“When you were a child what did your parents always tell you? ‘You broke it, you fix it.’ I know I was part of the problem [in Allentown] in the eighties and nineties, and now it’s my turn to try to help fix this city.”
This is the mindset by which Jose Rivera lives his “new” life, a life shaped by profound challenges and struggle, and transformed by humanity in many forms.
Rivera moved to Allentown from the Bronx, NY, nearly 40 years ago when the city was still reeling from the loss of the steel industry and the union jobs that accompanied it. Allentown, however, was a much better place for Rivera and his family, despite never really feeling at home. “The only time I really loved Allentown was super Sundays when the community all came together,” said Rivera while simultaneously helping community members register to vote. “When we first came here everyone was separated from each other. At first I lived on 2nd
Street, then moved to 10th
Street, then to Hanover Acres, to Cumberland Gardens, just staying wherever we could to find something affordable.”
Like so many Allentown families, Rivera and his family struggled to make ends meet and struggled even more to be recognized. “My mother worked for everything, at that age you don’t appreciate their struggles,” said Rivera. “Until you go through it yourself.”
Rivera experienced his own set of struggles, but admits that those were largely self-inflicted. “I was never a dumb student or a dumb person, I just made dumb decisions,” said Rivera. “Like they say, there’s a difference between doing wrong and being wrong. I was looking for something fast and easy because we needed the money.” Rivera served his first of several prison sentences at the old Lehigh County Prison at the corner of 5th
and Linden St., a looming, castle-like relic near the city’s current Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), a special taxing district created in 2011 that is driving re-development in Allentown.
Released from prison in the summer of 2019 after a 13-year sentence for distribution and trafficking, the 49-year-old Rivera was beginning a rebirth of sorts, similar to his hometown. “What angers me about the prison system is everyone gets mad when people come home and they're not better, but you've locked them up and you make them no better when you defund all their programs,” said Rivera. “The first time I signed up for the Second Chance Pell Grant was 2009 when I was upstate and it got taken away from us in the middle of the semester.”
When Rivera had another chance at the grant, he jumped at the opportunity and ended up at Lehigh Carbon Community College. “I jumped all over it because LCCC was the only school that gave us an opportunity by offering us business courses,” Rivera explained, citing the lack of options in other areas. “What is a convicted felon supposed to do with a degree in general studies?”
Rivera already possessed many of the skills that create a successful business professional, but needed to learn how to put them to use for good. “I already knew how to hustle, so I knew how to do business,” said Rivera. “I just needed to learn the language because manipulation and motivation are the same thing, but require different methods.”
Rivera graduated from LCCC in May of 2020 with his associate degree in Business Management and transferred to Muhlenberg College’s School of Continuing Studies to pursue his bachelor’s degree in business. “When I went to Muhlenberg I told them I bring a community with me from down the street, everything that happens down the street affects you up the street.”
By “down the street,” Rivera meant the still forgotten populations in Allentown’s Center City, and upon his release from prison, his focus shifted to helping fix the community he holds himself partially responsible for breaking.
Rivera re-entered an Allentown that looked and felt very different from the one he left 13 years prior, but a closer look revealed many similarities. Just a few days after his release, Rivera attended a meeting with City Center developer J.B. Reilly to discuss ways in which to build community amongst the towering shadows of real estate development and business infusion.
“The meeting was about uplifting and building community. That was like my second or third day out of jail, “said Rivera. “We sat down and I told them that I'm a member of the Latin King Nation. And he just looked at me and I said, “Don't ever take what I've done in my past and judge me for my actions now.” Rivera left such an impression on Reilly, that he would later send Rivera a laptop that served as a lifeline for him once classes at LCCC shifted to fully remote format due to COVID-19.
Rivera wanted to make sure that Reilly and other developers understood what the community needs and how it can contribute to the development of the city. “If you keep bringing in outsiders, it’s not stable. They will leave. We've been here. We supported this city when nobody else did, and we’re still here,” said Rivera. “We’re not asking for a lot. We don't want you to give us anything. We're asking for opportunities. Give us a hand up, not a hand out.”
After not being accepted into Reilly’s real estate institute on his first attempt, Rivera made it in on his second try and completed the program this summer. “I was able to learn how to reinvest in my neighborhoods, through him,” Rivera said. “But we told him you can build all these buildings, but until you build a community around
your buildings, nothing's going to happen.”
Rivera remains an advocate for LCCC students as being integral to Allentown’s comeback, particularly those studying at the Donley Center on Hamilton Street. “I tell people you have one of the biggest assets right across the street. Use them, bring in some of these interns from LCCC. These are kids from these neighborhoods, give them opportunities. That’s how you build.”
Rivera is taking his own steps to build and grow his community. He now works daily with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, a non-profit organization focused on fostering cooperation among residents of the Greater Lehigh Valley to create safe, healthy, vibrant, inclusive neighborhoods, which allow children to succeed in school and where adults and families thrive and want to live.
“I walked in here after I left LCCC, and I’ve only missed one day, and that’s when I went to be a poll worker, and I’ve been here every day since.” Rivera exclaimed. “I have not gotten in trouble, I have not run the streets. So it was like a blessing in disguise.”
Rivera credits Promise Neighborhoods for giving him new hope. “They inspired my hope. Now it’s my job to inspire the next person. It doesn’t just stop with me and I just take all the blessings. I have to inspire for everybody else, because if I can make it out of everything I've been through, the next person can too.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Allentown, Promise Neighborhoods’ focus shifted to helping those in need in new ways. “We’ve given out over 180,000 diapers. We're doing voter registration right now, and we’re still helping out the fire victims,” said Rivera, referring to fires in July that displaced over 30 Allentown residents. Promise Neighborhoods even brought together former foes for the good of the community as Rivera and former gang rivals teamed up to provide supplies and support to residents. “It’s not a white or black or brown thing. It's a community thing.”
As a diabetic, Rivera is at a higher risk than many to contract COVID-19, but after a few weeks of quarantine Rivera could not sit idly by, despite the risks. “I took bigger risks before I knew I was diabetic. I risked my life every day for a couple dollars out in the street. For myself. So why can't I risk it for everybody else? For all the people who believed in me, for my community that believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself.”
Rivera is now working to dispel the negativity constantly swirling in his and other underserved communities around education and opportunity. With his ultimate goal being to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Rivera has advice to LCCC students, or anyone questioning whether or not they can pursue their education: knowledge is power.
“Like I tell some of the kids, in the end, they’ve taken my money, they’ve taken my cars, they’ve taken every single thing I’ve acquired monetarily,” said Rivera. “The one thing they can never take from you is the knowledge you attain. That’s yours forever.” A true comeback story, Rivera realizes his journey is similar to so many in his community. “I tell them, ‘When I quit school, I quit on myself.’ But now I’m 49 and I’m going to Muhlenberg, so anything is possible.”
Rivera is also teaming up with LCCC as a Hispanic Serving Institution to make transitioning from Spanish speaking countries to area schools easier for students through simple actions such as creating Spanish translated signs to ensure kids are able to navigate the school properly.
For Rivera, despite Allentown’s highly publicized rebirth, the community he loves so much and identifies so closely with is more similar now than one might assume to the community he first joined when moving to Allentown nearly 40 years ago. And unfortunately, the divides he saw back then remain largely in place locally, regionally and nationally.
The solutions aren’t simple, but Rivera and organizations like Promise Neighborhoods provide a glimmer of hope each day. “I look at it more at the micro level,” said Rivera. “We have to worry about this community before we can worry about the country. Each little community has to take care of their own business and work with their governments first. Once you change it at a micro level, it will change at a macro level.”
He sees progress coming through open communication rather than picking sides along party lines as the way to rebuild communities and work together for a better future. “In the end we have to understand it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat. If we sit down and talk, we're going to see we have a lot more in common than we realize.”
Read more about what Rivera and Promise Neighborhoods is doing for the Allentown Community in this CNN article
Photos Courtesy Heather Fulbright/CNN