Honorable Vincent C. Gray

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Our spotlight for the month of August 2010 is the Honorable Vincent C. Gray, who was elected as the Ward 7 Member of the Council of the District of Columbia in 2004 and is currently serving as the Council’s 7th Chairman.

Destiny – Pride:  Good morning, Chairman Gray.  Destiny – Pride is indeed honored to have you as its Spotlight of the Month for the month of August and we are delighted to be able to spend a little time to talk with you about your life’s journey.  Let’s begin by finding out a little about you and your family.  Where, and to whom, were you born?  Any siblings?  Spouse?  Children?

Honorable Gray: Well, I’m a Washingtonian, born here in the City.  Neither of my parents is from the District.  My father [James, who went by the name “Russell”] is from Southern, Maryland; my mother [Elizabeth] is from North Carolina.  They moved here at a very, very early stage, and lived here their entire lives until they passed on. I have one brother [James], who is older.  We lived in a one bedroom apartment growing up.  We had “mobile bedrooms.”  Translated, that means that we had roll-away beds, and every morning, you got up, and you put the roll-away beds in the closet [laughter].

Destiny – Pride: What part of the City?

Honorable Gray: Northeast.  Sixth and L, NE – near Florida Avenue; a lot of one-block streets over there that helped form your education: Orleans Place; Morton.  Callna Street – which is now gone – was an interesting street, to say the least.  But a lot of people in that neighborhood with whom I grew up, I’m still friends with today.

Destiny – Pride: Children?  Spouse?

Honorable Gray: I have two children – a son [Vincent Carlos Gray] and a daughter [Jonice Gray Tucker].  My wife [Loretta Gray], who was a career public educator, passed away, very untimely.  She developed lung cancer – and she wasn’t a smoker.  After her diagnosis, she lived a little bit more than three months.  That was 12 years ago.

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Chairman Gray During a Council Hearing

Destiny – Pride: You received your education here in the District of Columbia.  What schools did you attend, including institutions of higher learning?

Honorable Gray: Well I graduated from the public schools in the District of Columbia.  I attended Logan Elementary; Langley Jr. High School; and graduated from Dunbar High School.  Then I went on to George Washington University, where I graduated, and into nonprofit work thereafter.  I’ve worked, in one or another capacity, in the City my entire life.

Destiny – Pride: What did you major in at George Washington?

Honorable Gray: In clinical psychology.

Destiny – Pride: Who would you name as individuals who have either influenced you, and or who have helped to shape you into the person you are today?

Honorable Gray: Well there probably will be a number of them, starting with my parents.  Neither of my parents ever went to high school, but they had an enormous appreciation for the importance – the value – of education, and they made sure that their children were pointed in the right direction when it came to education.  It’s the old goal, I guess, and that is they wanted their children to do better than they had done.  They just didn’t have opportunities, but they wanted those opportunities available to their children.

In terms of other people, I had a high school teacher by the name of Bill Rumsey, who was well known across this City.  There’s an aquatic center [William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center] that’s named in his memory.  He went on to become a principal, and eventually became the Director of the Department of Recreation – now Parks and Recreation – in the City.

Coaches.  I played my first football at the #2 Boys and Girls Club, now – Boys Club, then. There were two gentlemen – Bill Butler and Julius Wyatt – who really shaped the lives of lots of children in those days.  If you go past the #2 Boys and Girls Club now, you will see their two names on the front of it.

And then there was a professor by the name of Eva Johnson at George Washington University, who helped steer me to the path of a career in the field of mental retardation.  So there’s been a half-dozen people, and you continue to look for role models in people who will help you to be who you are.

Destiny – Pride: Now guide us through the journey of your career life, culminating with your City Council Chair tenure.

Honorable Gray: I started my career working in the field of mental retardation.  I was going to pursue a traditional mental health career, and because of Dr. Johnson, whom I mentioned earlier, she introduced me to the field of mental retardation.  I started with a summer job at the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC)  and got very involved there.  In fact, I well remember that I was sent to a conference at a place called Forest Haven [Laurel, Maryland], which was an institution – like many institutions in the country – that’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.  It had 1,300 people living there.  When I went out there (I had never been there before), the conference ended around 2:00 in the afternoon.  I decided to give myself a tour around the grounds. 

