Mayoral candidate John Barros leaned into a circle of brotherhood before a late supper in Dorchester. The conversation Wednesday night, which unfolded in the family establishment he cofounded, Restaurante Cesaria, was supposed to be about public safety, but it soon centered on personal trauma: childhood molestation, death, incarceration, and feelings of being marginalized.
The men seated with Barros — a pastor, a retired judge, an education policy wonk, a nonprofit leader, and a formerly incarcerated man — also shared their hopes and vision for the city and themselves. They talked about raising daughters and sons, and being better partners to their wives. They discussed self care, forging relationships with young men, and standing up for their community.
Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development and a community leader himself, launched the “Black and Brown Men’s Roundtable” recently to put the focus on an often neglected group in the city — a group he and others believe isn’t getting enough attention in the pitched mayoral race.
Barros said he decided to host the meeting to give Black men a voice on what matters to them in the city.
“As I’ve been campaigning, Black men have been asking me whether my campaign can be a platform for their voices,” Barros said in an interview after Wednesday’s roundtable, the second of five he is planning, which will be streamed live on Facebook. “I wanted to make sure that I provided a space to talk about our ideas.”
Black male issues have gained new steam this year, amid a nationwide racial awakening that has resonated throughout the city. An effort is underway to revive a Black male commission, which aims to register and engage 20,000 voters. And a large number of Black men are running for a seat on the City Council.
Yet this year’s mayoral race has put the spotlight on the historic rise of women (and people of color) seeking City Hall’s corner office. Barros is the only Black man competing — and the only significant male contender — and he is trailing four female hopefuls at the time when the contest is returning to in-person campaigning. These small gatherings gets him closer to a key constituent as he works to build support for his candidacy.
Black men represent 11 percent of the likely preliminary voters, according to David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted a poll in June along with the Globe. (Thirteen percent are Black female voters).
“It’s bigger than the entire Asian American voter bloc, and it’s almost as big as the entire Hispanic voter bloc. It’s a significant piece of the preliminary electorate,’' Paleologos said. The question, he added, is how do those voters view the major candidates.
Racism, at 29 percent, was by far the biggest issue for Black men, followed by economy/jobs (at 20 percent), housing (16 percent) and education (14 percent), Paleologos said.
There is history here, too. Black men were the first politicians of color to integrate the City Council. In the past 50 years, Mel King in 1983 and Tito Jackson in 2017 — both Black politicians — were the only people of color to make it to the general election in the history of Boston’s mayoral contests.
But success has been fleeting. The last time a Black man was elected to an at-large council seat was 40 years ago.
Barros’s outreach to Black men has resonated with some observers, who agree that this constituency is getting largely overlooked in this year’s political contest and deserves to have a voice about the future of this city.
Jackson, who was District 7 councilor for six years, said every effort to target Black men helps elevate their issues. Black men rank at the bottom in several metrics, including educational achievement, employment rate, and life expectancy. And they are seeking a candidate who speaks to those issues and can institute lasting changes.
“These issues have to be addressed by every candidate, in every office, particularly in the mayor’s race,” said Jackson, who did not attend the roundtable. “As the last Black man who was on the council, the issues faced by Black men should not only be addressed by the Black man [in office]. Officials are elected to serve all the people, particularly those who have been left out and left behind.”
The female candidates in the race have been addressing these issues, but Leonard Lee, a candidate for City Council District Four who also was not at the meeting, said Black men need more forceful advocacy, particularly about their mental health. “We are being marginalized. Everyone thinks we will be OK. But they aren’t really addressing our issues [enough],” said Lee, who led the “I Am a Man” march on Father’s Day last year in Roxbury that drew 500 people.
David Halbert, an at-large council candidate, said the absence of a Black elected male voice in city government has been a detriment for the city.
“I’m glad that John is convening these groups and having these conversations,’' he added. “But there has to be more. Regardless of what happens on the campaign trail, we need to be looking ahead for what’s going to happen in the next four years.”
At Wednesday’s event, Barros stressed to the men that the roundtable was not an effort to win an endorsement, but rather a safe space to talk openly.
“It’s critical that we hold these spaces, it’s critical that we find our voice in the city, and that we part of the conversation,’' he said.
Retired juvenile court Judge Leslie Harris, who attended the meeting, said he was glad the conversation centered on the Black community and women as leaders in the city. He said he recognizes the strong and vital role that women play in Boston, but “I also know that Black men are being left out,’' said Harris, who lives in Roxbury.
Two of his children are Black men and all but one of his nine grandchildren are young men, he said. He worries about them.
“I worry about how young men are being loved,’' he said. “You go to the colleges, you go to the professional schools and there are [few] Black men. . . . I’m worried about Black men being killed — between prison and killing each other — and being just marginalized. It frightens me. Yeah, it really does.”
During the event, James Hills, host of the online show “JavawithJimmy,” and Abrigal Forrester, executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, talked about their activism. Barros talked about his young son struggling through music camp. “I told him to hang in there because I didn’t have that opportunity,” he said.
Conan Harris, a close Barros ally who led the conversation, highlighted the pandemic’s toll on Black men, including lost jobs, COVID cases, and other hardships. Turahn Dorsey, who was chief education advisor to former mayor Martin J. Walsh, talked about losing his father.
Pastor Chris Sumner of Jubilee Christian Church, recounted how he was able to build a sense of trust among young men in his neighborhood by letting them play in his yard instead of on the streets. And Forrester shared how he befriended the young people who use the park near his home.
Sumner also described how he was able to find healing through therapy and God after dealing with the trauma that followed him after he was molested in his youth.
“I’m in a place [in my life now] and I want to be in raw, critical conversations around mental health for Black men,” Sumner said after the discussion.
It was a moment, too, for Joseph Bennett, who served more than two decades in prison and who shared for the first time during the discussion, streamed on Facebook Live, how he has dealt with being bipolar.
“I’m not ashamed of it. I deal with it [through] therapy,” he said. “I talk to people about it, just so it doesn’t take hold of me.”
He said he did not recognize he was bipolar until he started meeting with a therapist. Being able to talk about it, Bennett said, allows him to let young men know that “it’s OK to deal with mental health issues and it’s OK to [talk about it]. It’s not a bad thing.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.