted to belong, closed my file and slid it across the table. She then said to me, “I don’t know why I’m here-I wasn’t even in the room when this decision was made, and I can’t read the chicken scratch in that file. Try if you like, but I suggest you burn it. That is not who you are, or what you are capable of becoming. I know this because I have seen it. This is not an end — this is only your beginning. Let the knowledge of the possibilities you have inside of you fuel your fire to go on to great things.” I booked a show a month after that exit interview. I was 19 and doing what I loved with a sense of purpose that I was questioning so deeply not even a month before. I have carried that moment with me through a lot of challenges, the moment that someone lit a match and illuminated a world of “possible” for me in spite of a moment that would have felt like such a setback without her guidance.
Oh, and also, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” (Kidding…but are they not?)
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define “Leadership” as a selfless pursuit of passion. If you are passionate about something, you can be sure that others will identify with you and seek the support of someone living that passion. I never thought of myself as a leader until I started producing and directing-you know, when you have no choice but to lead! The power of a shared passion is strong; I remember the first time I learned that I had the ability to lead was when I was working at a production company, (as an assistant no less!).
My boss had come to rely on me for literally everything, and I mean everything! Over the course of the three years I was with the company I became indispensable as he was often in and out of rehab. (I know, sounds so “LA cliché” …) I learned very quickly that if I did not take the reins, we would sink. And I truly believed that I was part of something special: re-launching a company brand, digging up the roots and watching it grow into something. It was an interesting way to learn the power you actually wield; he was SUPPOSED to be the leader, and yes, I learned a lot from him. I learned from the passion that he had that this is something I want to do, truly! Something I was really good at… but there came a time (multiple times, actually), where I had to take over everything! We were so small, but a big-ish player at the same time. I learned how to understand contracts, how to identify and recommend good content to our management team, and most importantly how to communicate and delegate to others. It was such a weird experience, I felt simultaneously heard and invisible at once.
The delegation part took a lot longer to really understand and hone, and still working on quite frankly; I became very accustomed to having to do everything for myself or by myself if anything were to get done. But that’s not the truth of how things work, and this was a hard-learned lesson for me for sure! There is nothing, in my experience anyway, that you can accomplish 100% alone. Not in any industry. Sure, you can write a book or a screenplay or put together a power point but how is that book published? How does the screenplay become a fully realized film? Who are you pitching that power point to? Getting your blog noticed? Selling your product to?
The moment I stepped onto my first set that I was producing and directing independently, I knew I held a certain power to make the whole thing happen from the top of the totem, small as it may be, but also recognized first and foremost that leadership cannot happen without having a supportive team and a room of people that are there for a common goal, common interest, common passion to create or make something happen — together. A leader cannot lead without having something to helm that they believe in. The most valuable piece of advice that I have received and what was at first a hard pill to swallow: it’s ok to ask for help!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’ve come to learn that stress is merely a state of mind. It is very simply an emotional strain that we place on ourselves; it is a very personal thing to know what works for you to relieve and ease your state of mind when stressed.
For me, I had never been into meditation or anything, though I’m learning that this is a very useful tool these days! Simply breathing is often over-looked as a very easy way to induce calm. Generally though, I’ve found that scheduling an hour that is dedicated 100% to myself and preparation of whatever the circumstance is that is causing mental uneasiness is vital. I use that hour to run my lines — AGAIN, to go through my pitch — AGAIN, to fine-tooth comb through everything — AGAIN. If I need to run something by someone else, I schedule time with them and if they aren’t available, I do a dry run to an empty room. Sometimes I will go for a run or journal or talk it out with a trusted friend if it is an important decision-I always weigh out all of my options! (Is my Libra showing?) It all boils down to assuring myself that I am as prepared as possible-everything is buttoned up and I’ve thought of as many questions that I could possibly be asked so I know what to expect.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There is something about being the outlier in a room of older, white men in power that teaches you very quickly that you hold no power, ZERO, no sway, no real-world ability to enact change, whatever that means to you. It is a horrible, very small feeling…and this has been our country’s story since inception.
Given where and how I grew up, I always saw it. Empathically and from the middle-class where I myself have been perceived as many different things, somewhere in the middle of privilege and disenfranchised; white, Hispanic, or “other,” underrepresented, never “without,” but seeing others get handed things they did not work for or necessarily deserve.
