This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the new executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, Hiram Rivera wants to ensure that young people, as well as other community members, have a voice in shaping what happens in the District and to education in the city during this crisis-ridden time.
“The school system was not working before, and that needs to change,” he said.
“But that change should not happen without the community at the table. And when I say community, I mean students, parents, and teachers. Those [are the] folks who have a real vested interest in what happens in the schools because they’re the ones who are going to have to live with the decision and the outcome.”
PSU plans to work hard to push the District to be more transparent and find ways to promote real community participation in its decision-making, he said.
Rivera, 35, who took over the leadership of PSU earlier this year, also wants to maintain the high reputation that PSU has throughout Philadelphia and the country, and to guide young people toward success in their lives.
Originally from New Haven, Conn., Rivera began working with youth and organizing in high school. While working with the Connecticut branch of Public Allies, he received a 10-month fellowship in 2004 with Youth Rights Media, a nonprofit organization in New Haven that teaches high school students how to combine video media production and community organizing to advocate for change in their communities.
He eventually became the youth organizing coordinator for the organization. While there, he worked primarily on campaigns about the school-to-prison pipeline, seeking to end Connecticut’s use of juvenile training schools for very young students who got into trouble.
He helped Youth Rights Media launch a campaign to shut down Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a maximum security prison for boys ages 15 and under. They made a film called CJT$: At What Cost, which exposed the abuses that young boys faced while incarcerated. It may have played a role in Gov. Jodi Rell’s decision in 2005 to shut the facility down. However, in February 2008, she reversed this decision and the school still stands today.
In 2008, Rivera moved to New York and became the youth organizing coordinator at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s Urban Youth Collaborative.
After four years, he left for Philadelphia because he felt that he needed a change.
“The Urban Youth Collaborative was going through a lot of transitions,” he said. “It seemed like a good time to move on. I gave it my all, did my best, learned a lot. I thought it was time to give an opportunity to someone else, someone younger.”
He recounted how PSU asked him whether he knew of any good candidates to be its new executive director. “I didn’t have any names and they asked, ‘Well, what about you?’ I laughed it off, said ‘Yeah, right.’ They said, ‘Just apply,’ so I did and here I am.”
He sees the PSU job as “an opportunity for professional growth, an opportunity to try something new, do the same work that I’ve done but in a different city and a new context.”
He was drawn by PSU’s national reputation. “If it were any other organization, I probably would not have taken on the challenge of being director, but because of the respect that I have for PSU, I accepted the position,” he said.
Rivera wants not only to maintain PSU’s standing in the youth organizing world but also to build upon it. He wants students to feel empowered to fight for quality education, which he believes that all students deserve, regardless of their backgrounds or the neighborhoods that they come from.
PSU is well-positioned to be influential as the District moves toward major restructuring, he said.
In fact, Rivera said, “PSU has an obligation and a responsibility to play as much of a role as possible in what’s happening in the School District,” given that it has student chapters at several schools throughout the city, including West Philadelphia High School, William L. Sayre High School, Benjamin Franklin High School, South Philadelphia High School, Furness High School, Masterman High School, and Bodine High School.
Many of these students “succeed and graduate college and come back home with those degrees, and are then able to contribute and continue to reshape their communities and be positive forces of change,” he said.
Three of the chapters that PSU works with are struggling schools that have had many changes imposed on them by the District.
“One thing that is critical is that schools themselves absolutely need student input and student voices in their processes because they are the ones who will have to live with those decisions that are made about their schools and education,” he said. “These decisions will ultimately affect their lives and the trajectory that they will be put on into adulthood.”
However, Rivera feels that the District has done very little to integrate the community in its decision-making.
“They announce meetings at the last minute, don’t give folks enough time to organize, and give as little information as possible,” he said. “We are told that decisions and conversations are not happening behind closed doors, which is very unlikely because these major decisions and mandates are handed down.
He said that because of this, community groups don’t have the time to prepare for real dialogue around serious decisions. “I think there is an intentional minimizing of how much the community knows and is kept in the loop, and an intentional process of holding these community forums at the last minute to make sure there’s as little interaction or engagement with the community as possible,” he said.
Community members “should get a vote in what happens to the school, in deciding how schools get turned around, what schools get turned around, [whether] they get turned around.”
Too many times, he said, by the time the community is invited to participate, “the decision has already been made.” He doesn’t believe that the School Reform Commission and District officials necessarily know what’s best.
Instead, he said, "Ask our students what they need and they will tell you."