Artika Tyner Q&A

September 7, 2021
Artika Tyner broadens minds through literature and advocacy.

“Leadership is about having a vision for justice. We recognize that a vital part of leadership development is reading. Through the pages of books, we can learn about pioneering leaders like Yaa Asantewaa who dared to take a stand for justice or Phillis Wheatley who decided to write for justice. This can serve as a source of inspiration on our own leadership journey. Instead of just simply asking “how are you?” raise the question “What are you reading?” This is an invitation for us to pause, reflect and grow together.”

You’re the founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at the University of St. Thomas and a civil rights attorney. How does 2021 feel to you in the history of civil rights?

I am reminded of the words of the legendary civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston who laid the groundwork for the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. He stated: “ A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” This is truly a leadership challenge. We must make a decision to stand for justice. This means tearing down barriers to the ballot box, ending mass incarceration, ensuring access to livable wage jobs, to name a few. Houston also warned after a few early civil rights victories that there is still work to do. He warned: “ don’t shout soon.” We have made progress in some areas however we must work diligently to move us closer to a more just and inclusive society. We face persistent challenges in every quality of life indicator in the African American community from maternal health to the wealth gap. My teaching mantra is” we see a problem, we create a solution.” Now is the time to create sustainable solutions to longstanding racial injustices.

You’ve said that only about 10 percent of the children’s books in this country are written by diverse authors. When you were young did you have a difficult time finding books by authors with your background?

When I was young, I did not have books written by Black authors available to me. Nor did the books, reflect the experience of a young Black girl. This is why I am committed to creating books that serve as mirrors and windows for children. My publishing company, Planting People Growing Justice Press and Bookstore, creates mirrors for children of color to see themselves on the pages of books, and windows for all children to appreciate their cultural differences. PPGJ Books advances literacy among Black children preparing them for academic excellence and challenging them to discover the leader within.

You have written several books, including  a wonderful children’s book called Justice Makes a Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighters, Esq. How did that book happen?

The book was a community journey. We were seeking to reach two goals: promoting literacy and diversity in books. The character, Justice, naturally emerged as a young, gifted, and Black leader. She embodies a fierce determination and commitment to leaving the world a better place than how she found it. The entire book project from the conceptual model to production was guided by our community. Hence, the character, Justice, represents a rich cultural legacy following in the footsteps of our heroes and sheroes like Shirley Chisholm, Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells, and Ella Baker.

You publish books under your own imprint, Planting People Growing Justice Press, and have donated books around the world. What is your mission with the press?

Our mission is to provide key tools for leadership development. We want to inspire leaders of all ages to make a difference in the world. We remind youth that you are never too young to make a difference. We challenge people of all ages to redefine leadership. It is more than a title or position. Leadership is about having a vision for justice. We recognize that a vital part of leadership development is reading. Through the pages of books, we can learn about pioneering leaders like Yaa Asantewaa who dared to take a stand for justice or Phillis Wheatley who decided to write for justice. This can serve as a source of inspiration on our own leadership journey. Instead of just simply asking “how are you?” raise the question “What are you reading?” This is an invitation for us to pause, reflect and grow together.

You have shared that Alan Page is an inspiration for you, with the children’s books he has written. Have you ever considered a collaboration?

I became a Page Scholar in 1999. I will never forget the day that I received my scholarship letter in the mail. It was my “golden ticket” to the future as a first-generation college student. Justice Page and Mrs. Page are my role models. Through their work, they demonstrate the transformative power of investing in the future by inspiring youth to lead change. I collaborate with Justice Page through my volunteer work at the Page Education Foundation. I serve on the committee for the Elimination of Bias CLE. I also volunteer and serve as a mentor for countless Page Scholars.

You recently had a poem about your hometown neighborhood of Rondo selected as a sidewalk poem for St. Paul. Can you share part of it with us?

I am honored to be selected as a 2021 Sidewalk Poetry winner. My poem on my hometown, Rondo, and the transformative power of Afro-futurism, will be stamped into sidewalks across Saint Paul.

“I AM…Rondo and connected to a rich cultural history of unity, faith, and purpose.

I AM…my African roots. I AM…freedom and justice.”

My poem celebrates my Rondo heritage. Like countless other African American communities, the Rondo community was impacted by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The community was cut in half by the construction of highway I-94. This led to displacement, loss of generational wealth, and small business closures. I combined this history with my cultural roots in my motherland, the continent of Africa, in order to create the poem.

What is next for you?

Expanding my bookstore and publishing company. There is a reading crisis among Black children. On national tests last year, only 18 percent of black fourth-graders scored proficient or above in reading. Fourth-grade students who are not reading at grade level are four times more likely to drop out of school. Nearly nine in 10 children in the juvenile justice system are illiterate. PPGJ Books addresses the reading crisis among Black children and the failure of the industry to support BIPOC authors on two fronts:

PPGJ Bookstore provides Black children with books that help them discover joy in reading. This is critically important. A Black child who is not proficient in reading is more likely to drop out of school which increases the likelihood of future incarceration by 3.5 times. The PPGJ Bookstore sells books by BIPOC authors written for Black children directly to black children and their families. It also distributes these books through schools, libraries, community centers, and other organizations supporting Black child literacy. The bookstore is disrupting the megastore dominated market by offering a curated, diverse book list, virtual learning tools, and sponsoring reading encouragement events created for Black children.

PPGJ Publishing focuses on working with diverse authors and training the next generation of publishing professionals. Its training programs encourage BIPOC writers to write on social justice and leadership topics. Their output provides the manuscripts required by the publishing company and the books needed to fill the network of black-owned bookstores. PPGJ Books is forging a future for BIPOC authors and their books.

PPGJ Books specializes in the creation, promotion, and distribution of books written by BIPOC authors.

I’m also working on a documentary. Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo welcomed the people of the African Diaspora to return home for the Year of Return. Our group accepted the invitation and embarked on a pilgrimage back home. Our team is now producing a documentary, traveling exhibition, and K-12 curriculum on our journey. This will serve as a key tool for celebrating our cultural heritage and roots.

And of course expect to see more books from me on a bookshelf near you. When I am not training and equipping the next generation of social engineers in the classroom, I am working on new book projects. My current book projects:

  • African Women Leading Change (words of inspiration for emerging women leaders)
  • Akua is Great (picture book with positive affirmations for young children)
  • Kwanzaa (Traditions & Celebrations) (explores the history of Kwanzaa)