When I lost my financial aid in my freshman year of college for something that was so CLEARLY discriminatory both racially and financially, I learned that the middle is a weird world to live in. I learned that I had to work harder and smarter than everyone else. Seeing where we are now, I actually feel lucky to have been in the middle, but ashamed and horrible for never fighting for others going through the same or much worse experiences because it was so damn hard to fight for myself alone.
I didn’t know or recognize the struggle of others, personally-not truly and, how could I? I think that’s how we got to this place. Not for a lack of care or empathy, but rather short-sighted (and perhaps, selfishly) from our own struggles. When you only know how to fight for yourself, fight for your own survival, your own success, you are so blinded, isolated and conditioned to feel like it’s a competition. Coming from a family of immigrants, it is ingrained to keep your head down and not start a fight you can’t win. To fit in. To love and accept others, yes, and to stand your ground but not to stir the pot. And the problem, the boiling point where we are now, is that this is not sustainable in a world where we, as a country, have this unique and very untrue history that ALL “men” are created equal. (Obviously, I have a problem with the way that is written but that’s another story!)
You can do and be anyone in America, right? Coming from the (elder) millennial generation of kids who were all given trophies and gold stars for simply showing up, but with the dichotomy of also coming from a slightly different background where I had to do more than others to prove my worth, I have always seen this fallacy; a huge lie that an entire generation was fed by silver spoons and helicopter parenting.
And yes, some of it is true that our generation has had way more opportunities than those that came before and paved the road, one brick at a time. But it is most certainly NOT an equal playing field. Not at all. Never has been, and never will be unless our generation steps up and says, “NO MORE.” No more hate. No more disparity. No more turning the other cheek. No more inequality in education, in health care, in our legal system. We are one. One country. One people. A beautiful mix of cultures and colors and identities and until we all feel this weight, nothing will change. And it certainly is a heavy weight the bear…We need to be independently dependent on one another, and I think we are finally opening our eyes and hearts to working toward this understanding together with the common foundation of our individualized struggles and goals.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I have always worked with kids; I love it! I think it’s such a vital start to plant the seeds of acceptance at a young age. Kids are so interesting, so malleable and vulnerable and often it is misunderstood how deep their understanding is of the world around them. They are observant and impressionable little sponges. I’ve been a mentor, nanny, teacher, director, acting coach, and one of my favorite experiences was working with an arts-centric charitable foundation that provided free education to homeless youth. Teaching and working with kids through the arts allows them the freedom of expression, and when directing, we made it clear that our casting was blind in the shows we produced, often rotating kids through the leading roles so that they all had an equal opportunity to shine. I think that is really important for them to see this; that it is about hard-work and talent, yes, but that you could be anything! A Latin Dorothy, Black Charlie Brown, Asian Mary Poppins, or even audition for a differently gendered role. All of the characters in the classic stories that we have come to know and love that are typically cast homogenously-it was important that we opened that experience for them.
Of course, some of that has been (historically) more challenging to achieve in filmmaking though it shouldn’t be, and I’m actively working to change that. As an actor, I remember being very excited when “ethnically ambiguous” roles started becoming a thing, though I don’t think casting really knew what to do that and it can feel very passive to be beholden to the system. So, I took a more active role, working on content that I could be proud of, creating opportunities for myself, and now with my own voice. I think there is such power in what we do as storytellers to create these avenues for ourselves, to be able to have a platform to promote the diversity of the human experience.
To that end, I have paid my dues and tried to “play nice” in the system and I’m definitely over it! I think the majority of us are. I’m now owning my independence and experience, not listening to what others think “will sell” (in the conventional way, so to speak), so much as working on projects that I would want to see, be proud to be a part of pushing through the cracks in the glass ceiling, and that’s what I’ve been honing in on during quarantine.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Going back to the subject of leadership, it is the commonly accepted philosophy to be surrounded by like-minded people, right? Personally, this type of philosophy is very problematic, even dangerous, for many reasons.
