WORCESTER — Eric Batista recalled working in the YMCA’s Central Branch fitness center when he got the questions that many bright youngsters, full of potential – but with uncertain careers – ask themselves.

“One gentleman in particular always challenged me every day and asked me questions like, ‘Why are you here? “, Batista recalled. “I couldn’t really answer that question.

Twenty years later, Batista said he got it.

“I think now my answer is to serve people, to serve people in any capacity, to be someone who is willing to serve the community at all levels and make an impact,” he said. said Batista. “I knew my calling was to serve others and work with the community and make an impact in a community that I deeply love and care about…I think that was the ‘why’ I was looking for.”

Batista, 39, becomes the city’s acting city manager on Wednesday. He was sworn in Tuesday noon.

After: Worcester City Council appoints Eric Batista as interim city manager effective June 1

The position is the latest step in a steady progression through the ranks at City Hall, which began September 4, 2012 as a project manager in the office of former city manager Michael O’Brien. Since then, Batista has been promoted every year, first to oversee the project management team, then to become director of the new Office of Innovation, then – in October – became deputy city manager.

“Then Mr. Augustus makes his big announcement and I become the candidate for the job (of acting city manager),” Batista said.

But it took a few twists and turns to get to this steady walk. City Hall was not necessarily always a destination.

Batista was born in Puerto Rico and came to Worcester at the age of 7 to visit his uncle. He didn’t leave.

“I tell people I’m still on vacation,” Batista joked.

Adolescence on the East Side

He spent most of his teenage years on the East Side, playing basketball and volleyball, performing in drama productions, and serving in the honor society while attending public schools in Worcester.

He was even named prom king as a senior at North High School – his mother recently found his crown and Batista’s wife turned it into a garnish for their Christmas tree.

After graduating, Batista attended the New England Institute of Technology to earn an associate’s degree in architectural engineering. But after 9/11, it was hard to find a job in the field, and he came to work at the Y.

It was there that Batista says he first met members of the city’s political community who inquired about his future.

“They thought I should have other opportunities…or I should explore other opportunities, that shouldn’t be the end point,” Batista recalled.

He was encouraged to go to college. But he said it wasn’t something he really knew, coming from a low-income, first-generation family. In fact, he said he didn’t even tell his parents he applied to college until he got accepted to UMass-Amherst with the intention of studying business management. sport.

But he developed a passion for finance and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2007.

“I thought I was going to go into finance and make a lot of money,” Batista said. “It wasn’t for me.”

Batista said he found his cubicle-bound job at BNY Mellon monotonous and decided to turn to community development work.

At YOU Inc., Upward Bound

He worked at YOU Inc., as Deputy Director of its Upward Bound program.

Gaelyn Hastings, who worked with Batista while at YOU Inc. and is now director of the organization’s college access programs, described Batista as “immediately just wonderfully engaging.”

“He’s been the glue since we started our Upward Bound program,” Hastings said. “It was just a wonderful culture and community to experience and that came through his leadership.”

She added that Batista remains a mentor to the program’s scholars, has advocated locally and nationally for the needs of low-income families, and has donated “endless time” during her four-year tenure with the program. organizing, attending sporting events, concerts, activities and more.

“He’s almost like a magnet for people. People are drawn to him,” Hastings continued. “He can talk about really important things, poverty, violence, trauma – he can talk about it and he’s always been very intelligent, inclusive, always open to learning, which I think has made him a fabulous leader.”

Then, while pursuing his MBA at Assumption University, he started the Encouraging Latinos to Achieve Excellence (ENLACE) program, which provides mentorship and support opportunities for Latino boys, during a stint at the Latino Education Institute.

Soon, Batista moved on to community work at City Hall.

He cited several projects he was involved in during his tenure, including everything from the City’s Strategic Plan and Youth Violence Prevention Initiative to the Elm Park Bridge and the Canterbury Playground Streetschool.

“We have been fortunate to have an administration that understands the value of higher education institutions, the inextricability of our destinies, and seeks to partner with them in mutually beneficial endeavors,” said Kola Akindele, vice -Deputy President of External Relations and Strategic Partnerships. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said in a statement. “From using fintech for social change to offering our expertise to solve municipal broadband problems and inform the Green Worcester 2020 plan, we have been able to work together to find innovative solutions to the most pressing problems. of the city, with Eric as a key contact in his role as Director of Urban Innovation. Now, with Eric at the helm, we look forward to continuing our partnership for the good of our community.”

Emphasis on transparency

Several projects — for example, the Open Data and Public Records portals on the city’s website and the upcoming 311 information system — involved bringing greater transparency to city government, which Batista repeatedly mentioned during of an interview as both something he’s been working on and something he wants to work on moving forward as acting city manager.

“We have a long way to go, but I think we are getting better,” Batista said.

Other areas he would like to address as interim city manager include moving forward with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (as interim city manager, Batista is his acting manager) in continuing to work with racial audits and identifying a path forward to fill the position of Director of Diversity and embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into the culture of City Hall.

“Understanding and knowing about operations through my past experiences and work gives me the opportunity to really understand the dynamics of business operations and our business practices and say, ‘Hey, that’s a gap. It’s an area where we can mainstream (diversity, equity and inclusion) so we can get the results we want,” Batista said. “When you embed diversity, equity and inclusion into a business practice, it now becomes an institutional practice and that’s when you start to really see the impacts of the work.”

And yes, Batista said he would like to continue working in these areas as a permanent city manager, although he said he respects the search process and the need for city council approval as he understands the need for transparency.

Challenges to overcome

But Batista acknowledged that the city faces some challenges, perhaps most notably, leadership change.

In addition to City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., many of Central Massachusetts’ longtime champions are changing or have recently changed roles: State Senator Harriette Chandler, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, presidents of several universities of the area, the Superintendent of Schools and potentially Mayor Joseph M. Petty.

“We have to make sure the attention on Central Mass. and on Worcester doesn’t go away,” Batista said. “It’s a challenge, but Worcester never backs down from a challenge.”

Then there’s also the pandemic and the culture shifts it’s brought about.

But Batista said Worcester “has good bones” and has been well prepared by the Augustus administration to “keep the momentum going”.

“I think of (Worcester) as a family that has a solid background and you’ve grown over time and you start to polish yourself up a bit and think now, you’re trying to figure out, ‘What’s my next thing? What college am I going to? What will my career look like? And you try to define yourself,” Batista said. “I think that’s where Worcester is now, and how do we personify that person going forward?…I think Worcester is going to a place where he’s trying to figure out who he is in the five or next 10 years and collectively we are all trying to figure it out together.

But the city is getting good feedback on its progress, Batista said. And he has potential – just like a young man who once worked at the Y.

“It’s in a good place to be even better,” Batista said. “There’s so much happening to us, tons of funding, tons of opportunity, and we just have to make sure it’s fair at all levels in our community. That people like me, who came here at a young age from an island, not knowing the English language, have the same opportunities as anyone else.

“We all have the same opportunity to grow, to learn, to embrace each other, and we will continue to uplift the city,” Batista continued. “If I stand up and no one stands up with me, then I will have failed.”