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Horace Small, Boston’s best community organizer, bows out

Horace Small spoke during a Cannabis Advisory Board meeting in 2019.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The level of thoughtfulness, well-targeted profanity, and sheer fun in Boston politics is about to take a substantial hit: Horace Small is leaving town and retiring to Paris.

If you aren’t sure who Small is you should be, because he has been the most dynamic and creative community organizer in Boston over the past 20 years. As executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, the blunt-spoken Small has been in the midst of one campaign or crusade after another, from affirmative action to CORI reform to cannabis equity.

Small, who’s 68, has accomplished the unusual task of becoming an effective political organizer without being Boston born-and-bred. A native of Philadelphia, he left behind a successful organizing career in his hometown when he moved here at the behest of his wife, Sue Karant.

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“In our work, social justice is a lifestyle, it’s not a job,” Small said recently. “You just try to figure out how to fit in.”

Small fell into activism early. As a teenager in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, he fell in with a group of peers who were protesting the Vietnam War. In the course of getting his feet wet in resistance, he met one of his lasting, lifelong influences — Cesar Chavez, the legendary head of the United Farm Workers.

“The thing that he always talked about was that in your organizing you must maintain your humility,” Small said. “What I didn’t realize until I got to know him more was that he was really a good Catholic. And he really took to heart the teachings of Christ and the beatitudes.”

The lesson, that is, being that successful organizing comes from deep inside one’s core.

When he began working in Boston, Small quickly became aware of a major issue he wouldn’t have guessed. Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents were laboring under the weight of criminal records that made it hard — often, impossible — to find work or get housing.

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People had talked about the importance of addressing the state’s then-stringent criminal records laws for years. But Small turned it into a real campaign.

First, the city changed its policies to get companies doing business with the city to stop routinely screening out ex-offenders in hiring. A similar battle at the State House took years longer to win, but activists and allies eventually prevailed.

One of the keys, Small said, was recognizing that this was an issue that crossed racial boundaries. He built an effective grassroots movement that brought together people often separated by traditional political lines.

“It didn’t take a scientist to figure out that there were a lot of white people walking around with CORIs,” Small said, “And that if we could bring white people into the conversation, we could win.”

Small is gifted at sharing credit and thus quick to point out another great organizer who helped him to quickly learn to navigate Boston: former city councilor Chuck Turner. Kindred spirits, they were inseparable for years, constantly planning and strategizing.

Being an outsider has had its advantages. Small has never hesitated to criticize the city’s Black political establishment, which he views as too wedded to maintaining its own power.

But he has made his most lasting mark by constantly training and mentoring a generation of left-leaning activists who have and will make a mark in the city: Andrea Campbell, Aaron Tanaka, Joshua McFadden, Darrin Howell, and Small’s successor leading UMN Matt Parker — to name a few.

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Probably some of those names are familiar to you and some aren’t. But they are people who are running for office and moving into other leadership roles in the city and they will constitute, for Small, a real legacy.

For Horace and Sue, moving abroad has been a longtime goal. They will finally achieve it later this month.

He leaves Boston feeling at peace.

“We purposely go into this work knowing we have 35 to 40 years to make a difference, and then we turn it over,” Small told me. “Now it’s time for me to turn it over.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.