On Nov. 5, after a hard-fought campaign, a reinvigorated Tay Anderson rose to his feet in triumph. The first election results from his bid for a seat on the Denver school board had just come in and as raw emotion coursed through his veins, all he could think about was calling the woman who inspired him as a child to disrupt the status quo.
“I told her, ‘Mom we did it. We won,’” he told The Root. “And she and I both began to tear up and cry.”
Hours later, his biggest threat, Alexis Menocal Harrigan, would officially concede defeat—cementing Anderson’s status as Denver Public Schools Director-At-Large with 50 percent of the vote and reportedly making him one of the youngest elected officials in the history of Colorado at a jaw-dropping 21 years old.
Anderson’s historic win—paired with that of Scott Baldermann, a fellow union-backed candidate—flipped the school board and marks the first time in a decade that candidates endorsed by proponents of education reform won’t occupy the majority of the board, according to the Colorado Sun. The seeds of this upheaval were first sown in 2017 when two board seats occupied by pro-reform incumbents were replaced by candidates weary of Denver’s shortcomings since implementing its controversial “portfolio model.”
Anderson’s victory could also signal a dramatic shift in how charter schools fit into Denver’s academic ecosystem, in addition to what resources are allocated to underperforming institutions. Currently, charter schools have a higher concentration of students of color, but 75 percent of their teachers are white and 72 percent have less than five years of experience, according to a new A+ Colorado report. There’s also the issue of charter schools—which became legal in Colorado in 1993—receiving public funds, but not being held to the same standards as their district-run counterparts.
Anderson is mindful of these issues and as a recent graduate of Denver Public Schools himself, he’ll begin this new chapter with a clear understanding of the importance of having viable options in relation to proximity.
“In Denver, we’ve had this thing called education reform that has really allowed more charter schools, more availability to school choice,” he said. “And I’m not against a parent’s right to choose the best model for their child. However, I want them to be able to have a great option in their neighborhood and not have to go across the city in order to get a good education. That’s ridiculous.”
He’s also keenly aware that as a black man, he’s creating a template for the next generation of leaders and trailblazers to emulate.
“This is a personal fight for me,” he said. “As a black man [...] it’s important for black children, especially black young men, to be able to see themselves on the board of education. That’s something that I ran on when I first started this campaign. It was about giving them the ability to see themselves. And we did that.”
Also of tremendous concern to him is properly managing the district’s $1.5 billion budget and closing the disturbing test-score gap between black students and their white counterparts. And for those who believe his age or perceived inexperience will prevent him from doing so, he sees his youth as an asset.
“I’m the only board member that understands what it means to be both a student and an educator,” he said, a clear nod to his job as a high school restorative justice coordinator. “I understand what it means to walk through these halls and take a standardized test to being a DPS educator being paid a low wage that is not livable. We’ve lacked that firsthand experience on our school board in this election. We sent a clear message that that is the leadership we want leading our school district moving forward.”
He also has a message for other black folks pursuing their dreams.
“They told me when I first started this race that there’s no way a black man can win citywide. I told them, ‘Just give me the chance,’” he said. “I just want to send a clear message to black boys across the country to say that nobody should stop you from achieving what you believe in. Because I just showed that when people told me that I would never get elected because of my skin color or because of my age, not only did I beat them in a landslide, but we won with the most underfunded campaign in the city.”
He added, “So I want black children—especially black boys—across the country to know, you can be anything you want to be.”
Correction: 11/13/19, 12:47 p.m.: This article previously stated that Anderson is the youngest elected official in the history of Colorado. However, after speaking with the Weld County Elections Department and the City Clerk of Fort Luptin, Colo., David Crespin is the youngest elected official in state history. This story has been updated to reflect that.