When the Worcester City Council’s newest members are sworn into office next month, among those raising their hands will be two Clark alumni who reflect a city seeking fresh voices to help guide it through a period of tremendous growth and change.
The election of Thu Nguyen ’14 and Etel Haxhiaj ’04, M.A. ’08, on Nov. 2 also represents a historic first in Worcester politics: Nguyen is the first nonbinary and Southeast Asian American candidate elected to the Council, and Haxjiah is the first Albanian American and Muslim elected in the city.
Both arrived in the United States as refugees. Haxhiaj fled Albania with her parents during a time of political upheaval in 2001, and has been in Worcester ever since. A single mother of two boys and director of public education and advocacy at the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, she is committed to building a community that provides families strong economic, childcare, and educational opportunities.
Nguyen came to Worcester as a toddler when their family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. A youth worker at the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, Nguyen is devoted to strengthening communities by empowering citizens, as evidenced by their substantial volunteer and service work in the community.
We spoke with Nguyen and Haxhiaj in the wake of their inspiring wins.
How did your childhood in Worcester inspire you to focus on youth empowerment?
For me, as a queer, Vietnamese, nonbinary refugee, advocating on all levels is something I’ve had to do for myself and my community throughout my entire life. I believe we gravitate toward the work we need to heal in ourselves. From an early age, I learned it was crucial for me to center my life around work that promotes a vision of equal access to opportunities, liberation, and joy. I began doing youth work when I was still a youth. Throughout my years, those younger generations I worked with actually taught me a lot about our world, like the need to show up for each other during times of struggle and the need to dream a better future that tends holistically to all of us. They also showed me that collective care is possible and worth embodying in our everyday lives.
I have always been a creative person who is curious about humanity. Sociology was a natural subject choice for me as someone who experienced a lot of what would be discussed in classrooms. I also took education courses very seriously while I was in college. The interweaving of sociology, education, and studio art complements the inner workings of my mind. How do we create something beautiful out of our realities and theories? How do we find alternatives and solutions to issues that people either haven’t thought of or never believed would be possible?
I want a political reimagination shift in Worcester and throughout our nation — one that means we must think as artists, as writers, as storytellers; one that calls us to become humans who analyze our society and create something that not only resonates with people and brings them hope, but also helps them become part of a movement. I think we’ve all had polarizing experiences with the government in the last few years, including ones that have incited heartbreaks, hopelessness, and even fear. I believe we need to transform those experiences. Why can’t our governments reflect our ideals, hopes, and visions? We live in a democracy, and in these times we need to lean into having different types of leaders and community members who can help us reimagine our government and move forward as a collective.
As the first nonbinary Council member, you not only inspire others, but teach future candidates that they can achieve a role within the government, regardless of their gender identity. How do you think your pioneering work will motivate others?
I always want people, especially those who are marginalized, to know their existence matters and that they have a seat at decision-making tables. Representation is important — and, as I mentioned many times and will mention many more — representation is lifesaving. It’s not simply identity politics; it’s about bringing unique lived experiences, knowledge, and communities to spaces that desperately need them. We are stakeholders, and we must wield that power to shape our world. I hope people recognize their inherent ability to make changes in their own lives, in the lives of their loved ones, and in our society as a whole. We are co-creators of the future. That’s a responsibility and a gift we all carry.
Who is your biggest inspiration, and why?
My biggest inspiration is Toni Morrison. Her role as an unapologetic Black woman — as an author who dove deep into the skin and skeletons of our humanity, and as an editor who expanded Black literature to what we have today — continues to motivate me. I am very indebted to, and in deep gratitude for, her legacy and the love she not only nurtured but planted for us.
Were there any “smaller” moments in your life that led you to where you are now?
Catching sunsets. Throughout my years as a community organizer, youth worker, and freedom fighter, catching sunsets with various people has been a sacred act of love I will always hold dear. We need to do better at prioritizing our joy, taking time to appreciate the beauty in our lives, and spending many more moments with those who love us and ground us. I wouldn’t be here at all without sunsets.
How were you inspired to run for public office, and what are the issues that drove you?
Since I was very young in Albania, I have always wanted to be of service. I organized in my neighborhood, my high school, and during one of the most difficult times in my life, the political chaos of 1997. My grandfather, Zylyftar, was a freedom fighter who served in the Albanian parliament after the national liberation war. I grew up hearing stories about how important it is to be of service to others and fight for justice.
I also was inspired by Albanian women who organized for women’s rights and fought against the sexual trafficking of women and girls, as well as by students who fought for democracy. I was inspired by immigrants, like my parents and many others, who fled political violence in search of a better life and freedom from oppression. As a former undocumented refugee who was given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States, I was motivated to put that privilege to good use. I immersed myself in Worcester politics, organizing, and activism from the moment I arrived at Clark University in 2001. I was frustrated to see many of the city’s elected officials not push harder for community benefit agreements for big developers, or by their lack of desire to develop a comprehensive plan to tackle family homelessness, increase housing affordability, invest in our public transit, aggressively tackle climate change, and prioritize racial justice.
What is it about Worcester that is so special to you?
I love the blue and green spaces and the hiking trails we have in Worcester. I live near Coes Pond, and I love walking there to mediate or to go for a hike in the woods. As a mom of young boys, I also love the many parks and playgrounds in my district, like Columbus Park, Coes Park, and Beaver Brook Park. Worcester’s richness and diversity, as well as the stories of immigrants and refugees who have built lives here, are special to me. I am grateful that I get to raise my boys in a community that offers so much culture, history, and diversity.
I met some of the most influential people during my time at Clark University, like Professor Dave Bell, one of my mentors. One of the most meaningful projects I did during my senior year was on the trafficking of women and girls in Albania, an opportunity I was granted through the Anton Fellowship. In 2003, I returned to Albania to interview trafficked women and the nonprofit workers who supported them. Upon my return, I hosted a talk on my research findings and invited an Albanian practitioner to campus to discuss sexual violence and trafficking. In addition, there were many class conversations about community development, planning, and racial equity that helped inform me in my role as a practitioner of community development.
How has your perspective as a single parent informed your approach to developing a safe and engaging community, particularly within Worcester?
I think all parents want the same thing for their children: good education; safe, green, and healthy neighborhoods; and opportunities to have fun. I bring a unique perspective as a member of “the sandwich generation,” raising young children while also caring for elderly parents. I understand the needs of parents who must juggle their household duties, work, community responsibilities, and after-school care with helping their own parents navigate health care and other things.
You’re taking on a pioneering role as the first Albanian American and Muslim elected to the Worcester City Council. What is it like to blaze that trail?
I am incredibly honored and humbled to be serving as the first Albanian-born refugee and immigrant as well as the first Muslim in the Worcester City Council. But I also know that others fought very hard to provide me with the opportunity to blaze that trail. I think of this as a chance to bring meaningful and transformative change as well as open doors for others. I am excited for the opportunity to work collaboratively with all members of the City Council and the city manager to accomplish various missions. One task I’m particularly looking forward to joining them on is allocating 20 percent of the American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 recovery funds to build and preserve housing that is affordable for families, young college grads, seniors, and essential workers. In addition to that, I want to advocate for community benefits agreement for new developments, reduce our carbon emissions, keep the WRTA fare-free, and build strong neighborhoods.