Spartan advocates for civil rights in Washington

Posted on June 02, 2022

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Keylin Rivera ’13

UNC Greensboro graduate Keylin Rivera ’13 lives that typical Spartan life.

She gets up in the morning, walks her dog, catches up with the news, and then joins her team members in the office in providing policy recommendations to the White House.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s what a graduate from UNCG can do when she sets her mind to living her values, learning about the political terrain, and putting her education to its best use to create a better world.

Rivera works for the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization: UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza). She handles all the external relations with government agencies of the Biden-Harris administration, encompassing everything from child tax credit policy to COVID-19 response to funneling Latino job candidates and résumés to the White House for consideration for staff and appointee positions.

Each Monday, Rivera, who graduated from UNCG’s Department of Political Science, participates in a briefing that covers topics such as health, education, immigration, workforce development, and economic recovery – and she applies what she learns concerning Latino populations and areas for advocacy.

This spring, she helped execute the UnidosUS Changemakers summit that brought together aspiring and veteran advocates and community leaders committed to advocating for Latinos. She helped find the right speakers for the White House briefing and developed a guest speaker roster with cabinet members, as well as federal agency roundtables and other portions of the program that focused on housing and urban development. She had to have a keen eye on logistics that considered security and safety as well as run-of-show, paying mind to policy priorities. Her work also requires her to be extremely informed about political developments and what’s happening at the White House, and around the country, concerning Latino issues.

Since its founding in 1968, UnidosUS has elevated the voice of Latinos and addressed concerns of the Latino community. Their work led to the inclusion of Latinos on the census, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit in 1975, and the creation of the Child Tax Credit in 2002. Approximately 10 million Latino children have been lifted out of poverty through UnidosUS-supported initiatives. Recently, UnidosUS’s focus is on housing inequality and equity in wealth-building, making recommendations for HUD to help increase Latino homeownership. 

“We’ve been able to produce tangible results,” Rivera says about her work.

Rivera’s career history also includes serving in the Obama Administration as an appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency. From 2015 to 2016, she worked in the Executive Office of the Mayor of Washington D.C., and in 2016, she became the National Deputy Latino Vote Director for Hillary for America. Following that, she worked at GreenLatinos, also in D.C., and for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham.

“I’m moving through the world in a way where the jobs that I take align with my values,” she says.

While at UNCG, Rivera held the Pamela A. Wilson Scholarship, named for the former director of Multicultural Affairs, and she was a fellow at the Institute of Political Leadership and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Her UNCG professors helped her cultivate her leadership skills, and among her classmates she found a participatory and caring community.

“Lift while you climb.”

What was your time on campus like?

My time on campus was pivotal to this day. I have former classmates who still see me as a leader in the community. Classmates who I haven’t talked to in years will hit me up when it’s election season, saying, “Hey, can you send me some information on where to vote?” “How do I find out what I need to know?” “Hey, my mom is having some trouble with the Board of Elections. Can you help me out?”

When I was at UNCG, I brought all these different groups of students together to march to the polls in 2012. We had more than 350 students participate when we marched to the voting center. Librarians put together these boxes for voter registrations and I took them to the Board of Elections.  And I like that UNCG registered the most student voters out of all the universities in 2012. It’s just cool when you’re able to get people to care about things that they didn’t think they had a place in caring about. A lot of young people think that they’re not informed enough to vote.

But, it doesn’t take much. I show them a website where they can read up on things, or just let them know that some of their ancestors may have died for their right to vote. And when you vote, you’re not just making a difference in the current political landscape, but you’re making your ancestors proud. I think I had a really good experience doing that sort of campus outreach work when I was at UNCG.

“La boca se hizo para hablar.”

“The mouth was made to talk.”

How did you get to UNCG?

I was actually not planning on going to college. When you don’t know what’s out there, when you don’t have family who goes to college, growing up in an immigrant household, I thought my only escape was joining the military. So, I was actually in a program in high school where I was training to join the Marines. But then when I graduated from high school, my brother’s soccer coach who was a former Marine, said, “I really think you should go to college. My daughter is applying to UNCG.” And he told me that he would help me with my college application. And that’s really how it came about. And my friend’s parents said, “You know, our kids are applying to college. Why aren’t you?” So, they checked in on me to make sure that I was doing the application. One reason I chose UNCG was because it had the highest Latino population at the time. 

How has UNCG influenced your ability to have this career?

Well, every job I’ve had has been for the betterment of marginalized communities. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t the opportunities that UNCG gave me and how intentional the professors were in cultivating my leadership. I can’t say enough about the professors in the political science department, how kind they were towards me and how they really believed in me.

I was a part of the TRiO Student Support Services program, and Dr. Cara Baldwin was always there for me. I also was able to get tutors for free through the program. I had a tutor for a bunch of subjects because school was not easy for me, and I was working two jobs. The fact that there was support there for people like myself made me feel like I belonged. And that’s all you want, is to feel like you belong somewhere. UNCG gave me that belonging. I really cultivated a love for public service and for helping others, and I was able to experience it.

“Your network is your net worth.”

There were certain professors – like Dr. Thom Little – who became my mentors. In the Institute for Political Leadership, I was the youngest person to be in the program and just having his presence and support validated me. He wrote letters of recommendation and he not only believed in me but actually showed up for me, and that really meant a lot. There was another professor, De LaCova, who offered me support as a first-generation college student. He brought me on as a research assistant on a census project. So, knowing that – wow – there are professors who look out for you was incredible.

What advice do you have for other Spartans, particularly those interested in social justice work?

When you do this work, you’re doing it for people. My network is my net worth. And you’d be surprised to find that people want to help and all you have to do is ask. There’s a quote I live by that my dad instilled in me when I was little. It’s in Spanish: “La boca se hizo para hablar – The mouth was made to talk.” And since I was little, I always knew that you just have to talk and not be afraid to ask for help. People want to help. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it  wasn’t for the help of others. And make sure you pay it forward. There’s another really good quote that I live by: “Lift while you climb.” Don’t forget that people are still trying to climb up, and lift them while you’re climbing. Your network is your net worth, and lift while you climb.

Story and interview by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Richard Randolph


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