Three decades before launching her first political campaign, Tania Fernandes Anderson made headlines for a different sort of introduction: delivering her aunt’s premature baby in their small Roxbury apartment.

“I take the baby out and I tell my aunt, give me a towel, I know it’s not the same temperature out here, I heard about that,” Anderson said in an interview with GBH News. “So she gives me a towel, and I was like, well, you want me to smack the baby on the butt? I saw this on TV, the baby has to cry.”

When the paramedics arrived, they were met by Anderson, a small girl with an Afro puff who looked down at the blood on her arms and slowly began to realize the magnitude of what she had done. Boston Herald writer Paul Sullivan described in an article about the incident as a “cool-headed 12-year-old” who had “no trouble bringing life into the world.”

Anderson, now 42, says her lived experiences being raised by her 15-year-old uncle in Cape Verde, immigrating to Boston at 10, experiencing homelessness as a single mother in her 20s and raising two sons and 17 foster children have helped her to “not be squeamish about hard work.”

Anderson, a Sunni Muslim, has taken on a historic task. She’s running to become the first Muslim and African immigrant on the Boston City Council, hoping to take Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey’s District 7 Council seat, which encompasses parts of Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End.

Tania Fernandes Anderson, 42, in Roxbury, Oct. 18, 2021.
Tori Bedford GBH News

Anderson’s competition, Roy Owens, is a perennial candidate who has spent a decade running for everything from City Council At-Large to state Senate to Congress.

Since 2012, he has run for office 10 times in as many years, never winning.

In the September preliminary contest featuring eight candidates, Anderson and Owens emerged as the finalists for the Nov. 2 general election. She led with 27% of the vote to his 17%.

Owens, 76, is notorious for his messaging strategies, if not his message. Driving through Roxbury with a loudspeaker attached to his minivan, Owens urges people waiting outside Nubian Station to “vote for Roy Owens, the only reason for living,” and to “make common sense make sense.”

Owens’ black-and-white mailers are stuffed top to bottom with tiny text, mostly detailing conspiracy theories about attacks on the African American birth rate and Christianity.

In one mailer from the 2017 District 7 council race, when Janey was first elected to the seat, Owens wrote, “if you love confusion, vote for Kim Janey, who despise [sic] the bible, God and country.”

While knocking doors on Blue Hill Avenue last Wednesday, Anderson got candid with a voter about her opponent. “It’s just me and Roy Owens left,” she said. “Our policies are pretty different. Mine are more progressive, and his are a little bit dangerous: anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-me, myself, because supposedly he tells people that I’m going to spread Sharia law and stuff like that. Pretty xenophobic.”

Roy Owens drives through Roxbury in his van, with a loudspeaker and megaphone attached to the roof, October 19, 2021
Tori Bedford GBH News

The next day, Owens parked his van in Nubian Square, gospel music blasting from his loudspeaker. In a suit and tie, his hair gelled back, Owens took a moment from passing out pamphlets to greet Anderson, who walked up in a pink suit and matching hijab.

“You always look nice, Roy, but today you look nice nice,” Anderson said. “Who are you trying to impress?”

“Well you’re always wrapped up head to toe,” Owens responded. “That dress, that’s what Sharia is.”

Anderson asked Owens to define “Sharia,” but he avoided the question, suggesting instead that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim, is promoting Sharia in Minnesota.

“Man, Roy, you’ve got to do more research,” Anderson said.

In Arabic, “Sharia” translates to "the clear, well-trodden path to water,” a code for living in accordance with Allah’s will for humankind. Owens appeared to be referring to a draconian interpretation implemented in legal systems in countries like Saudi Arabia. He then turned around and criticized Anderson for not advocating social restrictions that accompany strict interpretations of Sharia.

“You support abortion, same sex and all the rest of it, because you’re not a part of them,” Owens said. “A house divided cannot stand.”

After knocking on countless doors and meeting voters face-to-face, ignorance about her religion and her choice to wear hijab is not new to Anderson.

“Some people ask me about my faith immediately. They ask, ‘What church do you go to?’ That’s how they start,” Anderson said. “I fearlessly go, ‘I’m Muslim, and this is what that means.’ Some people listen, and a couple of times doors have been slammed in my face.”

Anderson says she has learned, over time, not to take it personally.

“There’s no evil, just ignorance,” she said. “Everyone — if taught, if redeemed, if healed — becomes the same one person.”

Both non-partisan and community focused, Anderson and Owens do share some common ground. Both candidates believe in building up affordable and low-income housing to decrease homelessness, decentralizing drug treatment resources near Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass Avenue, or Mass and Cass, and increasing access to food and healthcare for people of color and those experiencing financial difficulty.

Both candidates have experience as social workers, community leaders and founders of neighborhood-focused nonprofits. At the age of 13, Anderson took her first job as a peer counselor for survivors of sexual assault and rape at the Roxbury Multi-Service Center. Currently, she serves as the executive director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, which promotes racial equity among small businesses.

