Photo by Lee Pellegrini
When Alex Gray ’06 announced his campaign for At-Large City Council in Boston last fall, it was with a particular sense of urgency. Like most Americans, he’d spent the previous eight months following coverage of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, and what he observed, or didn’t observe, alarmed him.
“Everything was moving fast, there were limited resources, and decisions had to be made quickly,” he recalled. “It became very clear to me that the lack of disability representation in positions of power was no longer frustrating, it was quite frankly dangerous.”
Gray is disabled himself, having lost his vision by the age of 11 due to a genetic condition. If elected, he would be the first blind city councilor in Boston history. Prominent members of the disability community have expressed elation at the prospect of having an advocate among the council’s 13 members: “[It’s a] voice that has been absent for so long,” said Carol Steinberg, a local attorney and disability activist who recently endorsed Gray. (While Gray is the only city council candidate with a visual impairment, he's not the only Eagle running for one of four at-large seats: Jonathan Spillane '13, Carla Monteiro, MSW '19, and incumbent Michael Flaherty '91 will also appear on the September ballot).
Gray began his political career as an undergraduate at Boston College, where he received his first-ever endorsement—from The Heights—during an unsuccessful run for class president his sophomore year (he and running mate Joe Sabia ’06 came up short with nearly 49 percent of the vote). Despite the loss, he served for several years as the student government’s director of services for students with disabilities, seeking input and involvement from students to help BC better serve disabled community members.
But in Gray’s telling, his most formative BC experience occurred miles away from Chestnut Hill, during a service trip to rural Virginia with the University’s Appalachia Volunteers service immersion program. There, he and 40 other students spent the week of Spring Break engaged in conversation with members of the community while doing odd jobs like raking leaves and painting fences. Looking back, talking with residents about their goals and struggles was a crucial building block in his journey to a career in public service, Gray said.
“I saw dignity in so many forms; in so many people of all different ages, shapes, and sizes,” Gray wrote of the experience. “The trip gave me perspective on what the world needed and began to show me how I could help to provide just a small bit of that need.”
After graduating from BC's Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences with a degree in English, Gray spent two years volunteering and advocating on behalf of the homeless in California and Mssachusetts before attending law school at Suffolk University. From there, he entered local government, working as a policy analyst for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh ’09, under whom he spearheaded the city’s first Tuition Free Community College Program.
Working in close proximity to politicians like Patrick and Walsh gave Gray a window into the life of an elected official. It also yielded invitations to participate in panel discussions and working groups, where he was often the only person with a disability in the room. His presence ensured that issues of importance to the disability community were discussed, but he often felt that “if I wasn’t there, it wasn’t going to be brought up.”
A focus on inclusion
An estimated 26 percent of Americans live with a disability, and yet few elected officials identify as disabled. Since May, Gray has knocked on thousands of doors (he estimates close to 2,000) speaking with potential voters about issues from housing to the post-COVID economy. The topic of disability comes up often, whether the person is a wheelchair user or has a child enrolled in a special education program.
“It’s clear from my conversations that this is a personal issue that is important to so many people,” Gray said. Having a city councilor who is disabled means “there’s someone in your corner who is going to stand by you.”
If elected, Gray is proposing that the Boston School Committee reserve one of its seats for a member who has gone through the special education system. Doing so, Gray argues, will ensure representation for the roughly 21 percent of students with an individualized education plan who attend Boston Public Schools.
In his campaign materials, Gray addresses the usual issues of affordable housing and job growth, as well as the need to ensure an equitable recovery from COVID-19. He also stresses his listening skills, which he believes have been strengthened by his lack of sight. Although campaigning during a pandemic has made face-to-face conversations more difficult, Gray has been a regular attendee at virtual neighborhood meetings, sometimes logging in to several in a single night.
He hopes his presence will inspire voters to check his name on the ballot in November, and also serve as a much-needed reminder of the potential of people with disabilities.
“There’s still so much stigma around disability, sadly,” he said. “I think anything we can do to raise the bar to show people that they matter and that they have power and talent is a valuable thing.”
Alix Hackett | University Communications | August 2021