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Mayoral hopefuls face off on racial justice before NAACP

Boston's declared mayoral candidates, from left: Kim Janey, Annissa Essaibi-George, Jon Santiago, Andrea Campbell, John Barros, and Michelle Wu.Boston Globe

State Representative Jon Santiago told of a relative orphaned to AIDS who inspired him to his work in emergency medicine and public service. Councilor Annissa Essaibi George spoke of her Polish grandparents’ meeting in a displaced persons camp and the impoverished upbringing of her father, a Tunisian Arab Muslim. And Councilor Andrea Campbell told of inequities she witnessed firsthand as her twin brother floundered and died in law enforcement custody.

“I know painfully well what’s at stake when this city does not work for everyone,” said Campbell.

In vivid and moving personal anecdotes, the six candidates for mayor, all of whom identify as people of color, described how their lived experiences informed their work to date, and shaped their motivations to run the city of Boston.


“For me, racial justice, racial equity is much more than a buzzword,” said Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who said her ancestors escaped slavery via the underground railroad and said her upbringing amid the activism of the 1960s and 1970s motivated her to become a community organizer. “It’s been my life’s work and it’s in my DNA.”

The candidates appeared in a Zoom forum Thursday evening -- the first in a series of six planned by NAACP Boston Branch and community partners. With the focus on racial justice, they were asked to describe what they had already accomplished in the promoting of equity.

Janey highlighted her work in the cannabis industry, ensuring that people who suffered in the war on drugs get benefit from the now legal industry. And, using a refrain that may become familiar, she said that “as mayor of Boston,” she is looking at creating an Equity Empowerment Zone.

As City Council President, Janey was elevated to acting mayor when Martin J. Walsh resigned in March to become labor secretary for President Biden’s administration.


Santiago told of stepping up his work as an emergency room physician to serve Black and brown residents disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. He also said he coordinated vaccine distribution in his district out of frustration with the state’s early inequitable rollout.

Councilor Michelle Wu said she worked with a coalition to block city police from adopting face surveillance technology after learning drones had already flown over public housing. She also pointed to advocacy in public transportation that she said helped change the conversation around racial justice. Campbell noted she worked to create the Office of Police Accountability that is now tasked with investigating how the head of the patrolman union continued police work for years after accusations of sexual molestation of children.

“It’s abundantly clear that our police department cannot police itself,” said Campbell.

And John F. Barros, who was Chief of Economic Development in Mayor Walsh’s administration, said he got the city to commit to a goal of awarding at least 25 percent of contracts to women or people of color, and increasing the hiring goals to 51 percent Boston residents, 40 percent people of color and 12 percent women.

“My entire life has been rooted in the community trying to make Boston work for everyone,” said Barros, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, who began working as a community organizer at 14.

But the city’s hiring and procurement policies were criticized as insufficient by other candidates. They pointed to the lack of enforcement of the Boston Residents Jobs Policy ordinance that calls for developers and contractors to hire Boston residents and people of color.


“We are falling short in monitoring the compliance,” said Wu, “and in holding the contractors accountable who are not meeting those numbers.” She called for installing a Cabinet-level Chief of Worker Empowerment.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.