Third in a series of profiles of the historic field of candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor. For more coverage of the race, please subscribe to On the Cusp, the Globe’s weekly newsletter covering all aspects of the contest, and visit our Mayoral Race page for the latest developments.
John Barros was a teenager with a high-top fade when he and a small group of Black students started at Boston College High School in 1988.
The freshmen — sons of Cape Verdean and Haitian immigrants and Puerto Ricans from some of Boston’s blighted neighborhoods — were among the first wave of diverse recruits admitted to a school that had long educated the sons of Irish, Italian, and Polish-American parents from the suburbs.
A clash of cultures was inevitable.
The white students who normally grouped themselves together — South Boston residents at one table in the cafeteria; South Shore commuters at another — were incensed when the Black students congregated at their own table or elsewhere, recalled Bill Kemeza, who served as a teacher, principal, and president of the board in his more than 30 years at BC High.
“There was racial tension, especially when all of a sudden, the school moved from having one or two African-American students to having a dozen or two dozen,” said Kemeza, recounting BC High’s push to diversify its student population. “We weren’t prepared for what that was going to mean for those young men, especially someone like John.”
Barros formed alliances with students from all backgrounds, pushing school administrators on social justice issues, and, eventually, helping to establish BC High’s first Black Student Union.
Those early years, coinciding with Barros’s emergence as a teenage community activist, helped to shape the Dorchester mayoral candidate into a “bridge-builder,” someone who believes that real reform can happen from inside entrenched systems if people from all sides work together, Kemeza and others said.
“I wasn’t trying to burn down the school,” said Barros, now 47, over coffee in Jamaica Plain one recent late afternoon. “I was trying to figure out, ‘How are we going to do this?’ I always believed that if we brought people together, we could try to figure it out.”
Now Barros, a married father of four — John Jr., 9, Jeremiah, 7, Casey, 5, and Olivia, 3 — is facing the biggest test of his public life. His rise from student leader, community activist, youth minister, and nonprofit executive to government official and now two-time mayoral candidate offers a window into how he has led and where he plans to take the city should he win the race.
“We ... fought to get the school to see that it needs individuals like us who are from the city, who are willing to learn and help our community. That’s what John has been doing throughout his whole career,” said Pierre Boursiquot, a fellow BC High student leader and Barros’s childhood friend.
On a recent Friday, Barros gathered with supporters in a Roxbury yard at one of a slew of small events his supporters have been hosting since he began his campaign. He reminded his mostly Cape Verdean backers of the years they had lived in this city, nurtured its neighborhoods, and studied at the schools, while watching others prosper in city leadership, with government contracts and real estate opportunities.
“It’s our turn to make sure that we are sitting at the tables where they’re making the decisions that matter to our families, to our children,” he said, urging the supporters to not only vote, but donate funds and time to the campaign.
Barros was born in 1973 to Cape Verdean parents, Casimiro and Catarina “Teca” Barros. His father, a nurse on a passenger ship from Africa, had arrived in America after World War II.
Casimiro Barros, who died in 2019 at the age of 94, eventually bought a home on Clarence Street near Dudley Street and Blue Hill Avenue. There he and Teca Barros raised their five children; John was the second oldest.
At the time, whites were fleeing the area as new Black immigrants were moving in. Redlining was still in effect. As property values plummeted, white landlords were burning their own houses to collect insurance money.
Dudley Street area residents also were dealing with another scourge, as people from the suburbs and contractors dumped garbage — including burned-out cars, old refrigerators, construction materials, and household trash — onto vacant lots in the neighborhood, near residents’ yards. The illegal dumping crisis highlighted city neglect in a community of color that lacked political clout.
By the time Barros was a teenager, residents — boosted by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative — had fought to close down the illegal dumping, gain unprecedented control of the empty city lots from City Hall, and began executing a plan to rebuild their community.
The neighborhood was being reborn as an urban village.
Barros entered BC High with that spirit of activism. He was blown away by the “breathtaking” campus — a far cry from his former schools in Roxbury. But Barros quickly discovered what he described as “low expectations” from his teachers, who were effusive in their praise after he pulled a C+ average in the first quarter of his freshman year. It felt “patronizing,” Barros said.
Soon he began improving. As a member of the Interracial Awareness Council, he and other student leaders pressured BC High officials to boycott a popular blood drive held at the school to protest a policy that banned blood donations from Haitians during the AIDS epidemic.
Outside school, he joined a cleanup effort at Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which established itself as the largest urban community land trust in the country.
Gus Newport, a former DSNI executive director, recalled Barros as one of the teenagers who helped with the cleanup effort. “John was just a natural leader,” he said.
Barros went on to Dartmouth College on a scholarship in 1992 and worked at Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. in Manhattan after graduation, before returning to Boston to lead DSNI at 26.
