Gibrán Rivera | Ancestors in Training

image courtesty Gibrán Rivera

Gibrán Rivera is a Senior Associate for the Interaction Institute for Social Change. His job is to help people work better together. He is committed to the development of leaders, organizations and networks and uses coaching, training, process design and facilitation in service of those who are committed to social transformation. His graduate studies were in diplomacy and processes of negotiation and mediation. He has devoted much of his work life to the idea of democracy and to the work of emancipatory politics in urban communities. 

Gibrán’s approach to his work today is particularly influenced by the work of Robert Gass, founder of the Rockwood Leadership Institute; C. Otto Scharmer and his peers at the Presencing Institute; the work and writings of Grace Lee Boggs at the Boggs Center in Detroit; and the forward thinking work of John Powell and the Kirwan Institute.

Gibrán Rivera came to the US from Puerto Rico when he was twelve years old, the same age he was when he began testing what it means to demand change, which began, believe it or not, in defense of mustaches.

He says, “I went to a small parish school in western Massachusetts. The Puerto Rican boys hit puberty before everybody else. The nuns did not know what to do with all that facial hair. So they tried to impose a shaving policy. Me and my buddies were pretty proud of our growing mustaches; we were starting to look like men. I organized us and made the argument that our facial hair was a cultural expression for Puerto Rican boys becoming men.

“This only led to more troublemaking in high school when I organized Malcolm X Day as well as our successful efforts to get rid of Coca-Cola in the cafeteria due to its relationship with South Africa. By the time I got to college I was already a rabble-rouser!”

Gibrán’s devoted to social change. Some of that is reflected in his past accomplishments. For instance, he was the founding board chair of an organization called MassVote, which “works to register, educate and mobilize voters, with a focus on historically underrepresented communities in Massachusetts, especially people of color.” And “in what was widely recognized as a movement building campaign and a new approach to politics” he ran for Boston City Council in 2005. For the past six years he’s been working for Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC).

Perhaps because of his longtime experiences as an activist Gibrán seems to have an understanding of the responsibility behind activism, something not everyone comes to discover. No doubt his meditation practice and its profound gifts come into play here. He credits his practice as something that’s helped him drop a lot of ego mind which can only mean more connection and empathy for others and less burn out, less aggression and more of what one wants to cultivate in the world: More sustainability. More action. More genuine progress toward change and social justice.

Even as a distant interviewer, I could sense a warmth, flexibility and solidity, an ease about Gibrán’s perspective on change. It also comes across a deeply moving/inspirational/optimistic vision from his speech to the Prescott Symposium a couple of years ago. Without going into too much detail, it ascribes us all as ancestors in training, folks who have the power to decide how things will look in a few years, folks who have the ability to make choices about what kind of future our great, greats will have. As ancestors in training we could affect that world by being our best collaborative selves right now. We have a chance to do redo renewal, to pay it forward large scale. It’s the most optimistic and realistic vision of where we’re headed I’ve read, fictional or otherwise.

Gibrán’s belief about what we all can do shows up most readily in the work he does for IISC–not in a head way, in a heart way. IISC is all about bringing together folks in a variety of groups and organizations for effective, actionable collaboration. One of my questions to Gibrán was about IISC; I asked how we can all further what they stand for–collective, actionable, social transformation:

SES: It seems like while society is building up more and more divisions, IISC is working to create wholeness. So I want to ask, how do we build better relationships with people who stand on the other side of the fence from us? What are some of the things social change folks can do to reconnect with themselves and connect with those they would just rather not connect with?

GR: “The very framing of your question affirms your commitment to transformation and for that I am grateful.  I think we start with connecting to ourselves and to each other.  I am keen on designing, facilitating, conspiring on the production of collective state experiences that make our inter-connectedness so self-evident as to become palpable – more palpable than the experience of oppression that welcomed my arrival to the mainland.

(Gibrán says this about his arrival: I came to the mainland United States from the colony of Puerto Rico at the age of 12.  [The worst] age to become a minority! My community’s experience of oppression was palpable. I was unfairly taken to a police interrogation within months of being here. But ours was an intentional faith community, and in it I found a spirit of resilience.)  

Working in this way, from this shared if impermanent state, is what builds our capacity to more intentionally co-evolve. This co-evolution through friendship soon makes impossible for us to dehumanize the other. Integrating the other does not limit our capacity to stand firmly on the side of that which is life giving, sustainable and liberating – it is not an escape from the political. But it does become an attractor, the more courageous we are in this engagement with life the more others tend to join.

SES: So true, we do have to connect with us first. Otherwise, who will be on the other side of the connection? Can you say more about how connecting with ourselves allows others to connect with us more fully? 

GR: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The link between the nodes is an ontological [link] equal to the nodes themselves. It is through our labor that we co-create reality. The potential for the sacred is inherent in every space in which we come together with the intention of affecting our reality, of creating, of colluding with emergence.

SES: You mentioned how palpable interconnectedness could be. What has IISC done to help make interconnectedness more palpable?

GR: IISC seeks to make the invisible visible. When we are successful, people find themselves working in ways that are life-giving, generative, and unlike most of their experiences of working together.

