Meet the 2018 BPL Alumni of the Year

At this year's Big Bang we awarded -- for the first time -- two deserving BPL Alumni Action Award winners. Meet them through the words of their nominators and former advisors, and learn why they are both perfect candidates and recipients of this year's award.
Natalia Marte - Alumna The Met School (Providence, RI) - as introduced by Tracy Terranova, Principal, Met School Equality: 

Hello, my name is Tracy Terranova and I am principal at the Met School Equality. But before I was a principal, I was Natalia Marte’s advisor and I am beyond proud to introduce this accomplished young woman to all of you.  

I met Natalia when she was a 9th grader in the Liberty building. At the time, I was her internship coordinator before taking over her advisory when they were in 10th grade. First impressions of Natalia: she was a smart, sassy girl who spent more time building up her MySpace page and bossing around her advisory than anything else. She was one of those diamonds in the rough who needed to get a little polish on before you can see the shine. Her internship was uninspired and a complete bore to this analytical, academically driven girl. So when I took over her group, I knew she needed to be challenged.

From 10th grade until graduation, Natalia took advantage of every academic opportunity the Met offered. She was chosen to be in the dual enrollment program at CCRI in her sophomore year. Over the next three years, she took 11 college classes, earning over 33 college credits. She also interned at CHiSPA, the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, Brown University’s Somos (the only Latino paper on campus), was president of student government, and co-edited the school newspaper because she thought that kids needed to have more of a voice. After graduating from The Met, she attended Roger Williams University, beginning college as a sophomore due to all of the college credits she earned.

Natalia took the bus over an hour each way to get to Roger Williams. Because of this commute, she would spend hours on campus; going to class, studying, and joining clubs like the Multicultural Student Union and Community in Action to keep herself busy. With all of her hard work, she earned an Outstanding Woman on Campus Award from the university. She graduated in three years because of the credits she earned in high school. After inviting me to the graduation, she asked what she should do next. I told her that she should go to graduate school because being 20 years old, most people wouldn’t take her seriously and like all smart students, she listened to her advisor.

She was accepted and attended John Jay University in New York City where she graduated in 2013 with a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology. During her time at John Jay, she was a member of the Dominican Student Association and the Honor Society. She was a teaching assistant in the Latin American Studies Department, a social work intern at I.S. 229 in the Bronx, an intern at the Urban Justice League and at the College Bound Initiative. She was also the Assistant Director of the university’s Law School Prep Program, helping mentor pre-law students and teaching social justice classes.

For the past two years, Natalia has been attending SUNY Buffalo, not only finishing her second year in law school, but also finishing her first year in the joint PhD program--because she wasn’t busy enough. If you ever email this young lady, there is a paragraph underneath her signature. Here are just a couple of the accolades she has earned while being in law school full time:

Natalia has served as the Vice President of the Black Law Students Association, exposing undergraduates of color to the law profession. She was the Upstate NY Sub-Regional Director,  the secretary of the Latin American Law Students Association and assisted with coordinating a program about the undocumented community and how law students could assist this special population. She is the Site Coordinator at MST High School in the east side of Buffalo, NY where many at risk students attend. She encourages them to apply to college and coordinates workshops that are influential to their academic and professional success. Natalia also works closely with Just Resisting which is a group in Buffalo who strive for transformative social justice by educating the community on their rights in police interactions, and to encourage them attend the Police Oversight Committee meetings. Natalia was recently elected the Northeast Regional Chair of the National Black Law Students Association, which allows her to be the representative of all 31 BLSA chapters in the Northeast to the National Board.

She interned with the ACLU in Puerto Rico last summer and is currently interning at the New York City Public Defender’s Office and was not able to be here until yesterday because she had court appearances for her cases and couldn’t miss them. Natalia's focus is to educate black and brown communities about their rights during police interactions, defend them when their rights have been abused, and to also empower them to advocate for themselves.

And yet, if you ask her, she doesn’t think she is a social change agent. I watch her Snapchat videos and Facebook posts--most of them, not the videos with her doing her happy food dance when her advisory-mate cooks for her, are of her advocating and marching for those who need a voice, for those she plans to represent.

