Teenager Tay Anderson's Run for the School Board Was Just the Start

Tay Anderson giving a rousing speech at the Ink! Coffee protest he organized.
Tay Anderson giving a rousing speech at the Ink! Coffee protest he organized. Danielle Lirette
Queen Phoenix, the MIA activist who burst on the Denver scene after the election of Donald Trump, then disappeared, was not the only protester to come to prominence last year. And unlike Phoenix, others stuck around.

Prominent among a new guard of activists who captured Denver’s attention in 2017 was Tay Anderson. While still a senior at Manual High School, a then-eighteen-year-old Anderson filed paperwork to become the youngest candidate to ever run for a seat on the Denver Board of Education. In November, Anderson placed third in his district with approximately 25 percent of the vote, or about 6,282 voters. He’s only expanded his profile since.
Two weeks after the November election, it was Anderson who organized the large protest of Ink! Coffee after the store on Larimer Street promoted an insensitive advertisement that joked about gentrification in the Five Points neighborhood. Anderson gave a rousing speech at the November 25 demonstration.

It’s not much of a surprise that Anderson also has big plans for 2018.

Westword: What are you up to right now?

Tay Anderson: I am now the chief of staff for House Representative Jovan Melton at the State Capitol. … I am nineteen years old now. I’m the youngest chief of staff at the Capitol. I’m excited; I’m going to walk in with my head held high, ready to learn.

Can you take us back to how you got interested in activism and running for political office? How did that happen?

After the election of Donald Trump, there were a lot of rallies. Every rally, I’d send messages [to the organizers], saying, ‘Hey, you need to have young people speaking at this event.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, do you want to do it?’

So I was invited to speak at one — the Protect our Muslim Neighbors Rally [on February 4, 2017] — in front of thousands of people. I was nervous. I was shaking. I was trying to read my speech off of my phone. And I looked down, then at the crowd, and I thought, ‘This isn’t me.’

I turned my phone off, put it in my pocket and just spoke from the heart. The lightbulb went off when another activist got up there and said, ‘Don’t you want to see this young man run for office some day?’

And that’s when you decided to run for school board?

Yes. I hadn’t considered it before.

click to enlarge C/O DAVE RUSSELL / TAY ANDERSON
c/o Dave Russell / Tay Anderson
Even though you didn’t win, you did generate quite a following, which seems to be growing. What do you think are the keys to your success?

It’s great to have activists throughout the community that have been there for a while, but it’s also time that we step up and get new voices, especially in political activism, because young people are sitting there waiting for the call to get up and be mobilized, and we want to make sure our voices are heard at the table.

Also, when campaigning, I’m not anybody else. I’m Tay Anderson. And that’s what makes me unique. … I did what my campaign team called ‘suicide missions,’ where I’d go out there and say it how it is. Like it or hate it, that’s me. I’m very direct, very candid. I want people to know that I really do care about what’s going on, and I’m not afraid to put future endeavors on the line, because I want to bring a voice to the voiceless.
That’s what you did at the Ink! Coffee protests, right?

Right. There were people who cautioned me, ‘Don’t speak too bluntly about Ink! or the mayor or Albus Brooks and their positions on these situations.’ I said, ‘Bullshit — that’s not who I am. There’s an injustice in the community, and I don’t care if the politicians are black, brown or whatever. If I feel like they’re doing the community wrong by their actions, that’s what I’ll speak on.’

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Denver’s greater activist community?

The strengths are that we have many common values. The weakness is that we’re not coming together. I feel like right now we have too many people trying to become the captain of one ship, and that’s not what we should be fighting for — who’s going to be the lead resistance group.

What people also should understand is that, if you’re an activist, you’re not just an activist on Saturdays and Sundays. You’re an activist on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, on and on and repeat. I would love to see the folks who go to the Women’s March [on January 20, 2018] go to the Resistance 5280 march [as well].

Beyond being Representative Melton’s chief of staff this year, do you have any other plans for 2018?

At the end of the year, my [former campaign] team is coming together for an amazing announcement.
Losing [the school board election] was not easy. I felt like I let all of those young people out there that I was talking to and making promises to — I feel like I let them down. And it only gives me momentum to come back for another run. I can’t tell you what office now, but we will announce it.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker