When I was really young, I knew I was going to grow up to be the next great Boston sports athlete. I was thinking Mo Vaughn or Drew Bledsoe. Mind you, this was back when we loved our teams but they never won anything. My dreams changed when I was eight years old and I began to lose my vision. It started in my left eye, then moved to my right. By the time I reached middle school, my dream of playing professional sports came to a sharp end.
For most of the next few years, I found myself navigating a world without sight, but also really without purpose. I missed being part of a team, something larger than just me. I missed the feeling that comes with working with others to achieve a larger goal. I most missed the dignity that comes from doing what you love and loving what you do. That feeling that gets you out of bed early in the morning; that feeling of belonging.
Getting back in the game
One day in freshman year of high school, things began to change for me. I randomly found myself talking sports with the head football coach at my high school, Coach Ken McPhee. He invited me to come to practice. I’ll never know what motivated Coach that day, but I will always remember that, as the moment I found my dignity again. No longer did I compete on the field, but that day, I became part of a team again.
I spent the next four years attending every practice and game and tracking everything we did. I gave the coaches something they never really had—a manager, who organized all of their work in a format which allowed them to quickly refer back to a play or a statistic. Coach saw me as someone who knew sports and as someone who could contribute.
The first thing I did as a college student was to call and submit my name for a position to help the football team and I waited excitedly to hear back. I waited and I waited. Finally, a friend who was a player on the team told me what was really going on. The person in charge of hiring expressed concern about a blind person being around the football team and what he thought was the inherent danger of such a thing. So there it was. Without an actual interview or even a brief conversation, I was not being considered. I was viewed as a liability and not as an actual person.
An opportunity that changed the game
But as one door seemingly closed, a friend brought me into the Appalachia Volunteer Corps, a club that organized spring break service opportunities throughout the Appalachian region of America. Before I knew it, I was on a bus to Virginia. That next week would completely change my college experience, the direction of my life, and fundamentally reshape the way I thought of the world and my role in it.
I spent seven days with 40 strangers from my college, sleeping on the floor of a closed dance club. We went throughout the area, meeting community members and helping out folks with odd jobs like raking leaves, painting fences, and sometimes just spending time talking with people who were different than us. They let us in to their lives and the dreams they had for their families. They also shared with us the fears and challenges their community faced.
I saw dignity in so many forms; in so many people of all different ages, shapes and sizes. 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. It was that trip that motivated me to apply for an internship at the State House during my sophomore year of college and then continue to work in public service.
After graduation, I fought for progressive housing solutions with the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. When I worked for Governor Patrick, I served as the point person between the Governor’s Office and the Office of Transportation and Public Safety. And for the past five years, I’ve worked for Mayor Walsh in the City’s Office of Workforce Development in every neighborhood and employment sector imaginable. I was honored to be asked to help spearhead a Tuition Free Community College Plan for the City of Boston. I visited dozens of schools throughout the city and met with students, teachers, and school staffs. After three years, we’ve put over 500 BPS students in to this program. In my capacity in this office, I learned that the statistics are often grim when we talk about the economic mobility of people with disabilities.
For a community estimated to make up around 20% of the population, the long-term poverty rate of people with disability is over 3 times higher than other demographic minorities. And the ability for people with disabilities to pull themselves out of poverty is so hard, and seemingly impossible for some. In 2019, only 2 out of every 10 people with disabilities were in our labor force. A rate three times lower than any other marginalized population. If you care about economic justice, then you must also care about disability justice.
Alex Gray for At-Large Boston City Council
I am running for office because I want to give a voice to the approximately 140,000 people with disabilities in Boston. I think people with disabilities want, and deserve, to have someone who has shared in their experience, that looks like them, in the conversation amongst elected officials. I think it is so crucial that we start to include conversations about people with disabilities not just in a silo, but in the larger policy and diversity conversation.
The older I get, the more I think about dignity. It is one of the few things in life that can’t be taken away. So in my life and in this campaign, helping others to find dignity in their work and in their lives, no matter who they are and what background they come from, will always be a top value for me each and every day.
Ultimately, I’m running because what I think we need more and more in this world, are good listeners. In observing videos of me as a kid, I am quite sure that if I did not lose my sight, I would be terrible at listening. But now, I consider myself an expert listener, because I have had to be. People tell me all the time whether it is when they call to resolve a cell phone bill or they are at a doctor’s appointment, they often feel they are not listened to. I pledge that if elected, I will be the best listener the Boston City Council has ever had.
In my campaign, I want to try and reach out to all people, from all backgrounds and all corners of the city, because I have seen so many times in my life that there is so much potential lying right below the surface. So many people just need to be asked in order for them to step-up and pitch-in. Everyone has potential to contribute if they are treated with dignity.
About the author
Alex Gray is running to become a Boston city councilor and, if elected, would be the only blind elected official in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School and lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife, Lauren. Alex is on the Board of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Library and is an active member of the Boston Bar Association serving on their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Section.