Possibility Models Make A Difference
We can not deny the power and impact that representation has on people who often can’t see themselves reflected in the stories we see across news, social media, TV, movies, and read about in books.
Last month Brian shared his perspective on why representation matters. So I thought I would share my perspective as a professional storyteller who has dedicated the bulk of my work to creating stories that reflect the various communities I belong to. As a Latinx, disabled, queer, and gender non-conforming man, I saw very little representation of people who existed at the intersection of my identities while growing up in the 90s and early 2000s.
The first time I saw any queer representation as a kid was in my favorite childhood movie, Mrs. Doubtfire, starring the brilliant Robin Williams. My favorite scene was when Robin’s character was transformed into the older woman, Mrs. Doubtfire, by his queer brother in the salon. I didn’t know it then, but that scene made me feel less alone as a young kid contemplating attraction to other boys. That scene in the film showed me that it was possible to be queer and successful.
Possibility models make a difference and allow others to see a life that is more expansive than circumstances may lead them to believe initially. I first heard the phrase “possibility model” while at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2014, where actress and trans advocate Laverne Cox was the keynote speaker. If my memory serves me correctly, Laverne talked about the importance of seeing yourself reflected and having people who show you what is possible for yourself by living out their lives visibly and without shame.
I quickly began to refrain from using the phrase “role model” because, unlike the phrase “possibility model,” which “gives people space to find their own path, their own possibilities, rather than base their ambitions directly on the achievements of another,” –– role model implies that a person is perfect and should be mimicked. So I started referring to folks as “possibility models” and committed myself to being a person who also models what is possible when one chooses to be their authentic self.
Growing up in the inner city of Paterson, New Jersey, I yearned to see the world. I feared that if I didn’t get out of my hometown, I would be stuck there. My biggest fear was going down a path that would lead to arrest or death. But, as I navigated my education as a first-generation college student, my world began to widen. I met people I have come to admire and appreciate deeply. People who became possibility models for me have made all the difference in my personal and professional life.
Here are a few possibility models who have made a difference in my life:
Darnell L. Moore is a fellow Jersey boy! A Camden native, Darnell is an author, speaker, and VP of Inclusion Strategy for Content and Marketing at Netflix. He is not just a prolific writer and speaker; he is someone who constantly reminds me of the importance of staying grounded and remembering where you came from. As a Black queer man, Darnell laid part of his story out for the world to read in his memoir, No Ashes in the Fire. From Jersey to New York City to Hollywood, Darnell continues to represent folks like us in a way that centers on community.
I first met New York Times best-selling author, TV writer, director, producer, and #GirlsLikeUs creator Janet Mock, in Washington, DC, at an event in 2013. I was instantly blown away by her story, which she wrote in her first memoir, Redefining Realness. In her book, Janet shared her story of being a Black trans woman and how she learned to define realness on her terms. She would later serve as a writer, director, and executive producer of the FX show, Pose, the first television series to feature a primarily Black and Brown cast of trans women.
Like most kids growing up, I would watch The Oprah Winfrey Show with my mother after school. As I got older, I learned to truly appreciate Oprah Winfrey’s story and how she made a life for herself despite the systemic barriers that stood in her way as a poor Black girl from the south. I had an opportunity to meet Oprah after her Super Soul Conversations event in New York City in 2018, and it was one of the biggest highlights of my life. To tell the person who has taught me so much through a television screen for the majority of my life how much she means to me was priceless.
I first learned of Dr. Brené Brown’s work through Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Like most people, I was curious about Dr. Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability. After the interview, I watched her TEDx Talk and later began to read her books. My friends often joke that I am Dr. Brown’s unofficial publicist or “hype man” because I often refer to her work in my personal and professional life. Dr. Brown’s work freed me from the shame I struggled with and gave me the language I needed to speak up and share my story. In 2015, I got to meet Dr. Brown at her Rising Strong book tour in Washington, DC, and again in New York City at a speaking event and got to express gratitude for her work and the impact her research has had on my life.
As leaders and organizations continue to make their workplaces more inclusive, equitable, and human-centered, they must look at their board, senior leadership team, and people managers and recognize how a lack of diversity and representation in an organization impacts marginalized people. We need to “see the possibility” to imagine what could be possible for us and our advancement in the company. While the burden of being the first and only marginalized person can be enormous, it will have a ripple effect for years to come that will help model the possibility for others.
Mark Travis Rivera
he / him | LGBTQ+
Mark Travis Rivera is an award-winning professional storyteller. Telling stories is at the core of Mark’s purpose in life. A graduate of William Paterson University of New Jersey, Rivera earned a bachelor’s in women’s & gender studies with a minor in public relations. In 2013, Rivera received the Student Government Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment to the William Paterson community. In the same year, he was honored with the Campus Pride Voice & Action Award for his work with the LGBTQ community. In addition, Rivera received the Audre Lorde Award for Social Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Rivera is the youngest person to found an integrated dance company in the United States; marked dance project, a contemporary company for dancers with and without disabilities, established in March 2009 made its debut at Rutgers University. Through MDP, Rivera worked with choreographers Caitlin Trainor, Stacey Tookey, Todrick Hall, Tyce Diorio, and Marinda Davis.
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