Fourth in a series of profiles of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates.
It was the last question at the end of a long campaign day, talking with youth in Codman Square, demonstrating with Boston fast-food workers, and meeting with the South End Business Alliance.
But that question, posed by a young man in a Jamaica Plain art gallery, encapsulated so much of what inspired John F. Barros to change the system, first from the outside as a community organizer and now, he hopes, from the inside, as mayor.
“What are your plans around building a relationship between the kids in the inner city and government?” 22-year-old Jeffrey Fortunato, who grew up in Roxbury, asked.
Fortunato proceeded to tell “a little story” about experiencing stop-and-frisk before it was known as such. “We called it getting posted,” he told the crowd, describing being stopped by police and searched simply for fitting the broadest of descriptions: black and male or Latino and male.
“That created a relationship issue between the urban youth in my neighborhood and with cops in particular and government in general,” he continued. “Like, ‘They’re searching us for no reason, so forget them.’ ”
The nine-minute response from Barros was part stump speech, part fiery protest sermon, part brotherly advice. But it was also something of a political gamble, moving the conversation from diversity issues in the Boston Police Department, a hot topic on the trail, to his personal experience of awakening through engagement, education, and employment.
Those are the things that Barros has spent most of his adult life advocating for as leader of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and as a School Committee member. He stepped down from both to run for mayor, a role he said would allow him to move from advocating to implementing.
Growing up in Roxbury, Barros said he knew the sense of defiance that comes from feeling disempowered. In those moments, he said, “I was going to exert my ability to say no and my ability to fight back, and that, for me, was not just about the police. It was about a moment that they represented power that I felt oppressed by.”
But Barros, through his work with the Dudley Street initiative, learned to make change through collective action and not confrontation.
“What I would tell you right now is you allow that police officer to frisk you. Then, look at his badge number and then make a formal complaint. Do it twice. Do it three times. And make sure that you start to organize” the community to do the same, he said.
“But that takes patience, and it takes confidence and it takes you feeling empowered that you can make that kind of impact. And right now, our youth don’t feel empowered.”
In the car, on the way back to his home in Uphams Corner, Barros worried his answer might have been a little too real, too nuanced, for the campaign trail, where sound bites are king. But it was a risk that, at least in this case, seemed to have paid off.
“He seemed transparent,” Fortunato said after Barros wrapped up his stump speech. “I liked how he was someone who could relate to the question.”
Barros hopes he is someone at least 20,000 to 30,000 Bostonians relate to on Sept. 24 by casting their votes and propelling him to the general election.
It was his wife of two years who pushed the 40-year-old to run for mayor.
“He was shocked. He was more worried about me,” said Tchintcia Barros, pregnant with their second son and due any day. Their first, John Jr., is 16 months old. Everyday, she would nudge, saying, “John, seriously, with my family support, we can do this. You bring something really unique to the table.”
Her husband, she said, possesses a view of the world that is optimistic and pragmatic at the same time. “I can tell you 100 ways how something is not going to work, and he can tell you 100 ways that is going to work,” she said. “He’ll think holistically about complex problems. How does education solve problems of violence, bring stability in families?”
For example, the Dudley Street initiative faced financial hardships when Barros took charge in 1999. The grant that covered nearly 60 percent of its budget was running out and layoffs were inevitable, Barros said.
“He took a pay cut for half a year where he completely didn’t get paid, so he could keep some staff on board,” his wife said.
Barros describes the six-month furlough as a “financial bridge to have time for those new relationships and new money to kick in.” He is quick to point out that he wasn’t the only one who took a pay cut and, unfortunately, people lost jobs. But, he said, the organization survived and continued to grow.
How he arrived at this moment, as one of 12 people running for mayor in Boston, is, in many respects, the story of America.
His parents emigrated from Cape Verde, his father working on a cranberry bog on Cape Cod for 10 cents an hour before he saved enough money to marry and move to the Dudley neighborhood where his son first encountered politics.
Barros started working with the Dudley Street nonprofit at 14 as part of its campaign to end illegal dumping. Trucks would discard loads of garbage in abandoned lots, and his role was to write down license plates, take pictures, and report the information to the city.
At 17, he was elected to the nonprofit’s board. After graduating from Boston College High School, Barros attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1996.
For a few years, he cut his teeth in New York, working for an insurance company. But Boston kept calling.
During his tenure at the Dudley Street initiative, the nonprofit took steps that resulted in 225 new housing units and a community greenhouse. Three neighborhood playgrounds were renovated. Two community centers opened, as did two new schools, including the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School. That school, which lists the Dudley Street initiative as its primary community partner, opened last fall and features extended learning time and programming.
It was because of involvement with that school that Barros took some heat while serving on the School Committee, which he was appointed to in 2010. That is the same year he relinquished his role in Restaurante Cesaria, a family-owned restaurant serving Cape Verdean food on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester.
The Globe reported in 2012 that Barros missed about 20 percent of School Committee meetings during his first two years on the board and would, at times, leave the room to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because of his involvement in the in-district charter school, which is overseen by the School Department.
Barros said in a recent interview that he removed himself from discussions about the school to avoid a conflict of interest, be it real or perceived. “Often times, I found myself having to sit with in-house counsel to discuss if I should attend certain parts of the discussion or even the entire meeting,” he said. “I have actually left during meetings to not be in conversations.”
The conversations he has now are about jobs. Transportation. Affordable housing. Healthful foods. Facility planning. College access. Poverty. Charter schools. Extended school days. Teacher training. Gun violence.
Oh, and electing him mayor.