In the week leading up to election day Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old candidate for a citywide seat on the Denver School Board, wasn’t tweeting out calls to vote. Instead, he was sending out excited messages about voting for the first time with his mother, who had never before cast a ballot. In her first experience voting, she got to fill in the bubble next to her son’s name.
“My mom has said that she’s never really trusted the system and that politicians — even ones who look like us — haven’t always done well for our communities,” Anderson said. “We went to the polls for the first time as a family and it was by far the best experience of my life.”
Anderson has his own reasons to distrust the system. He spent some time in foster care and failed his first year of high school. For the rest of his high school career he had to commute three hours a day across multiple RTD bus lines to get to school. He was inspired to run for school board, he says, because he felt that as a young black man he wasn’t represented or heard by the Denver public school system.
And it’s not just his own mother who sees Anderson as the right person to represent the disenfranchised. Since the election started, Anderson’s social media has been blowing up with people, many in high school, who say they registered to vote in order to cast ballots for Anderson. The Whittier Cafe, an epicenter for black community events, had signs and posters for Anderson plastered all over their building for months.
“For me, all of this has been about giving a voice to the voiceless,” he said.
Now, just two years out of high school, Anderson has won a three-way citywide school board race with more than 50 percent of the vote. In December, he will step into a job that makes him the role model he always wanted and positions him as an important voice in a movement to lead Denver Public Schools in an entirely new direction.
Tay Anderson: activist-elect
Anderson started down his path to the school board election marching in parades with the Junior ROTC. He was placed in the class involuntarily as a freshman, but found that he actually enjoyed the structure of the program. ROTC led him to other leadership programs. His sophomore year he joined Project VOYCE, a youth leadership program founded by now-councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.
“Tay always just had a really strong ability to lead and to compel others with his gift for public speaking,” said CdeBaca, who still ran Project VOYCE when Tay was there.
Tay continued to join just about every student leadership organization there was, and as a senior he served as the student body president at Manual High School. But it was activism that pulled Tay into politics. He became involved in organizing protests for causes like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock and several groups opposing the Trump presidency.
His high-profile among activists is what first catapulted him into running for the school board’s District 4 race in 2017. At 19-years-old with almost no funding, Anderson came in last in the three-way race. Though some education activist groups backed him, he didn’t receive any major endorsements.
The teacher’s union instead backed Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher and Denver student, who went on to win the election. She and another 2017 newcomer, Carrie Olson, became the outsider voices on the school board, which had been controlled for more than a decade by members that support school reform, a strategy that favors closing underperforming schools and opening charters.
Supporters of this system point out that since reform strategies have been employed, test scores have gone up and fewer students flee the public system for private schools. Those critical of school reform do not dispute those statistics. Instead, they point to a growing equity gap between white students and students of color.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, white students in Denver tend to score higher on standardized tests than black or Hispanic students. They are more likely to graduate high school. In many schools, they are less likely to face disciplinary action.
“It’s not just about what works and what doesn’t,” Bacon said. “We need to acknowledge that the methods have different outcomes for different demographics of people.”
Anderson took the loss in stride, launching himself further into activism. He worked three different jobs within the Denver school system — as a teacher’s aid, a security officer and a restorative justice coordinator, which helps students resolve conflicts at school. He also served as the president of Never Again Colorado, a youth gun control group that he left in order to launch his 2019 school board campaign.
The second time around Anderson sought out the big endorsements and got them. The teacher’s union backed him, so did many high profile Denver politicians. But even with some of the political establishment behind his campaign, Anderson never walked away from activism. He kept attending protests, including rallies during the teacher’s strike.
“If my elected title could be activist-elect, that would be better,” he said. “My activism doesn’t turn off because I got elected, it turns up.”
Anderson is part of a movement to “flip the board”
Unlike his 2017 campaign, in which he ran for a district seat, Anderson’s 2019 campaign was for a citywide at-large seat. Not only was this a position with a bigger constituency that Anderson was first vying for, it was also a more significant election.
With Bacon and Olson on the board, the anti-reform camp in Denver began to grow louder, realizing that they could take the board majority. “Flip the board” became a Facebook group and a rallying cry at teacher protests. Anderson fully embraced the anti-reform stance during his campaign, calling for a moratorium on charter schools.
“They believe that we as a district should be building more schools, but we can’t even fund the ones we already have,” Anderson said. “They talk about school choice, but school choice is only a reality for people that have the means to travel to a school outside their neighborhood.”
In a resounding call for a change in the Denver education system, all three anti-reform candidates won their elections.
“Two years ago we asked the question and two days ago we put a period on that answer,” Bacon said on Wednesday.
For many in the flip-the-board camp, Anderson’s anti-reform stance was all it took for an endorsement, but in many cases, an endorsement was all he got. The teacher’s union supported Anderson, but gave a candidate in one of the district races almost ten times more money.
Even some fellow activists have only cautiously supported Anderson post-election.
“I am very proud that Tay is a young black voice that can represent the city, but that’s not all it takes. I don’t play into skin politics,” said Hasira “Soul” Ashemu, the leader of Our Voice Our Schools, a group that advocates for racial equality in the Denver school system and opposes charter schools, adding. “But if he continues to advocate for the least served in the system, I think he will do a fantastic job.”
Despite the doubts and despite being outspent in a school board race that broke spending records, he still won more than half the votes in a three-way race. The results have already spurred murmuring about Anderson’s future political ambitions.
In one of his first media interviews — a 2016 story for Denverite — Anderson said he wanted to be president one day. Since that interview, Anderson has clearly shed some of the unabashed enthusiasm he held as a high school junior. Asked again if he wanted to be president, Anderson gave a more polished answer.
“I’m young. I have ambitions, but my goal right now is to be the best school board representative I can be,” he said. “Right now all I care about are the students of Denver.”