Changing Culture by Changing Perspectives


Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, City Manager for the City of Boulder, CO, was drawn to a career in the public sector after working in prison reform in Puerto Rico. See how her experience inspires her work as a public servant. This is her story.

I was born in Puerto Rico.

Growing up, my father served in Vietnam. After he served, he was stationed in Kentucky, in a tiny place called Prestonsburg, so the whole family moved there from Puerto Rico.

At the time, my mother didn’t know any English. This meant that my brother and I were my mother’s eyes and ears. We were the ones who spoke for her until she learned English.

Kentucky was home for five years, until I was about 10 years old and we went back to Puerto Rico, where I lived until I went off to college in the States.

When you’re an army brat who moves around a lot, you learn that you have to create community. And part of creating a community is talking about who you are and what your values are. So I was always pretty politically aware, since I was always thinking of the world around me and my place in it.

From Puerto Rico, I went to Amherst College for my undergraduate degree, then on to law school at N.Y.U. At the time, I wanted to be an academic and teach law. But first I wanted to practice law so I could have practical experience to share with my students.

So I started my career as an attorney. Soon after getting my law degree, I found myself practicing law in Boston, doing mostly antitrust and liability work.

But then everything took a turn.

First, my fiance at the time passed away. Then my father became ill, so I moved back to Puerto Rico to take care of him.

What I tell young people is what I did
myself: you lean into the yes.

Changing the Culture in Prisons

While I was living in Puerto Rico, a contact of mine from the Department of Justice asked if I could work part-time on what was then the longest-running class action suit in the United States.

The case was about prison reform, and I was hired by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to be a deputy. I was 29 at the time. And I was excited—I thought to myself, I know this case, I know this work, and I know the legal requirements of constitutional compliance. And I loved it.

What I tell young people is what I did myself: you lean into the yes.

The work with the Department of Corrections was all about prison reform. And this work is what sparked a passion in me for organizational change and change management—the focus was all about changing the culture for employees and making the conditions better for inmates.

When we think about changing culture, the language we use really matters. In my work in Puerto Rico, the names we used for our prison staff were correctional guards or penal guards, which are negative names.

And it occurred to me—and thankfully the Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed—that if we’re going to make change, we’ve got to start with names.

So we started changing our language. We said, you’re not a penal guard, you’re actually a corrections officer. The word correction is in your title. And that’s because your work is focused on rehabilitation.

We took these new titles on a roadshow throughout the 42 prisons in Puerto Rico, explaining why the new name was important. We emphasized: you are part of the rehabilitation process. Your job is not to be punitive. Your job is actually to help people think about getting onto a path back to being contributing members of society.

While we were doing this, a young man in my detail came to talk to me one night.

It was his first job, and he shared that he didn’t want to be in corrections. He’d applied to be a police officer, and he’d applied to work in firefighting, and corrections was his last choice.

But now, he said, I’ve been listening to you and I’m feeling proud of this work. I talk to my family about how I am part of the correctional rehabilitation process, and my family is proud of me. And I thank you for that, he said.

And that has stayed with me forever. Something as small as that, as changing the language we used, changed somebody’s perspective and pride in their work and helped them view their role in a different way.

We did a lot of other work to reform the prisons and make conditions better for staff and for inmates. There are so many other, bigger things we did. But that one moment gave me such a sense of pride in my work that it really solidified for me the power of government to change people’s lives, and to have a positive impact.

That experience in Puerto Rico shaped the rest of my life, and made me want to become a public servant.

A Career in Local Government

After doing prison reform work in Puerto Rico, I began building my career in the public sector.

I was a department head in Minneapolis. Then I was a deputy coordinator, our version of city manager there. Then I became city coordinator. From there, I became a deputy city manager in Austin.

In Minneapolis, I led the effort on minimum wage and I helped create and establish the first office of racial equity. And in Austin, I worked on efforts to re-imagine policing.

As I was starting out in these roles, I always equipped myself with data. Data guided me, so I knew exactly where I wanted to go and where I wanted to take my department or the city.

Then I came to Boulder on an anniversary trip 10 years ago and we fell in love with it. Not too long after, the city manager position opened up, and I applied. And here I am now, city manager for the City of Boulder, and quite proud of it.

The other cities I’ve worked in share the values of Boulder. There is a lot of work being done here in the racial equity space, and a lot of work with land use issues, and affordable housing issues.

In Boulder, we now have a budget system that is actually open to the public, allowing residents to have insights into the budget system. And internally, we’ve improved our HR system, automating steps that used to be manual.

The project now is to bring people closer together. Every department has had great strategic independent plans, but our planning has been siloed. So now we’re in the midst of a strategic plan and we’re trying to bring everyone together, to speak in one voice, and really think about how we can change how we operate as an organization.

I fundamentally believe that government can do good things for the people it serves. The commitment and dedication of public servants is beyond anything I have seen in the private sector. And I have found this work really rewarding—I don’t know of any other job where you get to make such an impact on people’s lives like you do in the public sector.

Also, I am excited to be at a point in my journey where I get to mentor others. I believe leaders exist at all levels of an organization. When you lead, you’re also inadvertently acting as a mentor to other people who are silently watching how you come into that space and how you lead.

I like to tell young Latina leaders, just step into your power. You have knowledge, you have something to share, you have a voice.

Don’t be afraid to lift it up and share it.

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