“I think activism should be at the heart of everything we do.”
We sat down with Lisa Rivera, NYLAG’s new president and CEO, whose tenure began on July 1, 2022. As the first person of color and first Latinx person to lead NYLAG, Lisa brings with her 20 years of experience serving at all levels of our organization, as reported by the New York Law Journal. Read on to learn more about her passion for amplifying client voices and why she believes legal advocates should be guided by activism
Q: What inspired you to become an attorney?
A: Being a first-generation college student often means shouldering extra responsibility and expectations in your family and community. My family is from Puerto Rico and I was the first person to go to college. Growing up, higher education was always presented to me as an opportunity to provide stability for myself and my family and my parents gave up a lot to ensure that I would have that chance. I wanted to be able to give back because I knew that I was incredibly privileged to have this opportunity. The door was opened for me, and I wanted to make sure to kick that door open wide open so that others could follow. I witnessed firsthand the difficulty it is to access help when you do not have connections or understand how to navigate systems that you depend on for necessities.
My decision to go to law school came down to: How do I help people? How do I help my family members and community who came before me? And I realized that, to both impact individual people and systemic issues, I had to go into public interest law. There was no question whatsoever.
Q: You started your tenure at NYLAG as a staff attorney and for years you led what is now NYLAG’s Domestic Violence Law Unit. How did those experiences inform your work in senior leadership?
A: I was lucky to be surrounded by amazing women and mentors. As I grew as an attorney, I spent a lot of time working with interns and law students, teaching them everything that I knew. For me, developing and mentoring the next generation of public interest lawyers was incredibly meaningful. I think the most effective lawyers are those who have ties to the community or are passionate about the issue they are arguing for or against.
Eventually, I saw that I could have a bigger impact in examining and implementing programming. Asking, “Are our services matching community need? “Are we doing it well?” Why isn’t our funding matching the need and how do we address that?” and trying to develop programs that would confront these things.
Q: What is a big lesson you’ve learned in your life or in your career that informs your work?
A: We should use every opportunity that we have to make our client’s voices heard.
Sometimes in this work, we get caught up in putting band-aids on problems. And certainly, as a younger attorney, I thought that was our main role. Over time, I realized that our role is really to make sure that our clients can advocate for themselves, to understand what their rights are, and to understand that there are people who can help. It all goes back to our larger mission of social and racial justice: it’s not for us to swoop in and fix everything. It’s about empowering communities.
Q: What are the most pressing issues affecting our clients now and in the near future?
A: Our communities are facing systemic issues in our justice system, period. New York City and New York State have invested so heavily over the past decade in civil legal services, and we are so lucky to live in a place that is truly committed to funding this work. But the issues have not gone away, and, in fact, they are even greater.
Our goal should be to put ourselves out of business one day: we shouldn’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to support agencies like ours, to solve the problems that our governments and administrative agencies continually perpetuate. The long-term vision of NYLAG and legal services providers should be outreach, community empowerment, and advocacy to create real lasting change, but always making sure that we have our eye on the individual so that we can help make that happen.
Q: What excites you about being NYLAG’s new president and CEO?
A: Our staff is really inspiring to me. We have an incredible cadre of 350 advocates who are so skilled and passionate about their work. I’m excited about being able give voice to the things that they do every day that tend to go under the radar. They are the backbone of this organization. We can’t do it without them. And I would never want to!
Q: What is your vision for NYLAG?
A: I want us to be in the community more. I’d like everyone to feel like a true advocate, not just a lawyer. I believe activism should be at the heart of everything that we do. To me, activism means speaking truth to power. It’s so important that there be teeth behind our calls for social, economic, and racial justice. It must be what we breathe every day.
We know that society only amplifies some voices. And as an organization, we hold privilege collectively because our voice is heard. Our job is to make sure that the voices of the people who are affected by systems we’re calling attention to also have a place at the table.