Dilce Oliveira, a 19-year-old Dorchester resident whose parents were born in Cape Verde and Jamaica, is a John Barros crusader who enthusiastically tells other young Black voters — or anyone willing to listen — about the mayoral candidate’s plans to improve the city’s troubled schools.
Lanaya Kimble, who like Oliveira will be voting in this year’s mayoral election for the first time, is stumped when it comes to who she will support. But like many young Black residents of the city, she’s tuning in as the candidates address soaring rent, policing reform, and the quality of the city schools. In a historic race with five major candidates who are all accomplished people of color, including three who are Black, many Black Bostonians under the age of 30 say they are more motivated to vote this election than in years past.
Some will be casting their first ballot. Some are community organizers. Others are new to the city. Some are all of the above. But they have one thing in common: They’re an important voting bloc. Across the country, young Black people are becoming more engaged in the political process than in years past, according to national polls, emboldened by a racial reckoning and an increase in candidates of color competing in municipal elections.
“Young Black people really feel a sense of agency where their voice matters, and they’re finding greater levels of respect,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics who led a survey of over 2,500 young Americans earlier this year. “They really feel empowered because of the degree to which other people outside of their communities banded together after the murder of George Floyd.”
Voters under 30 have historically been less likely to participate in Boston’s municipal elections than presidential ones, but their turnout could influence next month’s race, polls show.
“[Young Black voters] could make a difference in a preliminary election because they’re not expected to vote en masse,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which along with the Globe recently conducted a poll of likely voters in the Sept. 14 preliminary elections. “If that dynamic were to change this time around, the mayor outcome could be markedly different.”
Young Black voters are focusing on which candidates are dismantling white supremacy, said Alexandria Onuoha, director of political advocacy at Black Boston Inc., a group founded by Black college-age women to push for social justice and youth civic engagement at the city and state level.
“We have diversity, but now we really have to see who is actually doing the work,” said Onuoha, a doctoral student at Suffolk University.
Oliveira bumped into Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, while grabbing bubble tea at Dorchester’s Reign Drink Lab last month. She researched him and was encouraged by his ideas to improve city schools and was further impressed when, at a campaign event, he delivered a speech in Cape Verdean creole — the language of Oliveira’s father.
She soon joined the Barros campaign as a youth social media coordinator, attending events across the city, taking pictures to post online, and talking him up to young immigrant voters and first-generation Bostonians, many of them Black people.
Oliveira, who will be entering her sophomore year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, talks fast and is full of conviction. She is studying robotics, interactive media and game design, and computer science.
She grew interested in political activism after being “a Black kid at a white private high school” and learning to advocate for herself. She knows there are female candidates in the race, including two Black women, but she said while the other candidates talk about change, Barros has actually done the work at City Hall.
“You go over the plans and you see his name on the city documents,’' she said. “You see who is pushing these ideas and making them happen.”
Kimble and her boyfriend, Robert Peguero, 19, of Roxbury, were wearing matching Metallica T-shirts and black Crocs when they spoke to the Globe. They’ve not been paying close attention to the race, but think the candidates should be doing more to connect with young Black voters.
The pair are youth workers and activists at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, a safe space in the South End for children who might not otherwise have a place to go.
Kimble said she began using an app to track shootings in the city, hoping to get an idea of what was going on in her neighborhood. She said she’s also concerned about young people being displaced because of a lack of available and affordable housing in the city, and said the next mayor must ensure that residents are not pushed out of their communities.
“I don’t mind white people coming into our community, but I don’t like how you can kick one race out to move another one in,” she said. “That just doesn’t feel right with me.”
Peguero said he planned to do more research about the candidates and their platforms, but he feels they should be doing more outreach.
“We need some sort of push,” said Peguero. “If [the candidates] who are running for mayor actually came out and spoke to a group of people around my age, that could have an impact.”
