Q&A with Nelson Rivera Musician, Educator, and Activist

Native Buffalonian Nelson Rivera grew up, and has spent most of his life on the West Side of Buffalo. The youngest son of parents who were educators, and who lived their lives full of music, community service, and love for the people of their Buffalo communities. Now a full-time educator, and an accomplished musician, Rivera spoke about his community involvement and the rewards of working with young people.

How long have you been a musician?

It’s been about 20 years since the first day that I took an official music lesson.

Was your goal to be a professional musician?

No. My father was, and still is, a musician; he’s the one who got me into it. He’s a saxophonist. I am the youngest of three boys. He tried to impart music onto all three of us, and I’m the one that it stuck to.

You’re a graduate assistant with the SUNY CSTEP program. What is CSTEP?

CSTEP is a statewide program, now at 44 locations across the state of New York. The program provides services to historically underrepresented students across the state, who study science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called “STEM” fields—allied health, which can be any health field, and also licensed professionals, i.e. lawyers, and accountants. We provide services so that they can thrive, and excel. By “underrepresented” we’re talking students of color, from low-income families, and also gender-based.

I always use this example: if you are a Latina from a low-income family, and you want to be an engineer, you’ll be one of maybe a handful in a very large university department. There’s no “community” for that student. We work our hardest to help those students succeed. I’ve been doing that for about four years now. Seeing students from their freshman year graduating college and maybe even going on to, for example, medical school, and these students saying, we owed it to CSTEP. It’s very rewarding.

What work do you do with children and youth in the Latino communities?

Again because of my background, I’m involved with several programs that deal with either education and/or music. Through the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute, I’ve worked with young Hispanic students, teaching them music as well as leadership, politics, government, civics—learning all about those aspects. What legislation looks like, what that process is, learning how to debate, learning how to read, learning how to think critically, and speak critically. How to hold yourself as a mature adult. These were high-school kids who weren’t shown this in a unique way. I enjoy working with those students, watching them grow up, and learning to take responsibility for their futures.

What do you want to see for the future of this city?

When I look around at the kids on the West Side—and it doesn’t matter what their ethnic background is—what I want to see is that they have the opportunity, that they’re given the opportunity to see communities outside of their own. I want to see that they know how to thrive in whatever location, and that they can always give back to the community.  K

Paul Fanara is a photographer, photojournalist, author, and Buffalo advocate. livinginthebuff.com

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