From “Knucklehead Kid” to Boston Mayor?

There are several teenagers featured in Holding Ground, a film about the launch of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. DSNI is a community organizing and planning group in Boston that took on extreme illegal dumping and vacancy in their neighborhood, secured community control of large amounts of land, and pushed for a community vision. DSNI has become famous for its commitment to supporting the neighborhood's young people and developing youth leadership.

One of the teenagers, John Barros, talks in the film about how he was a bit of a knucklehead, got into fights and trouble with the police, but DSNI gave him a positive outlet and a way to get involved in something greater. At the end of the film he has served on the board and is headed off to college.

It was exciting enough to get to view the newly released Gaining Ground, which catches up with DSNI's work, and discover Barros now leading DSNI as its executive director, with other kids from the first film directing the land trust DSNI formed, and serving on the board. (Not that this was a surprise to the many in the community development world who have heard him speak about the vision and work of DSNI.)

But just this past week, Barros showed up in a much more visible place: Being endorsed strongly by the Boston Globe in a crowded primary race for mayor (one that in fact contains another community advocate, even, from Codman Square Community Health Center). Says the Globe of Barros:

“He speaks eloquently of the needs of the poorest residents of Boston, but also of how to promote the city globally, thereby generating the resources to elevate all Bostonians.”

Barros would be quite a shake up to the “Old Boston” political tradition, shall we say, though not totally without precedent. Sam Yoon, also a community developer who entered Boston politics, has joked about his city council race and how it came down to names like “Murphy, Flynn, Connelly, O'Malley . . . and then there was Yoon.” Yoon, who went on to lead NACEDA for a time and then into the Obama administrion, won an at-large city council seat in 2005, but didn't succeed in a later bid for mayor.

We're always excited to see people from the field move into elected office, and seeing someone from DSNI, which is well-nigh legendary for its commitment to democracy, organizing, youth empowerment, and community self-determination, take the reins in Boston would be truly a milestone.

Photo by Center for American Progress, CC BY-ND

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Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. I for one saw him talk at the Transportation and Livable Communities Mayoral Forum in Boston last week. While I am new to the Boston community and am not endorsing anyone by saying this, but I think Mr. Barros articulated his core message of being for a holistic approach to governing Boston if elected mayor. He talked about community, transit reaching under served populations, and providing options for both low- and high- income residents on the types of communities they want to live within.

    Looking forward to seeing the film! Disclosure: I live in Roxbury and find this an important neighborhood with unsung treasures.

  2. Congrats and Good Luck, Mr. John Barros! The Lower 9th Ward NENA team wish you well in your endeavors. It’s great to see someone from the CLT movement rise to greater visibility and responsibility.


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