When I was a kid, I participated in a program called “Odyssey of the Mind,” or OM. I almost forgot about it until just now! It involved a series of complicated tasks that each team had to accomplish to win the competition that I can’t even remember right now, but it was invigoratingly challenging! I also did another team program in High School called “We the People” where, in short, we debated various aspects of the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. I know, SUPER nerdy, right? But WOW, did that open my mind! We were, of course, like-minded to the extent of having common goals, but none of us came from the same homes or backgrounds. None of us had the same exact experiences, so we all had different opinions on how to accomplish the tasks and challenges presented, and it was equally eye-opening to listen to other teams from across the country working to debate the same issues.
If we did, and if everyone on those teams thought the same way, there would be nothing to debate! Nothing would have been actually accomplished in real terms. Everyone has a different experience to draw from, and that always empowers a team. Another callback to how I handle making an important decision, it is so much easier to have different sides of the story, different opinions, different ways to look at things, and of course, ultimately you take what resonates in making your decisions-you can’t listen to just one person’s advice because no one on this earth is all-knowing! And that’s the point…
So, how can we expect to run our business and companies effectively and efficiently if we don’t include voices from the spectrum of experiences that people have to share for a common purpose? Everyone has a different way of thinking and processing information — EVERYONE. It is our life-experiences that inform these processes. If we can’t see beyond our own version of events, or others that share the SAME version of events, our own education or accomplishments, nothing can really reach its full potential.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Place yourself in situations where you are the minority. How often do we surround ourselves with others that are “like” us because, well, that is what we’ve been taught is our comfort-zone? Insert yourself in a community that is different from you, expanding your community which, in turn, expands your knowledge of what that community is about. Learn to observe and listen. Not “hear,” mind you. But truly listen. Be open-minded and curious; curiosity isn’t what killed the cat but what brought Alice into a whole new Wonderland. It is more important to listen to what someone has to say and understand where they are coming from. More community or networking events; diversify your world!
- Addressing and correcting the iniquities in our educational system. Our educational system is horrible. Half of my own educational experience was fantastic, the other half, not so much. It does not allow the same opportunities for everyone to shine or reach their potential. I’ve worked with kids with autism who are WAY smarter than I, more perceptive, observant, but who have fallen through the cracks of a system that doesn’t understand them, doesn’t know how to enhance and teach them how to work with their gifts, but rather teaches society to work against them. So, they are marginalized as kids with “social” problems and have trouble parlaying into the workplace. Meanwhile, the “average” student with connections and resources might have been able to afford a Harvard degree. But having that piece of paper, (which, I don’t, despite paying for it…), doesn’t really hold weight if your other applicant or candidate simply couldn’t afford anything remotely equivalent. Mentorship programs are a great way to immerse someone into a world they might have otherwise not had access to through conventional education; putting these types of programs together would be a fantastic start to offering an experiential education to the workplace.
- Understand the term “melting pot”! This is something that hits home for me and I have always battled. The question “what are you” is the most infuriating thing, and I know I’m not alone in this experience. There’s not necessarily malice behind the question, as much as genuine curiosity, perhaps. Our world is not Black and white. We have, and from the beginning of our American culture alone, always been a mix of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. We have done the greatest disservice to ourselves as a country in creating boxes for ourselves and keeping our identities defined by just one thing or another. I am Hispanic, but not Hispanic “enough” to check certain boxes. If you are mixed, I’ve heard friends talk about being shunned by both sides as being not Black enough, or not White enough. To be truly inclusive and representative of society, we have to understand WHAT our society actually is, and that there are no real boxes.
- Speak up and support each other. How many times have you witnessed discrimination and said NOTHING? A passive world is not a world that will ever enact change. Even if you think it is a small transgression, use your voice! Your voice is so powerful. I was on a set recently that was super inclusive and diverse-a very rare and wonderful project to be a part of! And even then, I learned something very valuable by virtue of someone simply using their voice. The project was still looking to cast a transgendered man, and going back to number one on my list, the casting director said something which seemed totally benign to most of us in the room, really actually trying to explain what they were looking for in the actor, when someone in the room spoke up and made a simple correction. It was not that the casting director said anything without what she perceived as sensitivity to the subject, everything she said was “fact” according to her experience and understanding. But the voice of correction from a transgendered person actually in the room was so powerful to all of us, which was mostly a room full of people of color or LGBTQ community. We thought we were “woke” as it were, but we all learned something that morning. It was so powerful to hear someone speak up when they were uncomfortable about what was said! And, most important to note, they spoke with integrity, not SHAME. When you do finally find your voice, it is only a powerful thing if it is coming from a place of genuine desire to spread awareness, not a place of “how dare you for not knowing better.”
