If not for his baby face, Tay Anderson might seem like someone who has been in politics for a long time.
His phone buzzes constantly, and he answers all calls and responds to all messages efficiently. When he speaks about his passions, his fluidity and eloquence appear almost rehearsed. A pin on his white polo reads Tay Anderson for Denver School Board 2017. The logo on that shirt, though, is for the Student Board of Education, which he served on for two years before he decided to spend more time on the student council at Manual High School, where he was the student body president until he graduated in May.
Anderson is nineteen years old, and the youngest person ever to run for the Denver School Board.
He wasn't always an over-achiever. Five years ago Anderson, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, had just moved to Denver and started school at Thomas Jefferson."I admit to my shortcomings, that I screwed up my freshman year," he explains. “I failed classes, I missed school, I was basically a typical freshman." After that disappointing first year, Anderson had to transfer to Prep Academy to regain credits that he had lost, setting him on a track to graduate in five years instead of four.
But he didn't want to "be a statistic," he says, so he became a diligent and engaged student and came up with the idea of running for student body president, never thinking he would win. "Honestly, I just wanted some attention," he says, and laughs.
And then he won.
"I was like, 'Oh, this is real life!'" he recalls. He realized he had been given an important opportunity to help change the stereotype of the kind of young person who gets involved in student government and, in turn, politics in general.
After growing interested in JROTC, Anderson transferred to Manual High School for his junior and senior years, where the program is offered. He was elected student body president there, too, earned a spot on the Student Board of Education and served as chair of the Colorado High School Democrats.
In 2015, Denver Public Schools decided to put a middle school at Manual to help increase enrollment; Anderson spoke to the DPS board at DPS Day, an annual meeting, in opposition of this move and to encourage greater student involvement in DPS decisions. "The student board and young African-American and Latino leaders are great," he said, "but [they're] not given the legitimacy they need. They need to actually have a seat at the table.”
Anderson had heard of school boards in other states that had student trustee positions, but when he asked if one could be created in Denver, DPS boardmembers told him he would simply have to run for a seat.
When he found out the age requirement was eighteen, he decided to do just that.
"I spoke to administrators and said, 'I am aspiring to be youngest boardmember ever elected in DPS history.' And they chuckled and laughed and thought it was a game," says Anderson. After that, Anderson put his political ambitions on hold for a few months...until, after experiencing irreconcilable "worldview" differences with his mother, he found himself out on the streets.
"Once I became homeless, I understood what it meant to be on your own, to be one of those one-in-six students in DPS who are homeless," Anderson explains. He decided to post a message on Facebook, asking if people would be willing to support his candidacy. From that first post, at least fifteen people offered their help.
"I let them know, 'I can't pay you. I don't have that money,'" says Anderson, but that didn't discourage supporters. In April, Anderson officially declared a run for the District 4 seat, which is currently held by Rachele Espiritu. Today he has a ten-person staff of both adults and fellow students, as well as a volunteer base; he's managed to raise around $6,000. He's also collected endorsements from former mayor and Manual alum Wellington Webb, state representative Joe Salazar and, just this week, the Our Denver, Our Schools group.
Anderson is campaigning on an idealistic platform that strongly advocates for neighborhood schools and against the proliferation of charters. He wants a moratorium on school closures and openings in District 4, and for DPS to invest funding in existing neighborhood schools. He also plans to advocate for greater transparency and accountability regarding the board's budget, more community input in board decisions, and a student trustee position on future boards.
Espiritu, the incumbent in the District 4 seat who was appointed just over a year ago, has her own compelling story; she's the first immigrant to serve on the Denver School Board. She's been complimentary to Anderson's campaign, noting that "DPS is developing great leaders" and lauding the Student Board of Education.
But Espiritu is also quick to point out the experience that she's already gained on the board. "The system has such a complexity of decisions. I won't need to start over again, and there is a lot of urgent work to be done that I am already in a position to do," says Espiritu, adding that she's eager to implement all that she has learned if she's elected in November.
Anderson thinks his experience as a student should count. "I’m a product of failed policies from DPS," he says. "I want to make sure that every student in...marginalized groups and non-marginalized groups knows that there is a champion, that I understand what it means to fail classes [and] go through rigorous situations."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
And there's another advantage to his age: "I don’t owe anybody anything," he says. "That’s the benefit of me being so young. I’m not bought by the system, and I don’t owe anybody any favors."
Despite his ambitions, Anderson is definitely still a nineteen-year-old. "I like to sleep when I have downtime," he says, and he also spends free time with a group of close-knit friends from high school. This fall, he plans to enroll at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he'll study political science and possibly graphic design; he's already created his own campaign logo.
Even if he doesn't win the school board seat in November, Anderson has plans to establish a 501(c)(4) dedicated to helping other young people run for office...and he plans to keep pursuing political office himself.
"I don't know if I'll run for president," he says with a grin, "but my ultimate goal is to be the first African-American governor of Colorado."