So I walked around.  I walked up to this building, and it had an about 20-foot fence around it.  I just stood there and looked at the building.  While I was standing there, this staff person brought about 20 women out of the building.  Not one of them had any clothes on.  She proceeded to take a hose and hosed them down.  It was one of the most dehumanizing experiences I have ever seen.  It was at that moment when I said to myself, “There’s got to be a better way than this.  There’s got to be a better approach to how people with this condition are served.

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I decided then that I wanted to do work in the field of mental retardation.  But I wanted to do more than just work with individuals.  I wanted to try to change the policy.  To get people more in the community to create work programs; to create educational programs.  Most of all, to create the view that there was a sense of hope that people who were mentally retarded – and we’ve changed the name, it’s “cognitive disability” now, but people who have that condition – shouldn’t be thought of as helpless and hopeless.  Given the opportunity, they, too, could achieve, and I think we’ve proven that.

We became the second state in the nation – can I call us a state?

Destiny – Pride: Yes.

Honorable Gray: . . . the second state in the nation to be ‘institution free.”  Only New Hampshire got there first, and many people have emulated – across the country now – what we’ve done in this City.

When I left the ARC, after many years, I went to the Department of Human Services, where I served for four years as the Director.  We had virtually every element of health and human services under that one umbrella – health care finance; the public health function; social services and mental health, were all under the same umbrella.  A lot of broken programs were there, and we worked hard over a period of four years to begin to turn that around; to lay a foundation for the future.  In fact, I’m still the longest tenure Director in the history of it being the Department of Human Services, which began in 1980 being DHS.

When I left DHS, I founded Covenant House here in Washington, DC.  I wanted to do something I had never done before.  I had never started anything from “nothing.”  So we started this program for homeless and runaway at-risk youth, ages 16-21, getting them off the streets.  We had outreach teams that were on the streets looking for kids, to try to engage them.  We developed residential programs, places for them to live, crisis shelters, transitional living programs and apartments, educational programs, job training programs.  In over a period of ten years, we served about 5,000 young people.

When I left Covenant House, it was to run for office – to run for the City Council position in Ward 7.  I was successful in doing that, and in just a matter of months into my tenure, people asked me about running for Chair, and that’s my role now – Chair of the Council. 

Destiny – Pride: Your early career focused on community-based social services.  How do you feel about the transition of moving from that to the political arena?

Honorable Gray: Well, I’m not sure there’s a huge transition.  I see everything that I’ve done in my life as a form of public service – as a form of helping people: helping people with cognitive impairment; working to try to reform and change a Department that was dealing with “the least of these,” if I can put it that way; moving to Covenant House, where we were dealing with young people who were homeless; and then moving into political office, where you’re constantly trying to effect policies.  Even through your constituent services programs, you’re trying to reach out to people to make life better for them.  So, everything that I’ve done really has the same thread running through it.

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Chairman Gray shares a moment with Geo T. Johnson, Executive Director, Local Council 20 AFSCME.

Destiny – Pride: You were appointed by former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly as the Director of the Department of Human Services.  At that time, all of the Commissioners were also appointed by the Mayor:  the Department of Social Services, the Department of Human Services, and Mental Health.  You, as the Director, had to orchestrate that process. How were you able to handle that, because it was such a massive, massive agency?

Honorable Gray: It was. I think first of all, that the Mayor involved me every step of the way in the selection of people.  We even formed a fourth Commission – Health Care Finance.  The people who were appointed to those positions, in substantial part, were identified and supported by me.  The Mayor and I worked together, and I appreciated the spirit that she brought to that kind of selection process.  Of course, they were appointed by the Mayor, but the Mayor was very supportive.  She recognized that we had to work together as a team in order to get anything done. 

