A Homegrown Leader (DSNI’s John Barros)

Twenty-seven year old John Barros came up through the ranks of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston, Massachusetts, working in various capacities at the CDC since his teen years. Now Barros is DSNI’s new executive director, the first one they can truly call “homegrown.”

Barros came to DSNI in the late ’80s through his aunt, Gertrudes Fidalgo, an organizer at the Initiative. Feeling a lack of a youth voice in the community that DSNI serves, Fidalgo and another DSNI organizer, Ros Everdale, coached him in the skills and techniques of organizing, mobilizing, and building coalitions. Barros adopted their teachings and, at 17, became the first youth elected to DSNI’s board. It was there that Barros had his first taste of community leadership.

Leaders are Facilitators

He recalls the first youth meeting they held. “I came into it with my own idea of how it would go,” Barros says. “We sat around the table and I started to discuss my ideas about what I think the issues are, what we should address, and what I think we should sort of get around or get together on and start to impact.

“But the youth at the meeting that day didn’t agree with me. It was a real hard lesson on facilitation. As a facilitator it didn’t really matter what I thought. It was about what they wanted to do.”

A post-meeting assessment with Fidalgo and Everdale helped him realize that if he wanted to take a leadership position, he needed to be able to actively advocate for the voices of the collective. Today he bases how he sees his role on that early experience.

“Leadership,” says Barros, “is the ability to facilitate. It’s the ability to bring out the best in others by providing the right circumstances for folks to flourish. Move things into an advanced state by providing the right tools.”

Expanding on this egoless approach to leadership, the young director says that leaders aren’t always “out in front” on things. Often, a leader’s role is to nurture, to compliment – but not manipulate – the process. It shouldn’t be a game of “follow the leader,” says Barros. Instead, leaders should be wise and savvy enough to assess where people are going and help them get there.

“One of the things that I really found incredibly interesting and latched on to was the notion that the residents are the experts, and that the first effort is led by them,” says Barros. “I think true leaders are those who understand where they fit in a team or collective effort and are able to help it the best possible. If you do a ‘one-man show,’ I don’t think it’s leadership.”

Leading within Diversity

DSNI serves a community with three diverse ethnic populations: Hispanics, African Americans, and Cape Verdeans. Its board membership reflects the community, so all populations have a voice in the Initiative. Barros sees that as one of the major keys to providing effective leadership. DSNI has a tradition of “celebrating and valuing the differences,” Barros says, not ignoring them by only looking for and emphasizing commonalities.

“The key to that,” Barros says, “is that you always have honest and open dialogue. Allowing people to really talk about it. Another key is to have folks in leadership positions cultivate and nurture relationships with people in all of the communities in a very active and sincere way – not for show.” It’s also important, he adds, to allocate resources in a equitable way, conscious of diversity.

Investing in Leadership

Because DSNI continues to invest in building social capital in its neighborhood, community participation has grown. “DSNI creates leaders who will continue to feed this Initiative – no, actually sustain this Initiative.” Barros says. “We’ve continued to pour more and more resources into leadership development as a core part of building communities.”

Fighting the familiar problem of “brain drain” in poor neighborhoods, DSNI has stressed “coming back” to youth over the years, encouraging them to feel a sense of ownership in the community by returning to it once they’ve done their “journey,” as Barros calls it. Barros himself came back to the Initiative after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1996, and in 1997 was elected vice president of the board and of Dudley Neighbors Inc., DSNI’s community land trust. He became executive director earlier this year after a national search.

Barros offers this advice to aspiring leaders: “True leadership doesn’t aspire to take on traditional leadership positions. True leadership finds out where and how it can best be utilized in the grand picture of things.”

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