- Being color-blind is actually not helpful. This is a big one, and I know I am not able to explain this well without maybe seeming insensitive or offending someone here. Of course, ALL lives matter, and that is an important takeaway from the conversation. Listening and understanding each other and how we are all so different and all deserve to have a voice and heard has been an invaluable focus of this article towards creating a truly inclusive society. Yes, we are a melting pot. And yes, we are a country with a whole pallet of color, shapes, sizes, sexuality and genders. And, yes, it shouldn’t matter what the color of your skin is when talking about hiring, broadening your communities and life-perspectives. But on the same side of the scale, it absolutely should! The Black community in particular has been disenfranchised for centuries, and understanding that the color of one’s skin is actually really important, not for optics, but because there is a whole world of experience and perspective and humanity that has not been equally valued, and for literally no other reason than the color of skin. We need to focus on this, actively. Pursuing elevating people of color specifically and with purpose is what will ultimately enrich the world we live in.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am, to my core, an optimist! Always have been. Buuut I am also a realist. I know that nothing gets solved overnight. That blemish right smack dab in the middle of your face isn’t going to go away in an hour, no matter how much medicine you put on it or how hard you wish it so.
In the case of the state of our union, we have never been truly united. Not since 1776 when we declared our independence, not since we “abolished” slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation nearly a hundred years after that, not since the civil rights movement a hundred years after that, not since Rodney King and the LA riots 30 years after that, not since 9/11 ten years after that…so, how can we expect a quick resolution to where we are now? While those moments in history have put some Band-Aids on our issues, a Band-Aid just conceals the wound so it can have a better chance to heal, it doesn’t actively work towards the healing or eliminating the scars if no action is taken on the open wound.
Where I am starting to feel most optimistic however, is that the gaps in movements and working toward unity and equality and change are closing in, and that is an important distinction to note. I feel very lucky to be alive right now, to be an adult with the ability and tools to be the change I want to see, and what’s more, I know I am not alone in this. We WILL change the narrative of this country. We are doing it now. It won’t happen tomorrow, the pendulum will have to swing far to the other side like it has for “Me Too,” but change, REAL change is happening, and it takes time.
The kids I work with, my nephews, my friends and colleagues are all awakening and finding their voices. The voices of those that have been taught racist practices and ideals are a dying breed, but as we have learned, not remotely gone. They are there and will always be there as long as they continue to teach the next generation, and I do think it’s important that we hear them, that we see them, because we need a concrete understanding of how deep that perspective runs in this country.
But I do feel that we are part of a universal awakening, not just for our country alone, and the internet is a powerful tool; not only to open our eyes to the hate many of us didn’t know still persists, but especially for underserved voices to finally be heard by a wider audience. We didn’t have that sort of power of visibility in the past as we do now. And I recognize it will get worse (ie: the pendulum swing) before it gets better. And we might not see real change in our generation at all. The mind is an interesting thing; it is programed to resist change. It takes years of forming new habits and practices to become the new normal. We are seeing this with pandemic denial in real-time! People who are blatantly ignoring science, pushing it off as a hoax, or way to control a population simply to cope with the fact that it is causing irreparable change in the world.
How about this: let’s all work to create a pandemic of love and acceptance. If a biological occurrence can change an entire population, let’s do our part to expedite a mindfulness pandemic. Improbable? Maybe. Impossible? Nothing is impossible!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Melinda Gates, Hilary Cottam…so many!
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on IG/FB @itsallierivera and TW @allierivera. I have a personal site that I’ve been inspired to start a blog during quarantine (please be kind, I’m a nube!) at AllieRivera.com. I am also launching a project in August (which will be amply promoted on my personal social media) with my writing partner that will be equal-parts podcast and vlog among other things-all fun and games, because, why not!? I feel we can all use a little light in the dark these days…
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for the opportunity to have a voice here and hopefully being a part of the solution!