The Voices of Worcester’s Underrepresented

The Voices of Worcester’s Underrepresented

Barbara Haller ’83


The Important Work We Do hits close to home—in WPI’s backyard, even. Barbara Haller ’83 and Patrick Spencer ’05 are just two of the many alumni whose work makes the Worcester community a better place to live, work, and play.

Barbara Haller doesn’t fit anyone’s stereotype of a career politician. A plainspoken, plainly dressed grandmother, she is a former college dropout, VISTA volunteer, ’60s activist, and blues bar owner. Her resumé also includes 25 years as an engineer with National Grid. For four terms Haller has represented District 4 on the Worcester City Council. It is considered the city’s most distressed district, with the highest rate of poverty and crime. "Many people get into politics because they want to be politicians," she says. They may be knowledgeable about fund-raising and voter data, and they’re used to rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers, but they lack experience with inner-city issues. Without that background, "you don’t know what an SRO is. [Single room occupancy, i.e., low-rent rooming house. –Ed ] You don’t know how prostitution operates on your street. You don’t know how kids have to walk the streets surrounded by drug trafficking and other crime," she says. "I may not have had the political competencies at first, but I had grassroots experience."

The daughter of a mechanical engineer and a homemaker, Haller rejected the conformity of suburbia and sought a bigger world. She initially studied sociology, wanting to make a difference, but left college to do community organizing in inner-city Chicago. She embraced the 1960s counter-culture, and has vivid memories of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the demonstrations that rocked the 1968 Democratic convention. For a time, she lived in Arkansas and helped run a farm school collective there to help youths at risk of serving prison time.

"It never occurred to me to become an engineer until I was an adult raising two children with a husband who was unemployed," she says. "My father was an engineer. My brother was an engineer. If I had been male, I would have been an engineer a lot sooner."

She still remembers her father’s reaction to her plans. "It will destroy your marriage," he declared. "It will make you too independent. You won’t need a husband anymore."

"It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me," she says. Her parents had encouraged her to get an education, but only so she would have something to fall back on, in case her marriage failed. They never expected her to stake out a 'real' career.

After studying at the former Worcester Junior College, she transferred to WPI to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. It wasn’t easy being female at WPI in the early 1980s, and as an older student with children, she felt even more out of place. "I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown the whole time I was at WPI," she says. It took discipline to stay ahead of the curve in her classes. The personal and academic challenges built confidence, which she carried into her career with National Grid. She retired as supervisor of metering in 2005.

As a homeowner in Worcester’s troubled Main South area, she joined with neighbors to organize crime watch groups and to pressure the city government and police to take action. When absentee landlords turned their backs on drug houses and let abandoned properties turn into dumping grounds, she led protests to embarrass them into taking responsibility for screening tenants and maintaining properties.

For a time, Haller was part-owner of Gilrein’s, a Main Street nightclub around the corner from her home. As a small business owner, she was invited to serve on the City Manager’s Advisory Committee on local redevelopment. She became active to prevent seeing the ’60s and ’70s repeated, when 'urban renewal' projects turned out to mean 'urban removal' of poor residents.

Her conversion from neighborhood activist to politician came in 2001, when the District 4 incumbent had a mild stroke and chose not to continue her campaign. Haller agreed to run in her place, and won. Last November she officially launched her campaign for a fifth term.

"District 4 magnifies the issues of inner-city living," she says. "While all the other districts have pockets of poverty and crime and grime, District 4 is the epitome of all that." The current economic crisis looks worse from where she sits: "When you’re living on the edge already, and the economy falls out from under you—then you’re over the edge."

Over time, she’s seen the challenges grow. The demographics of her constituency show more minorities, immigrants, and non-English speakers. There are larger households with more children, more single-parent families, and more children being moved from school to school. Her district has fewer registered voters and the lowest voter turnout of all districts.

"Moving forward together is her slogan. She likes to remind her colleagues on the council, "If we don’t deal with the problems of the inner city, your neighborhoods are going to suffer as a result. Leave any part of the city behind, and you diminish the whole."

Her district borders the WPI campus, and includes the university’s off-campus housing, as well as Elm Park, Becker College, Clark, and Holy Cross. Although, in her work, she tends to stress the neediness, she says it’s important to celebrate the assets. Highland Street and Main Street are among the liveliest parts of the city, with diverse ethnic markets, restaurants, and mom-and-pop stores.

"Do we continue to define our inner cities as being where people in poverty live?" she asks. "We want to change that and define them as vibrant. This embraces diversity of all kinds—not just racial, ethnic, and religious, but also economic. Many of us—including the ‘new urbanites’—want to participate in the cultural, recreational, and culinary assets of the city."

During her first campaign, she was caught off guard by a reporter’s question about her platform. "Quality of life," she stammered. "You know…things like trash, abandoned cars, and noise."

