Adrian Rivera-Reyes, 27
From cancer research to labor organizing, Adrian Rivera-Reyes has always been driven to service. The 26-year-old cancer biologist could become the City of Brotherly Love’s first LGBTQ councilmember. A proud Democratic Socialist, Adrian is hoping to bring his lived experiences and his community with him to Philadelphia City Council.
What was the best piece of advice you received before you ran for office?
Be bold and be courageous. Stick to your principles.
You are proudly a Democratic Socialist, but there are so many different ideas about what democratic socialism is. So in your own words, how do you define democratic socialism?
It is about working-class issues and working class rights. It is the fact that no one in our city and in our country should be too poor to live. We have certain rights that have been used for corporations’ profit, and we need to have a government that works to ensure that we have a good public education, access to affordable housing and access to quality health care.
We deserve rights as workers, and our communities are also part off the conversation. We need a government that invests in the needs, research and resources for different communities, not just the wealthy few.
Let's talk about a little bit about you and your background. You currently work in medicine doing cancer research. What first got you into medicine? And why are you choosing to transition into government?
So when I was in high school, I was part of this nonprofit in Puerto that one of my friends started. Every Sunday, we would visit children from the pediatric cancer center or hospital and spend time with the children with cancer. We’d do arts and crafts, we would celebrate birthdays, bring board games, play video games. It was a time for us to basically bring the kids out of their rooms into the hallway and, for at least a little bit, help them forget they were in a hospital room.
We wanted them to know that despite what they were going through that they were human and there were other people out there in the world that cared about them. And needless to say, a lot of these kids became my good friends. So that's where my passion for cancer research grew up from was. It was that need within me that wanted to do something about it. And so I went into the medical field studying molecular biology as an undergrad, with a vision of becoming a pediatric oncologist.
Eventually, I started doing research and discovered that I really enjoyed it, and I realized that there were other careers open to me. From the background that I come from, no one really knew that doing a Ph.D. and doing research was a possibility. So it wasn't until college that I found that out. And then I just fell in love with it from there I applied to do my Ph.D. at Penn. Once at Penn, I knew that what really drives me is a passion to serve.
That's how I got into the cancer world. And once I got into the Ph.D., I knew that I wanted to use and leverage the resources at Penn to see what careers were out there where I could help impact more people. And so I started getting involved with the science policy world, and I led the science policy and diplomacy group at Penn for three years. That was basically where my interest in Philadelphia politics started with. I started organizing and I found a passion for that, as well as for connecting with people, similar to how I build connections with the patients.
I worked on a congressional campaign as a policy analyst, doing research mostly about single-payer health care and immigration about the H-1B visa program here in Philly and how that impacted the economy. I was lucky and had enough opportunities and resources to make an impact beyond the laboratory and sarcoma research, and hopefully affect many people's lives through a different area. I really enjoyed organizing and fighting for what's right. And here I am.
Now, you have been compared multiple times Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because of your passionate support for the Green New Deal. How could we implement these reforms on a local level?
We can't sit down and wait for the federal government to pass the Green New Deal. There are a lot of power and a lot of things that we can do at the local level. It has to start by making a full commitment from our elected officials that we're going to reduce carbon emissions to zero by the year 2030. We have to be extremely aggressive.
In terms of policy, it's also about updating our building codes so that all new construction in our city meets green building standards. It's opposing all efforts to increase fossil fuel infrastructure in Philadelphia. Right now, the city council will be voting on a natural gas plant in southwest Philly that the community doesn't want, and that we know it's not green energy. Whereas we can make that transition and start cleaning the land and start transitioning to solar power.
Also, the Green New Deal is not only about climate justice, but it's also about economic justice. It’s an issue of poverty. We have to expand our public transportation and we need to ensure that it runs entirely on renewable energy. We need to expand the buses all over the city and expand the subways and the train. That would also create jobs for the city, as well as for the working-class in Philadelphia. That has to also be coupled with job training programs so that we can ensure that we are preparing our city for the jobs of the future.
It's also about holding polluters and corporations accountable, like PECO, who right now by law, only offer 0.5% of their distributors green energy or renewable energy. We need to make sure that these companies are actually offering more, and that we start transitioning them to a publicly owned utility that Philadelphians can control and decide the fate as well.
Another big part of your platform has also been criminal justice reform. How can Philadelphia make that system more equitable?
We need to we need reform, period. We need to start by ending cash bail practices and stop and frisk. That is the first level.
Then we have to start talking about job training programs for formerly incarcerated people. I think most importantly, establishing an elected civilian Policy Accountability Board that has the power to subpoena and check all the cases of police misconduct so that the communities also know what's happening. So that we can revise why people are being incarcerated, especially in black and brown communities which are the most targeted.
We don't need more police in our neighborhoods, and having more police doesn't necessarily mean safety. It definitely doesn't mean safety in a lot of neighborhoods. We have to talk about what safety is in specific neighborhoods and how we can bring resources, so that people can actually talk about it, as opposed to having more police in specific neighborhoods.
If elected, you’ll be the first openly gay man ever to sit on Philadelphia City Council. What LGBTQ issues do you think the city of Philadelphia isn't addressing? What perspective do you hope to bring as a gay man?
Well, first is giving the perspective and the representation that the community deserves. It’s bringing a voice from the community into city council. We've had issues of racism in the neighborhood and the city has been quick enough to address those, but we're still lacking in ensuring that we actually have a safe city. For members in the community, especially, particularly the trans community, we need to strive and be much better at racial and ethnic equality within the community as well.
And then also, we have to talk about the healthcare component and providing more funding for HIV and STD education, which has to be part of the curriculum in public schools here. We need to expand the leadership roles, visibility and influence of LGBTQ Philadelphians that contribute to the city because we lack representation in all areas of city government.
As a gay man, I want to bring this perspective and my lived experiences to the council. But more important than that, I want to bring the community in with me. It's about making sure that we are leading the way and that we have a city that is actually equitable for everyone in the city.
65% of Philadelphia is under the age of 44. Yet there's not a single millennial on Philadelphia City Council. We know so many young people are passionate about these issues and are interested in politics and government. So why do you think so few young people decide to run?
I think a lot of the times there is the thought that when you're young, you need to wait your turn. I don't agree with that. I think that if people are qualified and feel that they want to do this and have a passion and a calling that they should.
It is a tough thing to run for office. But what we're observing, especially here in Philadelphia, is that millennials are more and more engaged and going out and voting even more, and was the population that with the highest turnout in the midterms in 2018. And I hope that trend continues in the municipal and local elections. In a field this big, there are quite a few millennials running, which is surprising.
But the other problem that affects our generation greatly is the funding, right? The money. We don't have the funds or the means to run for office, because we are overburdened with college debt, we have so many loans to pay, and we're trying to choose careers as well as families. So it is a matter of our generation is disproportionately affected by these issues. We are starting at a disadvantaged point.
What is the best piece of advice you’d give to another young person running for office?
Do it. Be bold, be courageous. If you know that you are bringing something into the conversation that no one else is bringing, then you deserve to have your voice. You should run for office.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.