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Works hard, laughs hard: Fred Taylor rolls up sleeves as Worcester NAACP president

— When people are asked about Fred Taylor, they have two descriptions for him: He works hard and he’s really funny.

As president of the Worcester chapter of the NAACP, Taylor is a central advocate for civil rights, criminal justice, equitable economic progress and climate justice.

At home, he’s "Poppa" to his grandchildren, Travis and Alexander, and at 50, he has been with his wife, Karen Taylor, for 34 years and she says he makes her laugh every day.

A carpenter by trade, he believes that his work as a business representative for the carpenter’s union is a natural marriage with his work at the NAACP. It’s all about fighting for social justice: Getting people what they need and deserve.

Taylor was elected president of the Worcester NAACP during a time of turmoil. He had been vice president during the nationwide civil rights protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and as a senior leader of the NAACP, he became a local spokesperson.

He views systemic racism through a pragmatic lens — he disagrees with Police Chief Steven Sargent’s comments on its nonexistence and knows that part of his job, both with the NAACP and the carpenter’s union, is to fight it every day through advocacy.

But racism itself can be harder to spot now, he said, which makes his job difficult.

“It’s not socially cool to be openly racist these days,” Taylor said. “It’s gone a little underground because no one wants to be labeled as a racist even though we do things that support the racist system, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”

Dream where fair representation is default

A lifelong Worcester resident, Taylor has faced hardships and success in equal parts on these streets, and his experiences growing up in Great Brook Valley and Main South led him to his present. He has immense love for this city and wants to play a part in directing its progress. With great love comes great responsibility.

In 2021, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the city to “break down a systemic barrier that we saw in the electoral system regarding the school committee.”

“For far too long, one voting bloc has been picking all the winners. Two precincts out of 50 picked five of six committee members. We’d only had three people of color on the School Committee throughout Worcester’s history,” Taylor said.

The focus on education emanates from Taylor’s vision for a future where everyone’s needs are looked out for. When those in power live the same life as their constituents, it’s mutually beneficial.

“When it’s someone from your neighborhood, who goes to your church, goes to the same grocery store, that person has children who are likely to play sports with your children, go to the same (schools) — it gives them something to advocate for because it’s their community,” Taylor said. “And if you bring an issue, they’re more likely to respect you and listen to you as opposed to someone who doesn’t understand where they come from."

Taylor isn't afraid to take a stand and it's a trait that his colleague Edward Robinson appreciates. Robinson, vice president and former president, believes the NAACP would sometimes "get along" for the sake of appeasement and to push for progress gently.

"But there came a point where you just can't be gentle anymore. There's been too many people that have lost their lives and all because of the way people view people of color," Robinson said. And Fred will upset the applecart if it's for a just cause."

The 2021 municipal elections yielded a historic result for the city. But even as electing the most diverse city council and school committee is a cause for celebration, Taylor knows the work has to continue to change the system so the discrepancies in the system are fixed and representation isn’t dependent on the whims of the social atmosphere.

“What happened (this election) is basically a tidal wave that rode in on what happened in George Floyd. There’s still a lot of energy, a lot of people who are charged but the system is in place that isn’t fair,” Taylor said.

The goal is to have a system that enables faithful representation in the government, even when the people aren’t charged up to make it happen. One that is fair by default.

Not all sunshine and roses

Growing up in Main South was tough in those times for Taylor and he has had to overcome many obstacles of his own.

He grew up in a household built on the backs of working single mothers. His grandmother, a major inspiration for his dedication to work, had a job at a psychiatric facility. She worked hard to raise a family and retire with dignity.

When he was younger, Taylor wasn't a perfect citizen and he feels that back then, he was part of the problem. But he doesn't want to change his past. It's what made him who he is — someone who wants to be part of the solution.

Meeting his wife, Karen, while attending South High Community School where he graduated from in 1989, was a big moment.

"We've been together since we were kids, weathered a lot of storms. She's been with me through my transformation," he said.

With the support of people around him, especially his mother and "Aunt Fredricka," his namesake, he began to build the life he has today.

He always liked working with his hands. Even when he was younger and didn't know what he wanted to do, he enjoyed woodworking, building small tables and cabinets.

At Worcester Technical High School, called Worcester Vocational High School during his time there, he started learning about construction, eventually becoming an apprentice with the carpenter's union.

"I didn't go to college and for me, my life is almost like the American dream. I got two of the best jobs in the world: Being a business representative for the carpenter's union and fighting for the people, fighting for the community, making a difference in people's lives. Nothing makes me more happy," he said.

Progress! Who is it good for?

Worcester has changed a lot over the course of Taylor’s lifetime and has seen a rapid shift in the last couple of years.

"I love Worcester and when people talk badly about it, I feel like when you drag fingernails on a chalkboard. If you saw what this place looked like 15 years ago and what it looks like now — you know it's transforming," he said.

The opportunities for people of color and people in marginalized communities are seemingly increasing — there's a push across governments and organizations for diversity. But those opportunities are accessed by a handful and the larger problem can go ignored.

"A lot of times people do these things for optics, for pictures so they can say, 'Look what I did!' But there's a lot of work to do. Don't just stick us on a board or a commission. Just be a person and listen to the community," he said.

And so, even as he appreciates the changes and the practicality of some decisions, he worries who this progress is meant for.

"The thing that's great about a city are its people. And it's not about the people who have money and stature, it's about the people. And I'm concerned that we're pushing out the regular people. If we start charging $2,000 a month for rent, how can someone making $15 an hour, $18 an hour or $20 an hour afford to live here?" he said.

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