by: Artika R. Tyner
What is in your hands to make a difference in the world? This is a question that I ask not only of myself but also of my students. This question is of critical importance since our youth are the architects of the future. History has shown us that young people have been at the forefront of social change movements whether it be the Freedom Riders of our past or the Dream Defenders of our present. The energy of our youth fuels social change. Young people have demonstrated how to take a bold stand for liberty and justice for all.
Share your leadership story with your students
Your leadership story is shaped by your experiences. I grew up as a child witness to the War on Drugs. I watched as our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles entered the prison gates. They later returned back home with a permanent “scarlet letter” which read “F” for felon. The label of felon excluded our community from access to jobs and even the ballot box.
I am also a proud native of the Rondo community. Our community served as the economic engine and community hub for African Americans until the late 1960s. Our community experienced a process of racial removal with the construction of the interstate 94 freeway. The freeway was constructed in the heart of Rondo. It displaced both Black businesses and Black residents. This led to a loss of economic power and community strength.
These two experiences shaped my worldview and set the course of my leadership journey. I became determined to use my education as a tool in the struggle for justice. I recognized that law is a language of power. Hence, I decided to become well versed in this language in order to serve my community. My first step was enrolling in law school and becoming a civil rights attorney. In fact, this was a dream come true since I always wanted to become Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire. Basically, Wonder woman with a law degree and an afro. I share with my students about my personal journey in order to inspire them to lead authentically. As we share our stories, my students discover their mission, vision, and purpose. These are the core pillars of leadership.
I remind my students: there is a beckoning call to promote justice and freedom. Answering the call is the recognition that we lead to change the world. This is a simple yet profound statement related to each individual’s capacity to influence the world through the exercise of leadership. Leadership provides a vehicle to change the world day by day, moment by moment.
Build your Justice League in the classroom
Members of the Justice League serve as gladiators of justice. They are the defenders of the rights of the people. Wonder woman said it best: “Only love can truly save the world…I fight and I give. Fight for what the world could be.” As an educator, I realized that I could not accomplish my mission of making a difference in the world alone. Look at Batman and Robin. They were a dynamic duo. Therefore, I enlisted the assistance of the modern day “Justice League,” a group of courageous law students, public policy, and graduate students who are determined to leave the world a better place than how they found it. The classroom is the training ground where I prepare my students to become leaders and social change agents.
In the classroom, I created a space for re-imagining education by placing an explicit focus on leadership development and social justice advocacy. In my TEDx talk, I shared my experience of transforming the classroom into a learning laboratory where students engage in a robust exchange of ideas and develop innovative solutions to the pressing social justice challenges of our time. My team works in partnership with community members to lead social change through criminal justice reform:
The team has raised awareness about the tangled web of mass incarceration. It has far too many entry points but far fewer exit points. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with over 2 million people behind bars. The rate of incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color. According to Michelle Alexander (Author, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), there are “more black men are under the control of the criminal justice system in America today than who were enslaved in the 1800s.” Our team has researched and developed strategies for ending mass incarceration. We also work to support job development, educational opportunities, and economic development.
Further, the team has joined policy campaigns like Restore the Vote (supporting voting rights restoration for people who are incarcerated or on probation/parole) and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (advocating for fair, reasonable and just prison phone call rates) in order to advance policy reform related to the criminal justice system.
What is in your hands to make a difference in the world? This leadership challenge extends beyond the constraints of the four walls of my classroom to the homes, community centers, schools and public meeting spaces across the globe. We each have within our hands – power. The type of transformative power needed to address the social justice challenges of our time. The transformative power to look beyond race, tribe or creed to realize the stake in our common humanity and our shared destiny.
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, lawyer, author, sought after speaker, and advocate for justice. At the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Dr. Tyner serves as the founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership, and Social Justice. She is committed to training students to serve as social justice engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom. In recognition of her leadership and service, she is the recipient of more than two dozen awards that include: Women in Business, American Small Business Champion, International Educator Citizen and American Bar Association Difference Makers.
She has been featured in a variety of media outlets. She is a prolific, award-winning author of adult and children’s books that includes: “Amazing Africa: A to Z” and “The Leader’s Journey: A Guide to Discovering the Leader Within.” She serves as a global citizen by supporting education, entrepreneurship, and women’s leadership initiatives in Africa. Dr. Tyner is the founder of Planting People Growing Justice, an organization committed to promoting literacy and diversity in books.
Photo credit: Chris Jung