“I don’t like when you dress like that.”

August 02,2010
Talia's Blog
Talia Rivera( )

Talia Rivera is a 33-year-old mother of two. As Executive Director of Villages without Walls, she works with high-risk gang members in Boston. [Read more]

The resident looked at me with suspicion. “I don’t like when you dress like that.” I wore black pumps and a black dress that tied around my waist; and I pulled a rolling briefcase. I’m a community organizer who works out of a high rise office building in the financial district of Boston’s downtown. A black dress and pumps in the hood is just as strange as jeans and a t-shirt in corporate America. I tried Clark Kent. When downtown, wear something stylish; and as Superman in the community, dress more street stylish. But these days it’s difficult to find a telephone booth for the quick change. In a downtown meeting we talked about how race, power, and class show up in our daily work. Somebody said, “Let’s remember to look through that lens while we work.” I thought about when race, power and class showed up in my work with residents. There was the presentation to 20 parents at an elementary school, when afterwards, one parent said, “I wasn’t listening to anything you had to say.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, the way you were dressed and the way you talked I thought you were some college girl who just graduated and got this job and was coming to lie and say you can help us and then don’t.” “It wasn’t until you shared your story,” she continued, “that I started to pay attention. I thought, ‘She knows what I’m going through.’” Community organizing is challenging because I constantly have to prove my creditability. Yet being in the financial district is challenging because there I must prove more than my street creditability. How I dress only hints at what it is like to live two lives at once.