By Elizabeth Bacon
For the past eight years, Barbara Haller and I have teamed up to create an after school program for 5th and 6th graders focused on the power of City Government called This is MYCity! Barbara’s attitude and empathy is a crucial driving force. The seriousness with which she listens to the concerns of these fortunate students convinces them that local government is where our democracy becomes real. Her respectful demeanor models a consistency of purpose that is exhilarating. It is with her that over 1000 Worcester Public School children have had their first taste of the public power of their own voices.
This is MYCity! was created to give voice to community problems identified by 5th and 6th graders. Now in its eighth year, the program seeks to guide students into a direct experience with the dramatic power of their own voices. For 16 weeks, interviews and field studies are arranged around the city so that the students can hear many different views and possible solutions. Great emphasis is placed on the importance of individual responsibility, treating all people with respect and a clear and thoughtful examination of the facts. Finally, the students come together at a Mock City Council meeting inside Council Chambers at City Hall that is led by Councilor Haller and moderated by City Clerk, David Rushford.
The program, funded by The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program of the Worcester Public Schools, serves four elementary schools each semester. During the last week, after all the interviews have been collected and analyzed, all four schools come together inside Council Chambers. They come as experts to find a solution to the problem they have chosen. Each student has been assigned a role; some are Councilors, some reporters, one the City Manager, one the Police Chief and so on. Many serve as the city’s expert Department Heads. Each one comes with a prepared speech through which they describe a solution to the problem based on the research they have done. The best solutions are debated and the Council takes a vote. Parents and community members attend. During a debate over extending the length of recess last year, FINZ, the mascot for the local ice hockey team, The Worcester Sharks, came in costume to participate. The city videographer tapes the meeting and a copy is made for each student. Many times, this is a family’s first experience with local government.
Barbara is an astute and dedicated listener. Prior to the Mock City Council, she hosts each school in Council Chambers to educate them about what will happen. The students trust her. She guides them to bring out the best in themselves and in each other. MyCity topics have been broad and diverse. They have included everything from the effects of cigarette advertising in corner stores to an exploration of the effects of play on learning. The energy, enthusiasm and commitment of these students is at its center as they come to understand that Council Chambers is the safe place where diverse, bold and courageous questions are given true traction. This safety and traction happens because of Barbara Haller’s gritty determination and her unique ability to bring people together. Barbara Haller is the soul of MYCity! It is my hope that one day each of our young students will follow in her footsteps and give to their own constituencies that irrepressible belief in their own abilities to effect change that Barbara has given to them.
Elizabeth Bacon is founding director of This is MYCity!