Over the past 11 years, I have seen Natalia grow into an inquisitive, passionate young woman. She has always taken her education seriously, yet before she was stuck on only changing herself. Now, she has found a fire inside that is driving her to change the world around her. The girl who would spend hours fancying up her social media to get that perfect selfie has now focused her social media on social justice. She has an impressive resume overflowing with supporting underserved and underrepresented communities, something that Natalia became passionate about during her internships at The Met. Natalia has not only immersed herself in rigorous academics over the years, but she has also dived right into the other aspects of Big Picture Learning—relationships, authenticity, and relevance. She has found something that she is passionate about and is working to make a difference in her community.

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite stories to tell about Natalia. It was her sophomore year and she and I had just left Brown University after her informational interview at Somos. We had met with a Dominican-American student named Bianca. She was from New York and was a junior at Brown, working as an editor for the publication. As Natalia and I were recapping the interview in the car, Natalia looked over at me and said that she had never met a girl who was just like her (Dominican, from New York) that was so well-spoken and put together. “I want to be just like her when I grow up but I don’t know if I can ever get there”. I remember looking at Natalia, trying to hold back my emotion, and telling her you can get there and you are already on your way.

And oh yes, she has absolutely made it there.

Ryan Rivera - Alumnus El Centro de Estudiantes (Philadelphia, PA) - as introduced by Matt Prochnow, School Coach, Big Picture Philadelphia: 

It seems like Atlanta has been pretty good to everyone, but let’s go to North Philly for a second.

It’s 9:00 and the rooster crows from the top of a chain-link fence. Mrs. Jordan has already hustled her grandkids out the door, her throaty voice echoing across Dauphin Street. We greet straggling students as they finish their morning rituals -- one last drag of a cigarette, a kiss goodbye for the baby, a quick FaceTime with Bae -- and call on their Honey Buns and Dunkin to do some quick work. Two Flavor Swirls please.

JuDonn and I lean against the concrete pillars outside el Centro de Estudiantes, painted bright blue to ward off aspiring street artists. Over the pulsing neighborhood rhythms cuts an unmistakable voice.

“Yo Aunt Viv! Uncle Phil!”

Before we look up, we prepare to do three things:

  • Roll our eyes and talk some trash,
  • Lie and say we don’t have any SEPTA tokens, and
  • Laugh, hug, and be reminded why we do this work.


My name is Matt Prochnow and this is JuDonn DeShields. Together we work at Big Picture Philadelphia, and we’re here to introduce Ryan Rivera, a Big Picture Learning Alumnus of the Year.

We’ve known Ryan since he was a motor-mouthed 15-year old, and we have three minutes to introduce him, which is certainly adequate, as I understand he’s already introduced himself to most of you already. (You’re welcome.)

But it is also not nearly enough.

Ryan’s journey could have been another dead-end tale about a kid from the ‘hood. But after graduating from el Centro in 2016, he has steadily climbed the professional ladder through hard work, an abundance of personality, and an unusual tenacity. Ryan is now the trusted personal assistant to Judge Rayford Means of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, who had been his mentor at el Centro.

Taking the job as Judge Means’ assistant meant leaving behind his previous job as a peer recovery specialist, where Ryan had been guiding young people through the same diversion program that had helped him get back on the right path after a teenage arrest. This has become a calling for Ryan - he has lived the path they are on, and he has forged a different one for himself.

With this new job in the courtroom, Ryan decided that he needed to continue the work. Through force of personality and a well of confidence, Ryan has befriended a number of beat cops in the city, often at great personal expense: loss of friendships, a tarnished reputation in some corners of the neighborhood, etc. Ryan now occupies a formal programmatic role as the organizer of Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact forums, which open dialogues between police officers and Philadelphia youth.

Ryan lives in the both of the two worlds whose narratives dominate the headlines and the Twittersphere. He is at once a high school dropout and a high school graduate. He is at once a person of color from the inner city and an advocate for police. He is at once blue and red. His zigzagging path to where he is today lends him energy, understanding, and the ability to transcend borders - even and perhaps especially borders that are complicated, sharp, and contentious. Ryan has been on this journey since he was a kid, but it wasn’t until recently that he has been on a mission.

Ryan - I’m proud of you.