Tay Anderson needs some new shoes.
It’s June 24, and the 21-year-old activist and Denver school board member is enjoying a rare day off.
Over the prior month, he’d hit the pavement hard, walking miles through downtown Denver, bullhorn glued to his hand, helping spearhead massive marches against police brutality. He rallied for a new neighborhood name in Stapleton and helped push Denver Public Schools to end its contract with the city’s police department.
All that can wear down a man’s soles — but certainly not his soul.
“My shoes are all activism-ed out right now,” Anderson said with a laugh.
Briefly homeless at one time, Anderson bounded into the spotlight three years ago, announcing a run for school board before he even had received his high school diploma — and subsequently becoming one of Colorado’s youngest-ever elected officials.
But over the past month-and-a-half — as historic protests engulfed the Mile High City, prompting sweeping police changes as part of a national reckoning on race — Anderson has become one of Denver’s most recognizable faces. A man who only this year could legally buy a beer is building a fervent following, and a national audience, as he inserts himself into hot-button issues, from keeping the peace during the George Floyd protests to urging Gov. Jared Polis to take action on the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police.
His act-first, ask-questions-later style riles even those close to him on occasion, leading to conflict with some of his own allies. But as Anderson raises his profile far beyond that of a traditional school board member, murmurs about his future grow louder.
“I don’t think this is a moment for Tay,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and one of Anderson’s mentors. “I think he will be here for a very long time.”
Leading the charge
Anderson’s title is at-large school board member, but as he said repeatedly while campaigning, “You’re also electing Tay Anderson the activist.”
And it’s not in his nature to wait on others to get things done.
As people descended on the Colorado Capitol in late May and early June, outraged over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Anderson noticed it was mostly white allies leading the charge. So he grabbed a bullhorn and started chanting, the beginning of his role over the next several days of leading marches, confronting protesters who went against his nonviolent approach and even negotiating with the police chief.
“In this time, we need Black and brown and indigenous folks — and especially Black folks — to step forward and lead this movement,” Anderson said.
He’s always had a natural leadership ability, a charisma that draws others towards him.
“I imagine it’s like hearing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the first time,” said Dave Russell, a photographer who has documented Anderson from the beginning. “It’s refreshing. People are fired up in genuine way — it’s not same old (expletive).”
As soon as the Floyd protests began to die down, Anderson took on the police from his school board seat, co-sponsoring a successful resolution to remove officers from Denver schools next year. The school board was on the forefront of a growing national movement, pushed by data showing Black students are more likely to be arrested than their white classmates.
Anderson then turned his focus on Stapleton, the neighborhood on the site of Denver’s old airport named after a former city mayor with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. There had been an effort for years to remove the name, but it was a day after Anderson tweeted that the neighborhood association had a week to change the name — or else Black Lives Matter demonstrators would march on their streets — that the association announced that change was coming.
“People are eager for someone to unapologetically stand up and start demanding these things we’ve been begging for a century to take place,” said Tiffany Caudil, Anderson’s first campaign manager.
That unapologetic nature has become Anderson’s calling card. His supporters — Team Tay, he calls them — love the bold, brash way he thrashes through red tape and gets results.
It’s on full display on Twitter, where Anderson regularly engages with his 24,000 followers. He posts silly dance videos and crowdsources for album title names. He’s also not shy about sharing quotes of himself in news reports, or his own election results from last year’s school board victory or daring critics to run against him for his seat.
Anderson’s penchant for rushing to take a stand on social media can lead to him backtracking and then returning to previous positions — all in the same day.
Earlier this month, Anderson demanded the immediate expulsion of a University of Colorado Boulder student over racist images the student shared on Snapchat. After learning the student was in eighth grade when the photos were taken, Anderson said the teen should instead receive equity training before returning to campus — but later reversed himself again and issued yet another statement, returning to his original demand of expulsion.
Brother Jeff Fard, a longtime community activist and historian in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, refers to Anderson as the “young bull,” someone who goes into a space without caring what’s already there, someone who shakes things up.
Anderson’s detractors on social media say he’s got an ego, that he’s more worried about his political career than bringing change to the school system. John Castillo, whose son Kendrick was killed in the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch last year, said he wished Anderson would have spoken with parents like him before pushing to take cops out of schools.
“I really think that as director of DPS, he should focus on graduation rates and helping minority students with opportunities,” Castillo said.
During the Floyd protests, Anderson took criticism for linking up with a group that marched with police, calling himself a “blind follower” before admitting he made a mistake. The head of the We Are Love Denver group, Neil Yarborough, called Anderson a “brilliant young man” in an interview but said he still has “growing up to do and maturing to do as a man.”
Three weeks later, at a rally for McClain, organizers and activists called out Anderson for taking over a demonstration that wasn’t his and splitting it in two, causing confusion and frustration.
“I care about Tay very much. But he was wrong today,” Elisabeth Epps, an activist who Anderson has called a mentor and mother figure, said in a tweet. She declined an interview request.
Anderson is abundantly aware of the criticism levied against him.
“I’m 21,” he said. “I make mistakes.”
While he apologized for his role in the McClain protests and distanced himself from the We Are Love Denver group, what he won’t do is say sorry for pushing for bold change — or even publicly touting his own achievements. That’s him being “unapologetically Tay.”
“I was able to defy the odds to be here,” Anderson said. “I was the son of a single mother who failed freshman year of high school, a college dropout ’cause I couldn’t afford it. I worked several minimum wage jobs. To be elected to the Denver school board, I am damn proud about that, and I will tell everyone about it at every turn.”
Being a Black elected official, Anderson said, is “like playing Jesus at times.”
“If you’re not perfect to the Black community, then you’re trash,” he said. “If you’re not perfect to the left, or the lefter part of the Democratic Party, you’re trash. Republicans just hate me.”
“Our ancestors’ dream”
The godly comparison may seem outlandish for a 21-year-old school board member. But as Anderson’s profile continues to rise, so are comparisons to some notable historical figures.
Fard first met Anderson in 2014 as the high schooler led protests following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“He told me — and I’ll never forget this — that he would be the first black governor of Colorado,” Fard said. “I believed him then and I believe him now.”
Before the school board run, Fard saw a kid who was a leader and visionary, but now he’s seeing that vision backed up by purpose, a man “destined for greatness.”
“I know it sounds strange equating Tay to Dr. (Martin Luther) King now, but 30 years from now or 10 years from now, it might not sound so unusual if you look at the accomplishments he’s already made.”
To older activists, Anderson is the face of a new generation, someone who can stand on the shoulders of those who fought for radical change before him.
“I would say he’s our ancestors’ dream,” said Hashim Coates, an activist and veteran of Colorado Democratic politics.
Just three years out of high school, Anderson — who is well aware he can’t run for Denver mayor until he’s 30 — is already thinking about his legacy.
“I want to be able to live every day to the fullest,” he said. “Whenever my sunset arrives, I want to know I did good in this world, and at least make Denver a better place for kids.”
Denver Post staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this report.
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