By Matt Watson
There’s something about the neighborhood Gloria Travis Tanner grew up in.
Tanner, the first black woman to serve as a Colorado state senator, grew up in an Atlanta home next door to the family of Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta or any major southern city. Tanner also lived a few blocks from a well-known Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.
Living in 1930s and ‘40s Atlanta, Tanner grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow laws in a neighborhood of activists, including her own mother, whom she calls her biggest inspiration.
“My mother did a lot of work in the community, and I followed in her lead. She used to say, ‘You owe something to someone for your existence.’ I think she had a point,” Tanner said. “Growing up in the South, where there were colored water fountains, there were bathrooms you couldn’t go to, and seeing all the nonsense things that were going on at that time, I think it made me want to try to make a difference.”
Colorado has the Air Force to thank for Tanner’s westward relocation. Her husband’s military service brought her civil service to Denver, where he was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base and she worked for the U.S. Department of Interior. Once their third child started grade school, Tanner enrolled at Metro State College, now MSU Denver, and pursued a degree in political science while spending scholarship money on babysitting.
“Not only did I get a lot of theory, but I got a lot of practical experience by being with students of all different ages and all different cultures. We had Bob Clifton’s political science class – I remember some heavy debates in there – and Dr. Weston’s class,” Tanner recalls, 44 years after graduation.
She then worked for Lt. Gov. George Brown and state Sen. Regis Groff before launching her own campaign for the Colorado House of Representatives, where she served five terms starting in 1984.
“When I first got to the House, I thought, ‘I’m here and have no experience,’ but then I found out 95 percent of them knew less than I knew, so it worked out OK,” Tanner said.
From 1994-2001, she served in the Colorado Senate, where she was selected for the influential joint budget committee. In her 16 years in the state legislature, Tanner worked toward legislation on an abandoned baby law, civil rights for women and minorities and parental rights for adoptive parents.
More than 50 babies have been saved in Colorado since the safe haven law was enacted in 2000, and well into retirement Tanner received calls from law enforcement and health care connections every time a baby was rescued.
For these and numerous other contributions to the state of Colorado and the city of Denver, Tanner was recognized by Mayor Michael Hancock, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and Governor John Hickenlooper in October. Hickenlooper declared Oct. 27, 2017, as “The Honorable Gloria Travis Tanner Day” while Hancock presented her with a gold challenge coin.
“That meant a lot to me because Michael – the honorable Michael Hancock – worked in my campaign when he was a freshman in college. My campaign manager used to say all the time, ‘Give it to Michael, he’ll get it done.’ And he’s the mayor of our city now. That really touched me,” Tanner said.
On Jan. 12, 2018, Tanner was honored by her alma mater with MSU Denver’s first ever Alumni Achievement Award.
“You never work toward awards. When you get them, you’re thankful for them and you appreciate them,” Tanner said, before sharing advice for future community leaders. “You have to get involved in it first. Once you get involved, then you have to listen to others and come up with your own creative ideas. You can’t do it by staying home and saying, ‘I want change to happen.’ You have to be a part of the change.”
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