One of the things that we did was put together a reorganization plan.  The idea was, over time, to create a number of different departments because there were so many things under one umbrella.  It’s interesting because we certainly didn’t get it all done in four years.  But, in the aftermath of my being there, some of those things continued to roll out.  In fact, just two years ago, I did the legislation that created the Department of Health Care Finance, and that was a part of the reorganization plan for DHS back when I was there.  We’ve now created a Department of Disability Services that includes what was formerly the MRDDA [Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration] and Rehabilitation Services.  They are now under one department.  That was a part of our reorganization plan.  So again, the idea always was to try to create as much autonomy as we could for these entities, but we also had to build the infrastructure so that they could function.

Destiny – Pride: You were named the First Executive Director of the Covenant House Washington in 1994.  You spoke previously about some of the challenges.  Please tell us what the Covenant House Washington is, and talk to us about the successes you had there as its Executive Director. Is it still in operation?

Honorable Gray: It is.  In fact, I just went to the 15th Anniversary of Covenant House Washington.  We started from nothing.  Covenant House itself is an international organization, serving homeless, runaway and at-risk youth.  It actually operates in six nations, including the United States, of course.  We had a number of successes there.  Of course the most important success is what you do for young people.  But in developing programs, we created a crisis shelter for kids coming off the streets who were homeless. 

I don’t think people really realize, either, how many young people are homeless.  It manifests itself in a different way.  Young people often go from place to place to place – to friends’ houses, where they stay for two weeks, or four weeks, or even longer.  They’re “couch surfing,” until they have no place to turn.  They may have been homeless for months by the time they become known to any organization or any system.  A lot of them are out on the streets.  We came in contact with a lot of young people who were engaging in sex for sale because they were trying to support themselves.  Young people who really had absolutely nowhere to turn.  We created those opportunities through a crisis shelter, where they could come and begin to put their lives back together again. 

Longer term programs, like the transitional living program, would run up to 18 months.  We actually had them in apartments in Parklands, where we rented the apartments and they were housed there.  We created educational programs and helped them get their GEDs, because many of them had dropped out of high school.  We had vocational programs to help them be trained for jobs.  One of the things we did, in order to keep the expense down, was to work with employers.  We’d say “Here’s a young person who’s interested in this.  We will work with you to try to train that young person.  We will provide the support if you will work with us,” and in many instances, they of course got a job there, in the aftermath, because we were able to provide the support services.

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Chairman Gray, George Parker (President, Washington Teachers Union) and Nancy Carter, Destiny – Pride, Inc.

We started with nothing.  When I left, we had the crisis shelter that we owned, over near Martin Luther King Avenue.  We also had purchased a building on New York Avenue that became offices and drop-in centers for kids.  We built a new building over in Southeast Washington – a community service center, which there is nothing like that.  We’re fortunate to be there as a part of another set of programs also that is involved with the performing arts.  There’s a Boys Club operation there; the Levine School [of Music]; the Washington Ballet; other programs that our kids could take advantage of.  In terms of successes, I think the most important one was what we were able to do with the kids.

I like to tell the story about a young lady who walked into the Covenant House one day, with three kids in tow – no place to live.  She hadn’t completed her education, and really didn’t know where to turn.  She came into the organization, and we really got her going in the right direction – and got her a job, as well as her GED at the end of the day.  Today if you walk in my office, you will be greeted by this young lady, who is now a receptionist in my Council office.  That was 12 years ago.  Her oldest son is now in his first year of college.  The second one just graduated from Ballou High School, and the third one is on the way.  She is president of the Ballou Band Parent Program – an outstanding success!

Destiny – Pride: You have been a proponent of early childhood care.  I think that you crafted legislation for pre-kindergarten.  Would you tell us about that as well as the “0-24” concept that we have been constantly hearing about.

Honorable Gray: Well, early childhood education, to me, is one of the most important things that we could provide for young children, especially those who find themselves in economically and socially challenged situations.  I did do the legislation that has the goal of pre-K for all.  We said we would provide enough slots – 2,000 additional slots – by 2014 in order to reach that goal.  We’ve been so successful that we’re actually going to be able to reach it by the end of September 2010.  This will be the first city in America to be able to do that.  Further towards the front end, I want to create universal access to infant and toddler programs, especially to support those kids at a very early stage, and also to support their parents. 

