Tania Fernandes Anderson made history Tuesday as Boston’s first Muslim-American city councilor-elect, soundly defeating perennial candidate Roy Owens with 73% of the votes to his 27%, according to unofficial polling results. In January, she will assume the seat currently occupied by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, representing Roxbury, Dorchester and part of the South End.

“I don’t feel like we’ve totally won yet, but we’ve made a huge accomplishment,” Anderson told a crowd of around 25 supporters and volunteers at her office in Nubian Square Tuesday night. “We will win together if we partner, if I include people, if I'm responsive, if I'm effective...if we can continue to work on breaking down the segregation between Roxbury and South End, if we can begin to be actually sincere about the work and putting the community first. That's when I will start feeling really good.”

Anderson, a Sunni Muslim who was born in Cape Verde, is also the first African immigrant elected to the Boston City Council. Beaming in a black hijab covering her hair and sparkling gold earrings, Anderson expressed the doubts she felt campaigning as a political rookie at the age of 42, and the pressure she feels to prove herself in this new role.

“I don't know if I'm the right one, only God knows,” Anderson said. “I don't know if I would be good at it, only God knows that kind of thing. You just sort of want to, and you think you can. Then you try, and all you can say is, ‘in the name of God.’ And then you just plunge. And that's what I did.”

Anderson says she observes the five pillars of Islam, including prayer, fasting during holidays and giving back to the community. She would like to see the city recognize Muslim holidays, including the biggest, Eid al-Fitr, and vowed to work to make the Muslim community of Boston feel included. But when asked about the significance of being the first Muslim elected to the council, Anderson pushed back, asking to be seen as more than just her religious identity.

Tori Bedford GBH News

“We always say the ummah, which means ‘community.’ It doesn't necessarily exclude non-Muslims,” Anderson told GBH News. "As the person that I am — Muslim, Cape Verdean, someone who's been undocumented, an African immigrant and now African-American — I think that all of that is what makes me a very dynamic Black woman.”

“Yes, I'm making history. Yes, I am Muslim,”Anderson continued, “but if I have to wear that all the time, you're separating me.”

Anderson emphasized the full spectrum of her own humanity.

“I like that I can actually be relatable. I like that I can be Muslim and I can still be an artist, right? I can still be a fashionista. I can still be a Black woman and celebrate Black joy. I can still be a good mom,” Anderson said. “All of those things are exactly everybody else. We're all the same.”

Afnan Nehela, an Anderson supporter who works for state Senator Jamie Eldridge, says Anderson's election is significant for Muslims in Boston, especially women like Nehela who also wear hijab.

“Seeing Tania unapologetically rocking her hijab as a Black Muslim candidate in a city that is extremely diverse — but has also had reports of very problematic Islamophobic incidents — is mind-blowing and refreshing,” Nehela told GBH News. “People in my generation need to see that. People who wear hijab need to see that. For us, this is a huge milestone. It's not just for her, it's for the entire community.”

Few Muslims have held elected office in Massachusetts. Nadeem Mazen, elected to Cambridge's city council in 2013, was the first. Sumbul Siddiqui in Cambridge became the state's first Muslim mayor in 2019. Mehreen Bhutt currently serves as a town councilor in Wakefield.

Boston is home to nearly 50 mosques, Islamic schools and Muslim organizations. In recent years, reports of anti-Islamic hate crimes rose across the state, and a report from earlier this year showed that 60% of Muslim youth in Massachusetts reported being mocked, verbally harassed or physically abused because of their Islamic faith, according to the state's chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 2018, the Boston Police Department used a surveillance tool to unfairly target the city’s Muslim population, according to an ACLU report.

“People don't even realize that there is a significant Muslim population here, or they just kind of assume that Muslim issues are only immigration issues,” Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said in an interview with GBH News. “But the reality is, Muslims are policed. We're harassed by people around us. There's so much of that happening day to day, and I hope that Tania’s election might shed light on that.”

Tori Bedford GBH News

Anderson immigrated to Boston at age 10 from Cape Verde to Roxbury, two places that she says formed the foundation of her commitment to community.

