The school board election isn’t Tay’s first foray into politics, and he hopes it won’t be his last. Tay’s peers at Manual High in Denver have elected him student body president three years in a row. One day, he hopes to run for governor of Colorado.
Charismatic, smart, and energetic, it may seem like politics comes easily to Tay. But he isn’t without challenges. Tay’s relationship with his mother is difficult, and earlier this year she asked him to move out of their house. He was briefly homeless before a friend came to the rescue. It’s times like these when Tay’s mantra, courtesy of Michelle Obama, comes in handy. “When they go low, we go high.” Tay plans to invite his mother to his swearing in if he wins.
However the upcoming election turns out, Tay represents the new face of local school politics. He’s a harbinger of the millennial generation’s take on political campaigning—better use of social media, more forceful defense of public education, and the power of positivity over attack politics. If you look like a leader, sound like a leader, plan like a leader, and act like a leader, you can lead, no matter how young you are.
I interviewed Tay on two separate occasions. Here are highlights of those conversations.
What inspired you to run for Denver Public Schools Board of Education?
Last year, it was announced that a middle school was being added to our high school. The decision was more about politics and policy than it was about students. As student body president, I advocated for my students. I said, “We don’t agree with a middle school being added.” When I talked to the board they basically told me they’d made their decision and didn’t need my voice. And that was without any community, student, or even administrative consent. As soon as that happened, that lit a fire in me to run for the Board of Education.
You like to talk about “students stepping into their greatness.” What are the forces preventing or opposing students taking action?
We have school choice but we’re not providing great public education in every part of the city. We’re instituting private institutions and saying “Hey, you can choose this option,” but students of color are not being picked by a large margin because they are not testing as well as their student counterparts who are not of color. Public schools can’t step into their greatness if they’re not being funded or getting the same supplies that charter schools get. I’m not against charter schools, but you can’t just ask taxpayers for more money, not tell us where it’s going, and never become a real public institution here in Denver.
If you’re elected to the school board, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
The board recently closed a public elementary school. A lot of parents relied on that school. It was failing. My own high school was failing in the past, but because of good leadership, we turned that around and raised our scores. If I’m elected, my first action is going to be to call for the board to reverse that decision and reopen that elementary school. And I want to always put students and teachers first. I will be attending Metro State University in Denver. Being a board director and a college student will be my only priorities.
What has been your family’s and friends’ reaction to your decision to run?
I have family spread out across the country and they’ve given me their support. My grandmother was an educator for 30 years in the Kansas City School District. She always wanted me to achieve my dreams and my dream has always been to be a leader. I just got word that she’s on bed rest for the remainder of her time here on Earth. My aunt called and said, “We’ve seen the news about you and we’re proud.” I know that she’s seeing the man I’m becoming, even though we’re states apart.
On social media, you use the first-person plural a lot. You say “we” and talk about your “team.” Why?
If I was running for president, I would use the same model I’m using right now. What I’m doing is shaking up what a local politician is. I’m really trying to set the bar for everybody else in the future including our state legislators, our state senators, and everybody in our state who is elected. I’m showing them that if a young person of 18 can rally a community to make positive change, anybody can do it. They must utilize their voices and keep people informed.
You have promised to hold town-hall meetings to invite the input and opinions of people aged 5 to 100. What if your constituents want something you disagree with?
I represent the people. So one thing I can say is that when I disagree with something, I’m going to take a self-evaluation. I’m going to re-read whatever I’m supposed to be voting on. I’m not going to be a typical politician. I’m going to empower the voters and ask them to come to public meetings. I’m going to ask them, “What do you want to see?” and bring it to the community. This may be the way I would like to vote, but I want to hear you tell me what you want to see different.
Your candidacy is making headlines. With this newfound fame, have you heard encouraging or discouraging feedback?
People from all over the country and the world are rallying behind me. I’ve seen people across this nation, from California to New York, come together and continue to give me those words of encouragement. People don’t know how far their words go. They inspire me to keep going to the start line. It’s not the finish line. If I get elected, it’s the starting line.
Learn more about teen Tay Anderson’s campaign for Denver School Board or get involved here.