The photo on the wall of his City Hall office reminds him of how far he has come and the importance of getting a college education.
Dylan Rivera, a 2020 graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is the director of policy planning and implementation for the City of Chattanooga. His work directly influences Chattanooga’s minority neighborhoods by bridging the disparities in generational health, safety and prosperity.
He said his role focuses on helping people “move up in where they are in their socioeconomic status” and making impactful changes for their families.
It’s a mentality instilled in him by his grandparents, Frank and Millie Rivera.
“My grandparents were migrant workers, and I’ve got the photo on the wall—a reminder that they were migrant workers,” Rivera said. “My grandpa was the first of 10 to graduate from high school. He was the youngest of the bunch.
“And my grandmother, she graduated from high school and I think tried a little bit of college. They really drove home that education was important. They were the ones that said, ‘You’ve got to go to school.’”
Millie passed away in 2022 at the age of 69. Frank retired a few years ago from Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield, where he became director overseeing distribution and warehouse operations.
“They were the greatest hype people you could ask for,” Rivera said. “It was those two who were the ones always saying, ‘You’ve got this. Keep going, keep working on it.’”
On his journey to becoming a first-generation college graduate, Rivera—who majored in political science: public policy with a minor in criminal justice at UTC—needed time to figure out his true calling.
After graduating from Soddy Daisy High School in 2012, he left the area to pursue an athletic training degree at Middle Tennessee State University, “but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would.” He tried online schooling; again, it didn’t feel right.
So he took a break from school, moving first to San Jose, California, and then to small-town Idaho Springs, Colorado.
In trying to figure out what he wanted to do, he would often call his grandparents for support.
“My grandma Millie was the one who introduced me to public service,” he said. “That was just who she was, working at the food bank at her church in Bakersfield (California). She was always very much of a community-oriented, shirt-off-your-back kind of person.
“Every time I’d call, it was ‘Mijo (darling), when are you going back to school? Hey, you’ve got to go back to school.’”
Performing public service gradually became synonymous with working for the government.
“I lived in a county that I think had 1,500 people in three or four cities,” he said of his time in Colorado, “and I started understanding a little bit more of how government works in a very small, concentrated form.”
Rivera returned to Chattanooga and enrolled at UTC with a plan of getting involved in city politics. The mission, he said, was to come back to his hometown “to make more impactful change for all parts of the community, not just specific areas.”
At the same time, he worked nights and weekends and “odd jobs here and there.” He spent time as a project manager with the non-profit Southeast Tennessee Development District. He also took 16 to 20 course hours each semester to catch up with his younger brother, Matt—who was pursuing his psychology degree at UTC.
“It was a lot and at times overwhelming,” he said, referring both to the school/work/life balance and the race to be the first in his family with a college degree.
Rivera credited UTC Professor of Criminal Justice Tammy Garland with pushing him to keep going.
“She wasn’t my initial adviser, but I was going to her so often with questions that she eventually just said, ‘Why don’t I become your adviser?’” he said. “She was huge in making sure that I understood the process and didn’t feel overwhelmed by all of it. It was a lot to digest when you don’t have family” who had gone through the college process.
“I would go to her for everything. She was a huge cheerleader champion.”
Garland called Rivera one of her all-time favorite students, saying he was bright, critical “and he always kept me on my toes.”
“More importantly, he demonstrated a great level of understanding and empathy for the community,” she said. “If you have met Dylan, you know that he has a big heart and is a force to be reckoned with. He is passionate about making a difference in the world and does not hesitate to challenge the status quo.”
As for being the first in the family to graduate college, the Rivera brothers’ race ended up in a tie.
“I caught up, but it was a sprint to make sure he wasn’t ahead of me,” Dylan Rivera said with a laugh. “We both graduated at the same time. Yeah, same announcement.”
“If anything, we were just proud of each other for both accomplishing that,” said Matt Rivera, who continued his education at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee—earning a master’s degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology in May. He is now based in Macon, Georgia, and works for the National Diversity Council—where he was recently named people and culture coordinator.
“I know both of us just thought it was really cool that we’re in the same class and we’re first-generation students. The only bummer was that there wasn’t an in-person graduation commencement because of COVID.
“Once he graduated, he jumped right in there with Mayor Tim Kelly … and what he’s doing is so impactful for Chattanooga.”
In high school, Rivera worked part-time in an indoor soccer complex in the Hixson/Red Bank area. One of the clubs training at that facility was coached by Kelly.
“I’m a 16-year-old kid asking him questions about cars,” Rivera recalled, “and I don’t think many people realize he’s a pretty good goalie. I would watch and be like, ‘He can move.’
“When he announced that he was going to run for mayor, I reached out to him and said, ‘I’m about to graduate from UTC with my degree in public policy, minor in criminal justice. I would love to be able to help in the campaign however I could.’”
Rivera quickly became part of the Tim Kelly for Mayor team. After Kelly was elected mayor in April 2021, he joined him in City Hall to serve as director of innovation special projects.
In February 2022, Rivera was named director of policy planning and implementation. His role is to help guide strategic initiatives, working with departments across the city to help implement the mayor’s One Chattanooga strategy.
“What I do is a lot of the upfront planning and front-end research of some of the policy directions we’re going in,” he explained. “On the implementation side, it’s a lot of making sure that once we hit go on something, everything is in place, everything’s in order—so it hits the community in the way it was designed to.”
When he moved into his current position, Rivera—at the time just 27 years old—became the first Latino appointed to a Mayor’s Office position in the city’s history.
“Dylan and I have spent many hours together talking with residents in every neighborhood across Chattanooga,” Kelly said, “and I can tell you from working alongside him here at City Hall that he not only cares deeply about our community but is increasingly seen as a leader who I expect will play an increasingly significant role in our city going forward.
“Dylan has a unique ability to connect with people from every walk of life, and the city policies and partnerships he has cultivated will continue to serve our residents for years to come. Chattanoogans should count themselves lucky to have him in their corner.”
Rivera’s work has been noticed outside City Hall. In September, he received the Chattanooga’s Choice Award at La Paz Chattanooga’s 2023 Latino Leadership Awards ceremony.
This award, determined by popular vote, honors notable Latino people who have made significant contributions to Chattanooga’s communities and industries while fostering cross-cultural understanding and relationships that benefit both the local Latino population and the city as a whole.
“I traveled back to Chattanooga for that award ceremony and it was just really touching to see,” Matt Rivera said. “I mean, he got the Chattanooga’s Choice Award. People had to vote for him; it wasn’t just one that was given out. He had to get community support for that.
“Winning that award shows that he’s making a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”