”John could have easily taken a job with a major corporation,” said John Cruz, a Boston developer, fellow Cape Verdean, and early admirer of Barros. “But he took a fledgling entity that had a ... controversial kind of mission, and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ ”
DSNI, under Barros’s leadership, built affordable housing, protected families from displacement, created schools and youth programs, and empowered a community. The organization also established Barros as a leader. He said he found fulfillment in the behind-the-scenes work of figuring out how to organize, do advocacy, and “create space” for other perspectives.
“That for me was far more rewarding [than working in corporate America],” Barros said.
In 2010, he took a leap into government, becoming the first person of Cape Verdean descent to serve on the School Committee, where he, among other things, backed a weighted formula that ties funding and services directly to individual students and provides extra resources for students who are low-income, English learners, or have special needs.
A year after earning a master’s degree in public policy from Tufts University, Barros threw his hat into the ring in 2013 when former mayor Thomas M. Menino decided not to seek a sixth term. “We are going to change Boston,” Barros said at the time. “We have to do this — together.”
That fall, at Barros’s 40th birthday bash and fund-raiser, Newport, his mentor, and the legendary actor Danny Glover were by his side. Barros played the drums and Glover danced. “It was an honor ... to support John,” Glover said in a recent interview.
Barros placed sixth in the race, but impressed his former rival, Martin J. Walsh, the former Dorchester state representative who became mayor for seven years and is now US labor secretary. Walsh put Barros in charge of a new economic development office, charging Barros with building an inclusive City Hall that would spur economic development beyond downtown and the Seaport and create opportunities “where everyone [in any neighborhood] can climb the economic ladder to success,” Walsh said.
Barros, who co-led the city’s Imagine Boston 2030 vision plan, said he has helped put the city on a pathway to fully achieve that goal, pointing to the redevelopment of long-empty city lots in Nubian Square and the acquisition and redevelopment of land in a revitalized Upham’s Corner as examples of what can happen in other parts of the city.
“That’s exactly the work I want to [continue to] do,” Barros said.
For a while, the economic development office had a staff of one: Barros. But over time, Barros acquired a team and a budget, and pooled various city resources and initiatives, such as the Main Streets local business program, to carry out the mission of the department.
Joyce Linehan, who worked with Barros for seven years at City Hall as the city’s policy chief, said Barros steered millions in grant funding that helped keep small businesses afloat.
“He is a collaborator, a consensus-builder, and an implementer,” she said.
Conan Harris, another former Walsh Cabinet official, recalled receiving — without fanfare — $50,000 from Barros’s office to launch the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, an Obama-era program that helps young Black men.
“He was one of those people who did all these things and didn’t get all the credit,” said Harris, a close friend. “What John did [at City Hall] was make sure that people had opportunities around employment, that MBK [was supported] and that people of color get contracts.”
But Barros has faced tough questions from residents after the release of a city study he led that exposed deep disparities in how city contract dollars are awarded to people of color. Barros has countered that he has pushed hard for opportunities for businesses owned by Black, Latino, and Asian Bostonians.
As his campaign gets into gear, people have been asking him: What have you done in the past seven years at City Hall?
He tells potential voters that he has been in the trenches all along, fighting for change in City Hall. He said he has changed city plans for growth and development, putting equity first, and noted opportunities that he has led for immigrants, veterans, and people of color. During the pandemic, his office offered small businesses and their employees a financial lifeline.
He said the long-overdue disparity study allowed the city to establish a new goal of 25 percent — roughly $180 million — of contracts going to businesses owned by people of color and women. And he is urging voters to return him to government to finish the work that he started.
In small gatherings and large, he’s getting attention. In West Roxbury, Tyshawn Williams, who said he had not been paying much attention to the race, lingered to talk with Barros, though Williams said the Black female mayoral contenders were “killing it.”
“What makes you better?” Williams asked Barros.
Barros made his pitch, holding Williams’s gaze. “I’ll let you decide. Just look at my track record‚” he said, urging the young man to consider “voting for me.”
Barros is convinced that when voters hear his story — particularly those lukewarm in their support for other candidates — they will give him a look. He’s been promoting small businesses in visits to Fields Corner, West Roxbury, and Mattapan. A roundtable series he started for Black men who feel left out of the political process is taking off. Veterans advocates in Dorchester, female supporters in South Boston, and young people in Allston have hosted small gatherings featuring Barros.
In the shaded backyard in Roxbury, he heard from Cape Verdean Bostonians about their concerns for improved mental health services, better schools, and getting a slice of the booming housing market.
“September 14 is more important than November 2,” he said of the dates for the preliminary election, which will winnow the field to two, and the general election. “Because September 14 is about our base. You guys understand that.”
The people looked at him earnestly and nodded.
“We got you, John,” one said.