The race for the city council seat in Fifteenth District of the Bronx is one of the hottest and most watched contests in the borough. Nine candidates have been vying for the seat, include a preacher’s kid Joel R. Rivera, Joel Bauza, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, and Ritchie Torres, a staffer for another council member. The previous incumbent was the Majority Leader in the council, and there are high expectations for his successor.
The district extends from the Fordham Road area south to Crotona Park area. It includes the Bronx Zoo.
Rivera has emerged as one of the favorites. He brings a unique perspective rooted in an old NYC tradition of mixing faith and politics. Fiorella La Guardia summed up his legendary mayorship in the 1930s and 1940s in religious terms. He recalled, “I had a dream of a city called Heaven, and I wanted to make New York City like it.” Rivera himself grew up in a pastor’s family.
As a pastor's kid, mixing social justice and religion was never taboo for Joel Rivera, who is running for City Council member.
“Other people work on these issues because they’re good for the image,” said the New York City native. “I work on them because, being a Christian, these issues have been depoliticized and have been instilled in me. They’ve become a way of life.” In a phone interview Rivera said that he learned his lessons at the feet of his dad.
The candidate is the son of Rev. Dr. Raymond Rivera, who is widely known for his ideology of “social justice religion” and as the founder of the Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC). When he began his pastorate in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was launching his historic war on poverty. The pastor realized that his ministry needed to incorporate meeting socio-economic needs as well as spiritual ones. Still, he “struggled with the dichotomy of the secular versus the sacred.”
The pastor felt a tension between his conviction that the most important transformation is a spiritual one of the soul versus an anxiety about the urgent social and economic needs of his community. Should he wait upon the Lord’s action for help? Or throw himself into social activism? For awhile the pastor did a time sharing solution: he held a regular nine-to-five job as a community organizer for welfare recipients while at night he was on his knees giving his community up to God’s care.
The social activist Rivera, Sr. was influenced by the example of African American pastors, who have always played active community roles, and by activist Catholics and Pentecostals. He was inspired César Chávez who said that his Catholic faith sustained him in his fight in for agricultural migrant workers in California. Following in the footsteps of these leaders, Rivera accepted that community involvement is necessary to accomplish Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:9 that “Thy Kingdom come...on earth as it is in Heaven.” In a recent book Liberty to the Captives Rivera, Sr. rooted his social activism on behalf of NYC’s neighborhoods in the examples of Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah and Nehemiah who pleaded for the well-being of their cities.
This perspective has deeply influenced the son. “I use him as a litmus test of how I’m serving people,” Rivera says of his father. “Like being a pastor, being an elected official is about being a public servant.”
The younger Rivera’s approach to community involvement is not as pastoral as his father’s but draws upon the same roots. The candidate’s career has taken the direction of social entrepreneurship and a savvy pragmatic working-the-system politics. At first he tried his hand in the private sector by launching his own clothing line at age 21. Since then, he has mainly focused on social entrepreneurship.
The younger Rivera learned from his father how to start-up organizations to meet community problems. His father has a lengthy list of start-ups to help the community from housing support to substance abuse recovery programs. Recently, he has established the Family Life Academy Charter School.
Rivera, Jr.'s entry into politics began with a 2002 internship in the office of then-city council member Adolfo Carrión, Jr. (Carrión Jr. is also trying to expand his political career this year by running in the NYC’s mayoral race.) There, Rivera gained first hand experience in negotiating the political system to help his community.
In 2005, Rivera launched Servicing Our Youth, or SOY as a place for youth to learn how to work the political system so that local communities benefit most.
“I saw how knowing this information and getting involved helped these kids’ value and self esteem,” he said. “Kids with many opportunities take them for granted, but most people just need two: exposure and love.”
He also learned more lessons in how to work with the political system with stints with with FEMA's Bronx efforts after 9/11, the Green Jobs, Green New York Program and the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (BOEDC). The latter programs helped homeowners make their residencies more energy and economically efficient.
Rivera, Jr. knows that his Dad’s well-known social activism means that many people will appreciate the son’s politics. Along the campaign trail, Rivera, Jr. continually encounters people who remember his father. “It’s a testament to his legacy,” Rivera remarked. “I hope that when I’m that age people are saying the same things about me.”
Candidate Joel Rivera is endorsed by current Council member Fernando Cabrera. His flagship issues are affordable housing, quality education, healthcare, and obtainable living wage. While these concerns can seem common to local politicians, Rivera’s heart for these issues grows from a deeper source.