Growing up in Boston in the 1970s and 80s, raised by a Canadian mother and Venezuelan father, Alejandra St. Guillen recalls a time when her neighborhood was racially and economically diverse and her family was paying affordable rent and had easy access to transportation.
The 42-year-old St. Guillen also remembers how the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools in the 1970s and the infamous Charles Stuart case in 1990 roiled her own Mission Hill community.
“It was a very tumultuous time in terms of race in the city,” she said. “To live in the middle of that was a significant moment in my life to see how justice and injustice played out in Boston and to see how we could heal from that.”
St. Guillen, one of four first-time-candidates seeking election to Boston City Council on Nov. 5, made an impressive debut performance at the polls in the Sept. 27 preliminary election, garnering about 9 percent of the citywide vote, which was enough to earn her the fourth-place finish out of a field of 15 candidates.
Additionally, her candidacy has been propelled, in part, by a diverse array of endorsements— including from Mayor Martin Walsh, US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Councillor Michelle Wu along with powerhouse city union SEIU 1199, the Greater Boston Labor Council, and Ward 15’s Democrats.
Dorchester state Reps. Liz Miranda and Dan Cullinane have also publicly backed her candidacy.
St. Guillen says she was inspired to do community work by her late father, an immigrant from Venezuela whom she described as being empathetic and committed to helping people reach their full potential. When she was studying to become a public school teacher and observing the promise of her students, she couldn’t help but notice the systemic inequities that consistently kept them behind.
Given her desire to help Boston’s most vulnerable residents on a larger scale, St. Guillen transitioned into policy work, which led to a career in local political and civic engagement.
“Building community across the state for people of color to build our political capital is something that really resonated with me and incorporated my background in state education and government,” she said.
St. Guillen has served as the Executive Director of ¿Oiste?, a Latino civic and political organization that promoted economic justice and electoral reform initiatives directly impacting communities of color statewide. Some of her most impactful work focused on redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing state legislative and Congressional districts that the upcoming city council body will support after the 2020 census.
“Through our advocacy work back in 2011,” she said, “we were able to create twice as many minority majority seats. We saw an increase of senators and representatives of color, including redrawing the 7th Congressional district where we saw an opportunity for a progressive and person of color to lead that district. And now we have elected Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to represent that district.”
More recently, St. Guillen has spent the last four and a half years serving as the director of the City of Boston’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, spearheading new initiatives, including the Boston #toimmigrantswithlove Public Art Project and the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund.
With her years of experience partnering with the city council, she said that running for an at-large seat seemed like the logical next step for her.
“I had to consider it,” she said. “Looking at the work that I was doing at the city and a combination of wanting to move even further in the field of education equity, housing affordability and immigrant rights, it seemed like the right move,” she said.
On the campaign trail, St. Guillen has been focused on housing affordability in relation to the increase in development that she says is not benefiting all Boston residents. She has not yet joined Councillor Michelle Wu’s call for sweeping changes to Boston’s development review process by proposing that the Boston Planning and Development Agency be abolished. She says she is not ready to fully condemn the agency.
“I am in the process of reviewing the report and have attended one community meeting, and will attend others held after Nov 5,” St. Guillen said. “I am fully supportive of having this conversation and getting feedback from the people most impacted by the current structure.”
She says her campaign strategy is centered on fundraising and knocking on doors, talking to Boston residents about issues related to housing affordability, equal access to public schools, and the climate crisis.
“Working both inside and outside of government combined with the intersectionality of being Latina, gay and a mom,” she says, “lends myself to a system where I’m able to look at issues through an equity lens and a viewpoint to uplift everyone.”
St. Guillen is also a homicide survivor. Her only sibling, Imette St. Guillen, was brutally murdered in New York City in 2006. Having experienced this loss, she says, “makes me capable of leading with empathy.”
She adds: “We have a unique opportunity to form a council that’s the most diverse it’s ever been across race, gender, and lived experiences, and the very best of it is a strong commitment to decide what type of city this is going to be. We need strong leadership to be able to make the hard choices and have the information to make the right choices.”