She overcame monumental challenges after arriving in Boston as a child. From now on, Tania Fernandes Anderson will break multiple barriers as a city councilor.
“Everyone comes to America for the American dream,” Fernandes Anderson said recently, sitting in a cafe in Nubian Square.
Broadly speaking, Fernandes Anderson’s story fits the story of this immigrant archetype in many ways, including the most recent chapter: in January, the 42-year-old who worked in the service Socialists for more than 25 years will be sworn in as the first Muslim to serve on Boston City Council, joining an organization that increasingly reflects the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. She will also be its first former undocumented member and the first African immigrant to sit on the board.
But her life was far from a fairy tale, punctuated by periods of homelessness, deportation as a teenager, racism in school and complications from immigration.
When she landed in the United States as a child, she remembered not knowing how to react when she saw her mother. She threw up in the cab on the way from Logan. She couldn’t understand how all the tall buildings in the city “fit together”. Her destination, Academy Homes in Roxbury, confused her for a different reason, “because it always seemed poor to me”.
“This is America, isn’t it?” “ she said recently, remembering the moment. “I am [thinking I’m] go to luxury. I remember my mom was sad about it.
She grew up as the child of a single mother and first attended Tynan Elementary School in South Boston. It was in the early 1990s and playtime was horrible, she said. White children intimidated her and threw spittoons at her, she recalls.
“African American kids were like ‘You’re not really black’ and white people were like ‘You are definitely black’,” she said.
She then graduated from high school at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science and from there attended Springfield College.
There were other difficulties in growing up. She was undocumented. Her mother was not always employed. As a child, she understood that a green card would allow her to work. At 13, she paid $ 50 for a Social Security card, not knowing it was illegal.
“You are constantly living in fear,” she said.
From the age of 12, she was babysitting for people at Academy Homes. She won a school writing competition three years in a row, which caught the attention of the Roxbury Full Service Center, which provides behavioral health, education and supportive housing services; officials there recruited Fernandes Anderson to work as a peer leader. When Fernandes Anderson was 15, her mother returned to Cape Verde to reunite two Fernandes Anderson siblings, younger brother and sister, after Fernandes Anderson withdrew enough money to pay for the plane ticket. His mother was gone for about six months and Fernandes Anderson stayed with her grandmother in Boston.
In 2007, her driver’s license was suspended for a year because the registry concluded that she should not have had one. because she was undocumented, she said. She had to carry her child by bicycle to daycare in the winter. She was twice homeless and spent time in shelters. She was subject to deportation proceedings.
In January 2019, she became a U.S. citizen.
She is on a list of newcomers to the city’s legislature, after five open races brought significant turnover to the council in this fall’s municipal election.
“I’m really excited about the job,” she said recently. “Am I nervous? I’m a little nervous about making sure I’m doing the job right and being efficient.
In the September preliminary competition, Fernandes Anderson finished first in the eight-man race to succeed Kim Janey, with a platform focused on improving affordable housing and bringing more resources to the district. She clinched victory in the general election last month, solidly beating Eternal Candidate and Pastor Roy Owens, Sr. It was her first candidacy for office.
She will represent District 7, which includes parts of the South End and Fenway, but is anchored in Roxbury, a district which remains one of the poorest in the city. Per capita income is estimated to be less than half of the city average. Almost 90 percent of residents are people of color and nearly a third live in poverty, according to city data.
Fernandes Anderson has ranked housing and public safety among the most pressing issues facing his district. And she spoke about climate injustices and lack of access to healthy eating practices and how this can lead to mental health issues for residents, including depression. She said she wanted the city to strengthen options for renting with an option to buy.
“If we don’t create wealth, we just impoverish more people,” she said.
Regarding a new police commissioner, a post Mayor Michelle Wu has pledged to fill next year, Fernandes Anderson said “the cultural skills are enormous”.
“You want someone to understand how to build relationships with integrity,” she said.
The fact that someone with their life experience won the election to city council “indicates that there are a lot of good people out there. Most people are good. She specifically credits the support of black women who helped her achieve success at the polls.
“They still have America’s back,” she said.
She said her Muslim faith would help her manage her new role. She relies on her faith to avoid acting reactionary, as well as to forgive people who do wrong, she said.
Fernandes Anderson’s professional background is mainly in social services, in which she worked for 27 years. She also took in 25 children herself. She has been an HIV counselor and tester, coordinator of child and family services for non-English speaking families, career counselor for the homeless, responsible for family and community outreach for schools public in Boston, and she provided an intervention to traumatized youth.
She finally decided that she needed a break from this world. She taught herself to sew from YouTube and began to design and sew dresses, a job that led her to open her own clothing store, Couples Therapy Boutique, in 2016. She was hosting mental health-themed performances through fashion and music at the Strand Theater in Uphams Corner. Most recently, she was Executive Director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets.
A mother of two, Fernandes Anderson said she enjoys staying busy and sees her next term on the board as a new endeavor. Her youngest son, Shak Muhammad, 16, described his mother as a hard worker.
“She gets things done,” he said.
Mohammed Missouri, political strategist for his campaign, said Fernandes Anderson has a dynamic way of connecting with people from all walks of life, which he attributed to his disarming frankness and ability to disagree without being obnoxious.
“We live in a very divided time and I think people are looking for leaders who are not going to fan the flames. . . but who will find common ground, ”he said. “She’s able to talk to someone without them feeling small, even if she doesn’t agree with him.”
For her part, Fernandes Anderson described the election campaign as a lonely place, saying the stories she heard made her cry a lot in the first month. Knocking on doors and listening to the concerns of the working class was a lesson in humility.
“I really tell people I’m going to help them,” she said. “I must honor these promises.