BOSTON — John Barros was just 14 when he started volunteering for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Illegal dumping was a problem in his community, so he wrote down license plate numbers of trucks that left garbage on Roxbury streets and reported those drivers to police. At age 17, he was elected to the organization’s board of directors, and he eventually became its executive director.
Now 40, Barros also founded a charter school and served as a Boston School Committee member — and now he’s running for mayor of the city.
A Dartmouth College graduate and the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, Barros received the endorsement of The Boston Globe on Tuesday, as did City Councilor John Connolly.
WBUR is interviewing all 12 mayoral candidates before the Sept. 24 preliminary election, and when Barros spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, he described one of his top priorities for the city with the following three-word phrase.
John Barros: Development without displacement. Developing a neighborhood without displacing its residents really encompasses what I would like to do with Boston, which means continue to grow Boston, continue to have Boston’s economy do better, and have more and more people participate. Because the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative was given eminent domain authority in late ’80s, when I came in as executive director I ran the only other organization besides the Boston Redevelopment Authority with eminent domain authority, with redevelopment authorities to help improve that neighborhood. We effectively used that to remove blight and create opportunities for development while increasing the stock of permanently affordable housing.
Sacha Pfeiffer: So when you say “development without displacement,” you don’t want to see a neighborhood improve to the point that the people who lived there when it wasn’t as robust and vibrant a neighborhood and as safe a neighborhood can no longer afford to be there?
We want neighborhoods to improve and be really sought after and be places that everyone wants to be in. And so we’ll have luxury housing, luxury condos, but we’ll also have affordable housing for the working family. We’ll have affordable housing for the middle-income family, for those who are trying to get in the market and have just graduated out of college. The worst thing is to watch a neighborhood that had a lot of character, a lot of personality, some really good cultural mix, and all of a sudden it goes the other way. And the conversation is like, “Oh, I can never afford it. Oh, it used to be that [Jamaica Plain] was very diverse and very inviting.”
But the other part of this is making sure that Boston residents are productive and have jobs. In the Longwood Medical Area, we have some 800 to 1,000 jobs open on any given day. That area turns over about 7,000 to 8,000 jobs a year. How do we make sure that Boston’s residents are in place to have pathways to those jobs and that we can house them in the city? That’s how we create that mix.
And how do you do that?
One of things I worked on with the governor before I decided to run for mayor was a partnership between our [vocational-technical] high school, Madison Park, and Roxbury Community College — creating a seamless pathway between those two institutions right to jobs. And so that means you work with employers, and you are actually talking to the employers who have the jobs, and you’re saying, “What does an employee who’s qualified look like? How do we build a curriculum that gets you that kind of employee and get people to jobs?” We have the institutions that are already in place. We need to make sure that those institutions are being responsible to the demand for jobs in our marketplace.
John, on the issue of education, you’ve said that you would create a “citywide learning system” where the “learning pathway” starts at birth. What do you mean by those terms?
There’s a couple things I mean by those phrases. One is this real sense that Boston needs to think about the journey of an individual, and that that journey begins with birth. And then investing in our citizens ages 0 to 5 is probably the most important investment we can make. We need to take that seriously and make sure there’s universal pre-K for every 4-year-old and push it down to 3-year-old, and then work with child development experts in the neighborhood, including Grandma, who’s watching three of the neighbors, and helping them develop the understanding, tools and materials for child development.
The city’s education system is not going to provide it all. We need to, in fact, engage partners, engage the community centers, engage those who are providing after-school programs and then create a longer school day within those partnerships.
If you were mayor, as soon as a child is born in Boston, what would the city do, or some arm of the city, like the School Department, to get that child ready for school?
Before the child is born, and the child — like my child, who was born some five days ago…
That’s right, you have a new young son. Congratulations.
So Jeremiah, who’s my son — we should have been sitting down with someone at the hospital who would have said to us, “Here are the five things you need to know about early childhood development to make sure your child doesn’t get to school with a 4,000-, 6,000-word gap. So read to him every night — before he’s born, in fact. And after he’s born, continue it.” You know, create routines.
The other thing that I think could be really innovative is you say, “John, you have an older son. He’s already in school,” — which is not my case, but sometimes the case of many parents — “which means that you have — Jeremiah, your younger son, has — sibling preference for that same school. We’re going to organize you and other parents who have sibling preference for that same school with children of like age, where you’re going to create playgroups at that school.” So that we’re creating, almost by de facto, child development opportunities at the school that your child will be in anyways, and starting you at 0.
And how would you fund those initiatives?
Well, it’s amazing. Those initiatives, I think, are already working. There are partners already doing some of that work. The [Boston] Children’s Museum does phenomenal work on early childhood development. They would, I’m sure, love to be doing some of that work in our schools. [Action for Boston Community Development] does great work. There are partners like that all around the city who get it, who’ve already fundraised and built capacity to do this. And if we could just create the ability to partner with them, we don’t really need to add another dollar. We just need to be smarter.
John, you were involved in a restaurant. I think for about 12 years you had had a restaurant that you eventually had to step away from a few years ago. What did the experience of being a restaurant owner teach you about what Boston can do better for small businesses?
It’s taught me a lot. Most people talk about the permitting process, but I’ll have to start there. We need to create a permitting process that’s clearer, that’s easier to access and that doesn’t take nine months to start a business. Boston needs to be a partner to entrepreneurs and really be excited about that opportunity to create another business in the city because it actually moves our city forward. And it shouldn’t be a nuisance. It shouldn’t be a game that you play and if you can figure it out, you win a prize. And that’s what it felt like.
You mentioned you and your wife had a new son just last week. Now you have two kids — an infant and a 16-month old. When your kids become adults, how do you want Boston to look different or be different for them?
I want the city to be a more inclusive city. I want us to have a new identity, to rebrand Boston, and by the time that they’re older this will be a city that is a leading city around celebrating diversity and making that diversity work for everyone. A city where we don’t have neighborhoods with really high unemployment rate and other parts of the city where we can’t fill those jobs. A city where we, in fact, are not saying any more that 80 percent of the violent crime in our city is happening in three neighborhoods. A city where we can’t predict people’s health based on ZIP Code. A city where there are more and more entrepreneurs, not just in the Innovation District, but in neighborhoods, where our main streets are flourishing in all neighborhoods, in all squares throughout the city.
I think we can get there by eliminating the achievement gap. I think we can get there by making sure that our schools have longer school days, and that we’re not burdening our teachers with that, because we bring partners in that can make that work under some teacher guidance and instructional guidance. Boston has a lot of promise. I think we can do all of this, and that’s what I want my sons to grow up into.