Mark Martinez Jr., who identifies as queer and Afro-Latino, is also undecided. At the moment, Martinez is deciding between city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell. He said he likes Wu’s plans for rent control and Campbell’s approach to policing.
The issues in the campaign are deeply personal to him, particularly as they relate to underrepresented groups and public safety. A few years ago, he was followed by a man who yelled slurs at Martinez as he walked along the Massachusetts Avenue bridge around 1 a.m..
He did not call the police, he said, fearing he’d end up in even more danger. The incident has never left him.
The mayor’s race is giving him an opportunity to select a candidate who, he said, will reform the police by reallocating funding to social service agencies that deal with safety, housing, and mental health issues.
“We could be putting more money towards tackling the problems that we know create the situations in which people commit crime,” said Martinez, a 27-year-old Roxbury resident who is a legal counsel to a state senator.
He also worries about housing costs, saying that if his landlord increases the rent, he would not be able to afford it.
Kayla Pages, a 20-year-old from Hyde Park, spends much of her time talking about Boston’s mayoral race with her friends, many of whom are undecided first-time voters.
She juggles a lot of things: working with nonprofits, attending Northeastern University, and holding down a job at St. Stephen’s, watching over young children. Pages said she is supporting Wu in the mayor’s race, but isn’t trying to sway her friends to any particular candidate.
“When the conversation comes up, I just say, ‘This is who I am voting for. Maybe you should consider them, but you don’t have to vote for them,’” said Pages, the Afro-Latina daughter of Cuban and El Salvadoran immigrants.
Pages said she is impressed with Wu’s push to make the T free.
“It’s really expensive for me and a whole bunch of other people who might not [have] the money that’s needed to pay for their fares,” Pages said, adding that a free T would help reduce stress for transit users. On an average day, Pages might use the T three to six times.
“It’s really hard to commute with having to spend so much, especially when jobs are very competitive as well,” Pages said. “If I had to go somewhere and didn’t have the fares, it would just be a lot of stress on me.”
‘“There is a unique immigrant experience within the people of color [voting] blocs.”’
Malaika Lucien, 25
Malaika Lucien, a 25-year-old from Mattapan, used to tag along with her Haitian American parents as they did community work as activists. She is now the operations director for Annissa Essaibi George’s mayoral campaign. She said she values Essaibi George’s understanding of the nuanced challenges immigrant voters face. (Essaibi George’s father emigrated from Tunisia; her Polish-American mother moved to Boston when she was 2 years old.)
“There is a unique immigrant experience within the people of color [voting] blocs,” Lucien, said. “You don’t necessarily always fit into a neat, packaged box . . . because immigrants don’t necessarily always line up with the traditional African American voting issues.”
She said the next mayor of Boston needs to have the knowledge and the relationships “to get into office day one, get to work, and actually . . . bring the people on the ground to the table.”
For 25-year-old Maya Wesby, closing the wealth gap and growing Boston’s middle class are the most important issues of the race.
Wesby, who is Black and lives in the Fenway, had spent years living in Washington, D.C., and New York before moving to Boston for a social media job last September. Working in public relations for cryptocurrency and blockchain clients, she said, fueled a passion to help lift lower-income residents into the middle class.
“Within a week of me moving here, it was clear that a lot of the Black people that I saw were in service roles or were people experiencing homelessness,” Wesby said. “D.C. and New York have a strong Black middle class, a strong upper middle class. . . . I don’t see that here.”
Wesby has yet to choose a mayoral candidate to support, but she feels positively about acting Mayor Kim Janey. She is impressed with Janey’s personal story — her rise from a teenage mother to education advocate, city council president, and now acting mayor.
“I know her story,” Wesby said.
Onuoha, the director of political advocacy at Black Boston Inc., said Boston’s young Black voters are interested in candidates who have lived in the city’s neighborhoods and have overcome obstacles.
“Great stories about struggle are really reflective of the experiences a lot of Black and brown Bostonians have had,” Onuoha said, adding that a candidate’s “story can be a light” for young voters.