Cultural Districts Program Spotlight: Stephanie Rivera

Read about Stephanie's experience as a volunteer with the American Indian Cultural District

Headshot of Stephanie Rivera

Stephanie Rivera is a San Francisco native, raised in the Western Addition neighborhood. Growing up, Stephanie had a difficult time navigating the education system. She went through various special education programs but felt the impact of inequities and a lack of resources. Now, as an adult, Stephanie remembers what it was like not having the support she needed to excel in school. This is one of the big reasons why Stephanie is now a student at San Francisco State University, double majoring in Child and Adolescent Development with a concentration in Community Health and Social Services, and Psychology with a minor in Counseling. She is eager to be involved with different opportunities to work closely with children, families, and communities in need.

In addition to her role as a mother and a Transfer Peer Mentor at her university, Stephanie is a volunteer with the American Indian Cultural District (AICD). AICD is the first established Cultural District of its size in the United States dedicated to recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the American Indian legacy, culture, people, and contributions. In March 2022, Stephanie heard about AICD’s Native American Community Coalition Gardening event through the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy that was taking place soon and decided to sign up as a volunteer.

Stephanie Rivera gardening with youth and adult AICD volunteers

That day, Stephanie had a chance to meet and work with elder American Indian community members – something that reminded her of a pleasant time growing up with her grandma, who passed away ten years ago. “It just felt warm,” she said. Stephanie also grew up with a single mother and, over time, learned how she was affected by an urgency to assimilate into American culture. As a result, Stephanie was not acquainted with her American Indian cultural history and traditions. Throughout her first day of volunteering in the garden, she appreciated seeing the collaboration between youth and elders and the intergenerational learning and exchange that was taking place. She drew parallels between what she was experiencing firsthand and what she was learning in school about youth and families, and the importance of understanding your history and having a community. Stephanie felt joy and fulfillment in this opportunity to learn about and reconnect with her Native roots, including traditional medicine and practices. “It was really nice that first day, so I committed to coming back.”

Over the last year and a half, volunteering with AICD has had a tremendous, positive impact on Stephanie. She believes the organization has played a critical role in fostering a sense of identity and belonging in her and many other members of the community. She is always happy when she finds cultural images and symbols, such as banners, instituted throughout the city, particularly in the Mission neighborhood, that represent the history of American Indians in that area because it helps bring greater awareness to others throughout the community. Other events and efforts, such as resource fairs, the American Indian Film Festival, and land acknowledgments help bring much-needed information and representation, which Stephanie feels is helping give power back to a community that has experienced a great deal of injustice, depredation, and displacement.

Stephanie Rivera with other volunteers and community members

Stephanie hopes AICD, as well as other community-based organizations and local agencies, can continue providing youth resources. “The youth are the future and I feel like we need to give them more hands-on experiences so that they continue to feel like they want to be involved with the community and they start to learn the importance of personal development and supporting others,” she said. She would also like to see more art programs and opportunities for storytelling and intergenerational narrative exchange. In addition, Stephanie recognizes the continued need for food justice and housing services and hopes these different groups can continue working closely together to advance these issues.

Through the process of developing its Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategies (CHHESS) Report, AICD has been involving and uplifting the voices of the community to create positive change. AICD continues to provide a safe space for members of this cultural community to gather to learn about and practice traditions that were once viewed as unacceptable or forbidden due to unfair policies. Individuals and families see their values and traditions being welcomed, embraced, and supported by people within and outside of the Native community.  “The Native community has a lot of expertise and I think their voices should continue to be respected. They have lived experiences and traditional teachings that are very valuable. Everyone has a unique contribution,” Stephanie explained. “The way AICD talks to the community is very transparent. They don’t try to talk with authority, it’s always very sincere. It’s one of the reasons why community members keep showing up… because they feel that sense of love and belonging."

Last updated September 29, 2023