We achieve this by paying close attention to process. Process works best when everyone knows what it is and where we are [in] it. But process is not enough. We seek to create spaces and conditions that foster connectivity at the level of authentic relationship. When we are working in authentic relationship with one another, when we learn to connect to each other in the place where our shared purpose meets, then it can feel like the work is happening all by itself. But these spaces have to be designed; they have to be held and they have to be tended to. This is where we come in. And this is how interconnectedness becomes palpable.

SES: After reading a few things about you online, I was impressed by the many ways you’ve encouraged transformation, the 28-day meditation period, which anyone could join for support and accountability, the platform on which you ran for Boston City Council, and the stunning speech you gave at the Prescott Sustainability Symposium to name a few. How did you figure out this was your path? 

GR: Somewhere along the way, the poison that comes out of an organizing that is informed by anger and ideological fundamentalism had finally gotten inside of my system.  Growing political success also meant a raging ego and a general lack of authentic kindness. These exploded into a terribly painful “downfall” triggered by my own spiritual incoherence. But the experience of undoing was intrinsically linked to a dramatic experience of spiritual awakening that was set in motion by my meeting my spiritual teacher. This encounter came with all the trappings of an ancient yogic tradition. It has changed everything and has led to the radical expansion of my heart – certainly an ongoing process! There is still plenty of ego to go around!

And my own experience of transformation coincided with big changes in IISC and its orientation. As often happens when we surrender to the divine an incredible alignment emerged, allowing me go towards liberation through what now became the perfect vehicle.

 SES: Can you speak to the ways your meditation practice supports and informs the work you do at IISC?

GR: Most wise teachers warn us to be careful about the way we engage practice, they remind us not to confuse the map for the territory. That being said, I don’t feel I can effectively engage my life and its purpose outside of a context that is not thoroughly informed by practice.

I am a fan of C. Otto Scharmer and a firm believer in the Bill O’Brien quote that he always brings forward:  “The success of an intervention is directly proportional to the interior condition of the intervener.” Practice is how I tend to my interior condition.

It makes no sense to work for freedom if you have not had a taste of freedom.  My teacher, in her grace, gave me a radical experience of that freedom, an encounter that changed everything. Practice is the process by which I remember that taste. Teacher or not, meditation is among the best possible ways to become familiar with the taste of liberation.

SES: Earlier, when you talked about reconnecting with ourselves in order to connect with others, you said that, “Working in this way, from this shared if impermanent state, is what builds our capacity to more intentionally co-evolve. This co-evolution through friendship soon makes impossible for us to dehumanize the other.”

And I love that; I want to know what co-evolution looks like. Co-evolution, that is, that allows us to stand firm in what we believe. Examples? Ideas? 

GR: The big bang is still happening. There is an evolutionary force that propels us forward. This evolutionary force is matched by a certain entropy. Our job is to align with the evolutionary force in such a way that any and all entropy becomes but an organic composting, simply letting go of what has been in order to make room for the future. When we are not aligned with this evolutionary thrust, we get the waste and death that is so evident in our world today.

We are most alive when we are in relationship with one another. The idea of co-evolution through friendship is one that calls us to be in service to one another in the process of moving forward, of progressing, of actually transforming.

We come from a binary that pits the individual against the collective. This is a false dichotomy. We seek to create spaces and experiences in which the individual actually feels more free, more autonomous, even as they are more interconnected than they’ve ever been.

Sports analogies come the easiest, but I’m also a fan of what happens when people sit in silence together. When we meditate together, we engage in a powerful collaboration that is undeniable to those of us experiencing it. When we are successful at creating spaces of authenticity and trust, the participants in those spaces more naturally align with the evolutionary thrust.

Look at the individuals in a system and ask yourself whether they are thriving. Do they look healthy? What is their energy like? How embodied are they? What is their relationship to their leaders, their teachers and their facilitators? Are they growing, are they becoming more powerful, is there love in their field?

This is how we know whether we are co-evolving or not. Our experience is not in the future but in the moment–in the moment in which were coming together to work and to be, to be and to become.

SES: On the IISC staff page it says: “He–meaning you–has devoted much of his work life to the idea of democracy and to the work of emancipatory politics in urban communities.” And I’m curious, what are the conditions that we need to create for “emancipatory politics in urban communities” to emerge? I imagine the Occupy Movement is some form of that. 

GR: #Occupy is a game changer – a beautiful example of what is possible when people wake up!  I am keen on ideas of self-sufficiency and mutuality in our communities. Today I find my work working to develop and strengthen the network structures that make it possible for us to be more nimble, freer from organizational constraints, and more capable of swarming as opportunities emerge. This work is focused on leaders and organizations who are serving community. I see a future in which I’m doing this work more directly – in community.

Read Gibrán’s Speech | Prescott Sustainability Symposium



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  1. […] I am so proud of my colleague, Gibran Rivera, for the due recognition that he has received lately in various quarters for his deep thinking and transformative work.  And I am grateful for how eloquently he captures the nature and intention of our collective work the Interaction Institute for Social Change in a recent interview: […]

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