Obviously with K-12, I’ve been a supporter of charter schools.  We now have 28,000 kids in charter schools in this City.  They have about 40% of the public education population at this stage.  I’ve been a supporter – I helped to launch – a new community college in the District of Columbia, just about a year ago.  It now has over 2,000 students, and we’re looking to bill that as an option for folks also. So when I say “birth to 24,” I really mean that, quite literally, and that is providing an educational option all the way up through the mid 20’s.

Destiny – Pride: You’ve had quite an impressive career.  Can you think back to any particular accomplishment that you felt was a major achievement in your career?  What would you characterize as a major disappointment? 

Honorable Gray: Well, first of all, I look at having worked in the field of mental retardation – now “cognitive impairments” – and having really been in the middle of creating a different kind of life for literally thousands of people, those who are in institutions and those, fortunately, who never had to go to an institution, because we developed services to support them and to support their families.  I would really put that near the top of the list.  And there are so many other things:  being able to work with DHS and help to turn around a lot of programs that were being provided there; the creation of Covenant House here in Washington; and the opportunity to serve people in political life.  I really feel blessed to have had the opportunities that I’ve had.

I don’t know if I’ve had any major disappointments.  That’s why I say that I’ve been blessed.  There are a lot of people who just dread going to work – for whom “work” has become a negative word.  It is not a negative word for me; I love to go to work; I love to work; I love to do things for people.

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Chairman Gray with members of the Labor Union 

Destiny – Pride: What do you do when you’re not acting as Chairman of the Council?  Do you have any hobbies or activities that help to relax and revitalize you?

Honorable Gray: Yes.  I’ve always been a baseball player, and I’ve continued to do that.  It’s now softball. There was a point – I can’t do it any more – where I was playing five days a week.  I can’t do that anymore; I don’t have the time to do that.  But I still play.  We have an excellent team.  The guys on our team are really accomplished.  Mostly everybody, including me, has played in higher levels:  semi-pro; college.  Some of us even had tryouts with major league teams earlier in our lives. 

Destiny – Pride: Did you?

Honorable Gray: I did. 

Destiny – Pride: What team?

Honorable Gray: There were two:  White Sox and the Dodgers, back in the day [laughter].

Destiny – Pride: Go ahead! Go ahead!  I think I saw you in a game [laughter].

Honorable Gray: That was mercifully me [laughter].  It was something I gave up on, and I promised myself when that happened that I would never give up on anything again.  If it was a dream or a goal, at least play it out and determine whether you’re going to succeed or whether you’re going to fail.  And our team this year is undefeated.

Destiny – Pride: Go ahead!  How many have you won?

Honorable Gray: We’ve won 10.

Destiny – Pride: Go ahead!  That’s impressive. Do you all have a championship game?

Honorable Gray: We do!  The championship game is actually a city-wide tournament.  We’ll represent our league in a tournament.  There will be teams from other leagues, and there will be a tournament later in the summer.

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Destiny – Pride: Okay.  I think I’ll come out and root for you.

Honorable Gray: Come on out!  Come on out!  You can broadcast the game.

Destiny – Pride: Uh oh, stop it!! [laughter]  Let me get my “broadcasting” voice together [laughter].  Do you have any closing thoughts or insights that you would like to impart to our visitors?

Honorable Gray: Well, again, I appreciate the opportunity to have this interview.  I appreciate the opportunity to serve the people in, arguably, the most important and greatest city in the world – to serve in the capacity of a Council Member; to serve in the capacity of the Council Chair, and now to be a candidate for the highest elected office in the City [Mayor of DC] is a tremendous honor – one in which I look forward to being able to fulfill.  Again, you look back on your life and there are always certain things you would rather change.  But there is nothing major that I would want to change in my life at this point.

Destiny – Pride: Chairman Gray, Destiny – Pride would like to, once again, thank you for including us in your busy and hectic schedule to tell us, and our visitors, about yourself.  Although you have been a public figure for a number of years, we continue to look forward to hearing about your upcoming endeavors, which we know will follow in the same vain as your previous ones.  We wish you the best in all of those endeavors, and again, we thank you.

Honorable Gray: Thank you.

Find out more about what Honorable Gray is doing as the DC Council Chairman at:  http://www.dccouncil.us/gray/

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