"You’re running on trash?" the reporter replied, skeptically. She laughs about it now, but she hasn’t wavered on speaking out on issues that others would like to ignore. "I see one of Worcester’s greatest strengths as its livability. Who’s advocating for that? What do we need to make our neighborhoods strong? Those are the issues I am passionate about, and I have tried to be a voice for our neighborhoods."

Patrick Spencer ’05

Patrick Spencer was only 16 when tragedy thrust him into the public eye. "The phone calls started the day after my father died," recalls the son of Lt. Thomas E. Spencer, one of six firefighters killed in the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage warehouse fire. Media coverage spread rapidly, like an out-ofcontrol fire, spiraling upward until even the president of the United States was involved. Patrick Spencer moved mechanically through the routines of waking, dressing, and eating, unable to grasp his loss, knowing he was not ready to grieve.

"I needed to do something," he says. The engineer in him kicked in, and he took on the task of screening and logging phone calls for the family, meticulously charting who required a callback and the details of what they wanted. Tackling a problem with a systematic approach was just what he needed; it’s what got him through those early days. Spencer has every reason to hold a grudge—the 1999 fire was ignited by an overturned candle during an altercation between two homeless people who had taken shelter in the abandoned building. Yet his reaction has been anything but vengeful. While many people go out of their way to avoid contact with the homeless, this civil engineering graduate is championing a new approach to help them break the cycle of chronic homelessness. Earlier this year, he helped convert an old stucco mansion in Worcester to house 14 homeless individuals.

Spencer is an upbeat, energetic young man at the start of his career. He has worked in construction engineering, is considering pursuing a master’s degree through WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering program, and, in the family tradition, has served on the Paxton Fire Department. He also serves on the advisory council of Home Again, a Central Massachusetts nonprofit with a simple motto: Only a home ends homelessness. He has led a team of local contractors and volunteers in renovations of Home Again’s first program site at 62 Elm Street, Worcester. As a construction engineer, he was able to find low-cost work-arounds for electrical overloads and creative solutions to 100-year-old plumbing problems. As an ordinary citizen, Worcester born and bred, he offers an important perspective to the board. He’s helped to quell the fear of neighbors who objected to program sites. He’s met with officers of the exclusive nearby Worcester Club to gain their support. He notes that he showed up at the club, which has a strict dress code, directly from a construction site, dressed in work boots and jeans. His mission succeeded, but he was asked to use the back door on his way out.

Home Again offers permanent housing and wraparound support services, along with intensive case management, to help chronically homeless adults break the cycle of living in transient shelters or on the streets. It’s a model that makes sense to him. At WPI he learned how engineers work backward to analyze a building failure or a fire, then move forward with strategies for prevention. They want to know what systems failed, and what changes need to be made. He asks similar questions about the tragedy that took his father’s life. "How did we get to the point where two people had to squat in an abandoned building on a December night, with no heat or light except a candle? What are the causes of homelessness? Why have previous solutions failed? How can we address this in a different way?"

He’s seen how large emergency shelters can become a revolving door. "It gets them out of the cold, but it doesn’t address their real needs," he explains. Those needs—which often include assistance for addiction and mental health issues—can’t be addressed in an impersonal, chaotic environment.

Most of us can’t imagine a life on the streets, and Spencer admits feeling uncomfortable when he first started visiting shelters. He can even understand the backlash against the two homeless people who caused the 1999 warehouse fire. In the divisive aftermath, it was often repeated that six fallen heroes had sacrificed their lives in an effort to save a couple of homeless people.

"When six people die like that," says Spencer, "I think human nature says, ‘Somebody is to blame for this.’" Many have questioned why the two did not report the fire or make their whereabouts known. "I’m not sure I’d be hanging around waiting for the police to come either," Spencer responds. "What were they supposed to say? ‘Hey, I broke into the building and set it on fire. I just wanted to tell you there’s nobody inside.’ "Honestly, could they have anticipated that six firefighters would die? Hindsight is 20-20," he says. "Don’t get me wrong—it took years for me to develop the right perspective. It still upsets me sometimes—on Christmas, Father’s Day, and my father’s birthday, especially."

Spencer likens his involvement with Home Again to the zeal of families of cancer victims who run marathons and work for the cure. He seems to have grasped a message that was missed by many: that the real enemy is homelessness, not the homeless.

The Lt. Tommy Spencer House, named in memory of Patrick’s father, opened in November 2008. The House will scale up slowly over the next year to include 14 carefully selected residents, who pay 30 percent of any income they receive as rent, and a live-in manager. Spencer will continue monitoring, with an eye to expanding the best practices to future program sites. The goal, he notes, is to keep things "rigid, steady, stable—like you learn in civil engineering."

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Last modified: April 01, 2009 11:10:47