Dylan Rivera is first Latino to serve in a Chattanooga mayor’s office

Photo by Olivia Ross / Dylan Rivera, director of policy planning for the city of Chattanooga.
Photo by Olivia Ross / Dylan Rivera, director of policy planning for the city of Chattanooga.

Dylan Rivera was working at an upscale retail store in downtown San Francisco when he overheard a woman in the store with a musical Southern accent.

Rivera, who had moved to California from Chattanooga, immediately struck up a conversation with the woman and guessed out loud that she was from somewhere in North Georgia.

Close. It was Ginny Kelly, wife of Chattanooga mayor Tim Kelly. When the future Chattanooga mayor appeared, Rivera's jaw dropped, as if to say: "Oh my God, what are you doing here?"

Years earlier, a teenage Rivera befriended Kelly, then a Chattanooga car dealer, while working at the Chattanooga Sports Complex, an indoor soccer facility in the Red Bank area. Kelly played goal keeper on an adult-league team, and Rivera helped take care of the facility. The chance meeting in California almost seemed like an act of providence.

Rivera, whose grandparents were migrant workers in California, now works at City Hall as Mayor Kelly's director of policy planning and implementation. He is the first Latino to work in a Chattanooga mayor's office.

When he returned to Chattanooga, where he had lived since 7th grade, Rivera enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and began to attend city council meetings. When Kelly decided to run for mayor, Rivera worked on the campaign. A Kelly victory meant Rivera got a shot at a job as a grant specialist.

Thinking back on that chance encounter in California, Rivera says, "I'm a firm believer in 'right place, right time.' There are just certain things that happen and you just had to be there in that specific moment, and it tells you if you are the right track or not."

Rivera had come to Chattanooga as a kid when his father got a job at TVA. He says that his family's arrival in Soddy-Daisy in 2007 actually moved the needle on the town's Latino population.

"My family jokes about it," says Rivera, now 30. "When we moved to Soddy-Daisy they did a community census, and we took the Hispanic population (there) from like .02 (percent) to .16 (percent). We went from primarily Latino neighborhoods in Southern California to Soddy-Daisy Middle School."

For much of his childhood, Rivera grappled with chronic regional pain syndrome, a debilitating nervous system condition that frequently confined him to wheelchairs.

"Whenever I'm in a flare up ... any sort of touch, breeze, blanket on me, registers as pain. It will happen once every couple of months for a couple of weeks," he said. "It's more manageable now. When I was a kid, nobody knew what it was outside of a handful of doctors."

To strengthen his body, Rivera has become an amateur boxer, working out several days a week at the Y-CAP boxing club on Central Avenue. It helps prepare his body for the inevitable flare ups, he says.

Finding time for his hobby is harder and harder as Rivera and his wife, Meredith recently welcomed daughter, Millie, into the world.

Today, Rivera works in a policy role developing programs that he says help identify friction points between city programs and minority populations. He is especially proud of a program that help construction workers rise to become general contractors. Another program involves forming a corps of mentors for minority children.

Being a Latino and a city administrator is a place of immense responsibility, he says.

"We are the fastest-growing population in the Chattanooga area," he says. "It's incredible to be able to vocalize for the community in the types of rooms that I'm in. It's where a lot of decisions are being made."

About Rivera

* Age: 30

* Education: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, bachelors degree in political science and public policy

* Job Title: Director of Policy Planning and Implementation, City of Chattanooga

* Family: Wife, Meredith Rivera; daughter, Millie, 2 months

* Hobbies: Golf, boxing


* La Paz Chattanooga marks 20 years of serving the Scenic City's Latino population

* EDGE networking: Chamber chats with Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp

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