“I remember growing up in a village, everyone was so loving and everyone took care of each other and we ate from each other's homes,” Anderson said. “And so when an African-American woman says to me, ‘hey, baby, I gotcha,’ I think to myself, do I have her? Can I keep that promise? Can I be that person that’s actually going to respond, to be there when she needs me?”

Anderson’s supporters would argue that her policies, including affordable housing and homeownership, financial resources for senior care, racial and gender equity and small business support — along with her life-long commitment to the community — represent where she will take her role in the city council.

“There’s always going to be that fear, with any politician going into office about the empty promises, that they’re not going to be there,” Nehela told GBH News. “But what she has already said in the media, on her social media platforms and in her speeches, that has already meant so much to a lot of us in the community.”

Anderson currently serves as the executive director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, a nonprofit focused on racial equity for small businesses. In 2013, Anderson founded Noah’s Advocate, another nonprofit that introduces underrepresented communities to performing arts and high fashion, including providing underserved high school girls with prom dresses. As a 13-year-old growing up in Roxbury, Anderson took her first job as a peer counselor for survivors of sexual assault and rape at the Roxbury Multi-Service Center.

Because of her work providing testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV prevention, sexual health and LGBTQ+ rights as an outreach worker, Anderson has the staunch support of the Massachusetts chapter of Planned Parenthood, according to Kim Kargman, one of its organizers.

“We think that she's such an exciting candidate because of the way that she connects policy and real experience with her personal stories and lived experience,” Kargman told GBH News in an interview at Anderson’s election night event. “She'll be an incredible advocate on the council.”

Kargman supported Anderson as a campaign volunteer, stepping up her efforts as the campaign dwindled to two candidates.

“The threat of a candidate like Roy Owens, whose views are so extreme, being sort of so close, once again, to the Boston City Council, was a reason to step our game up,” Kargman said, referring to Owens' ten campaigns for elected office in as many years.

Anderson emerged as the top finalist in the September preliminary, with a 10-point lead over Owens, who proceeded to run a campaign primarily based on Islamophobia. In fliers, interviews and messages blasted from a loudspeaker affixed to the top of his van, Owens positioned himself as the Christian alternative to her “anti-American, anti-Christian” campaign, according to his political literature.

Tori Bedford GBH News

“People laughed off Roy Owens’ campaign and looked at it like it was absurd, but that’s how many people view Muslims,” Ahmad of the Muslim Justice League said, comparing Owens’ rhetoric to a controversial “travel ban” or “Muslim ban” implemented by former President Donald Trump to block entry into the United States by people traveling from mostly Muslim-majority nations.

“That was not an unpopular policy,” Ahmad said. “Such a huge part of the Trump campaign and administration was Islamophobia. It’s a common thing, particularly here in Boston.”

Anderson says she will work to ensure that Boston’s Muslim population feels included in policy decisions, as part of a larger focus on the often-overlooked district in Boston.

“I hope to do a good job in including the Islamic community in civic engagement so that they're at the table having conversations, so that they are part of policy-making, driving those policies that will bring equality into their community,” Anderson said. “But it's not a separate community.”

The Muslim community of the Boston metro area dates back to the early 1900s, with generations of families growing up as part of a multifaceted and diverse population. Anderson’s election is a reminder of that history, including Massachusett's role as the state where Malcolm X converted to Islam and was incarcerated.

“I really hope that, if anything, electing a Black Muslim woman will be significant in reminding folks that this is a really big population and that Muslims are impacted by all of the issues,” Ahmad said. “The other side of it will be whether she delivers, if she will actually take a stance on issues that are impacting Muslims. Representation doesn’t always mean that the person is really connected to the community or is going to deliver, so I think that has yet to be seen. But personally, I feel hopeful about it.”

At her campaign headquarters on election night, Anderson told the small crowd of her supporters that she, too, had doubted whether or not she could deliver, especially at the start of her campaign.

“It was really scary,” Anderson said. “I would say to myself, just little by little, just be present. Little by little, I started believing in myself more. People started opening their doors, and that was a humbling experience.”

“That's when I said to myself,” Anderson continued, “You better kick ass, you better do well. You better work hard.”