Owens, a former Boston Public Schools teacher, has spearheaded many community groups and neighborhood associations, including founding the Save The Children Ministry on Blue Hill Avenue, which provides free food to the community every Saturday.

Anderson stands behind 25 years of her own community work, including founding Noah’s Advocate, a nonprofit that introduces underrepresented communities to performing arts and high fashion, including providing underserved young women with prom dresses.

For Anderson, the biggest issue facing Boston is housing: she’s proposed plans to stabilize rent, create tax incentives for homeowners and landlords, create rent-to-own opportunities and land trusts and increase the mandated percentage of subsidized housing for developers from 13% to 33%, eventually reaching 50%.

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Owens and Anderson on the campaign trail. Owens (left) passes out campaign pamphlets at a senior living facility in Roxbury, Oct. 19, 2021. Anderson knocks on doors in Roxbury, Oct. 18, 2021.
Tori Bedford GBH News

Housing and homelessness are also personal issues: Anderson lived for eight months at the Crittenton Hastings Women’s Shelter in Brighton, a single mother to her three-year-old son, without support from family or a spouse.

“I know the pain of being in a shelter, of not having housing and security,” Anderson said. “The day that I slept for the first time in my apartment after being homeless, the knots in my shoulders went away, my migraine literally disappeared. The experience of being homeless is traumatic. You’re isolated and institutionalized.”

Housing resources also need to be provided for undocumented immigrants, Anderson said. It’s another policy proposal shaped by her personal experience.

“If you don't have a green card, you cannot benefit from housing. I don’t know if people realize that,” Anderson said. “So even if you have Section 8 [a housing voucher], that may pay for a citizen child — a born-American child — but Section 8 will not pay for you.”

Anderson says she fell into homelessness after getting pulled over for driving her child to day care without a license, something she couldn’t legally acquire as an undocumented immigrant. She bought a bicycle and a trailer to bring her son across the city, but the fines and fees from getting caught without a license set her back enough to lose her home.

“You’re living your life, and before you know it, one emergency happens, one devastating thing happens in your family,” Anderson said, “and boom, you’re homeless.”

Back in the Roy Owens Van, when asked to specify the differences between his housing policy and Anderson’s, Owens can only seem to focus on her religious identity.

“I think her plan is ... I don’t know what her plan is because she says anything, it’s just saying anything and doing anything,” Owens says. “Some people say she’s Muslim, and they don’t want that. I don’t think she supports the community as a whole.”

Owens is less specific about his housing plan, launching into monologues that dip into conspiracy and outside the realm of fact: he claims the housing administration is working with Planned Parenthood to reduce the Black population, and that doctors are urging teachers to encourage children to get gender-affirming surgeries because hospitals make money off the transgender population.

Between the tirades, glimmers of policy shine through, like a plan to include faith-based initiatives in schools and a commission with neighboring cities and towns to tackle the public health crisis at Mass and Cass — though they’re overshadowed by larger theories about “political correctness” and lurid government agendas.

“I’m not reactive or emotional about his stuff because I know it’s ignorance,” Anderson told GBH News. “So I’m not going to take that seriously, but I will take him seriously, though, to make sure that he doesn’t win. Because we can’t have that.”

Owens supporters focus almost exclusively on his work within the community as a teacher and an advocate, and less on the larger themes of his platform.

Leonides Vargas, a 39-year-old Dorchester resident, said she had already voted early for Owens.

“He does a lot of community stuff, a lot of stuff for the kids,” Vargas told GBH News. “He tries to teach the kids how to play music, piano, choir, he does the food pantry and a lot of community service stuff.”

While walking around Roxbury on Thursday, Owens was stopped by former students and residents with personal concerns. The day had gotten away from him — he was already late for a meeting with residents at a senior living facility — but he listened patiently while a woman went into detail about her cousin’s moth infestation.

“It’s kind of hard for me to travel, to walk around in this community, because everyone wants to tell me all of their problems,” Owens said.

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Tania Fernandes Anderson and Roy Owens in Nubian Square, Oct. 19, 2021
Tori Bedford GBH News

Even as he hustles in the final days before the general election, Owens says he isn’t focused on winning or losing.

“It’s not about running for office,” Owens said. “It’s about fighting for your community and the things that you believe in.”

Running against Owens represents a kind of rite of passage to former competitors, including Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey and State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. State Rep. Liz Miranda, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia — all of whom have run against Owens at some point — endorsed Anderson in the District 7 race.

Finding joy under any circumstances is a central tenet of Anderson’s platform, a joy that’s evident in the huge smile she gives Owens as she teases him on the sidewalk in Nubian Square.

“Listen, I love you, no matter what,” Anderson told Owens. “Whatever you do, you do it with your whole heart, your whole heart and soul. But your policies could use some help.”

“I agree,” Owens responded. “You do need some help.”

Anderson responded with a full-body laugh as the two candidates broke off to continue their respective campaigns: Anderson, a rookie, working to break through religious and gender barriers, and Owens, a veteran campaigner, hoping to see his first win after years of running.