Dr. Artika Tyner Talks About Her Dedication In Changing The Legal System

January 10 19:30 2023

Many people believe that the legal system in the USA is not fair to all. Some people believe that money talks, and the more money you have the better legal defense you will receive. One person who has dedicated her life in improving the legal system and creating equal access to justice, is Dr. Artika Tyner.

Dr. Artika Tyner, the founder of Planting People Growing Justice™ Leadership Institute was Honored as Attorney of the Year 2022 by Minnesota Lawyer for outstanding service to the profession. This well-deserved award will hopefully inspire others in the legal profession to help improve the legal system and make it more equal.

One inspiring mission Dr. Artika Tyner has undertaken is to encourage more lawyers to take on more pro bono work, and she is succeeding.

We decided to sit down with Dr. Artika Tyner to find out more about her work to change the legal system and she she feels about receiving an award for her dedication. This is what she had to say.

Dr. Artika Tyner, can you tell me when you first became interested in the law?

I became interested in the law after my student teaching experience. As a student teacher, I knew that “education is the passport for the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” (as Malcolm X wisely stated). But for far too many students of color, this passport was permanently revoked. There was the young black boy who struggled to read at grade level through no fault of his own. He never had access to an early childhood education program. He was not alone 96% of eligible children never have the chance to attend programs like Head Start. When he struggled, we all struggle. Our children are broken.

It became clear to me that at the intersection of race and poverty— our policies are broken. I had a choice to make. I could stand on the sidelines and observe the problems. I could simply say “isn’t that too bad” or I could be a part of the solution. I recognized that all life is interconnected so I decided to be the change by becoming a lawyer.

What attracted you to the legal profession?

I recognized that the law is a language of power. I wanted to become well-versed in the law to fight for the rights of my community. As a child witness of the War on Drugs, I watched as our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles entered the prison gates for nonviolent drug offenses. They returned back home with a permanent Scarlet Letter that read “F” for felon. This restricted their access to jobs, housing, and even the ballot box. This experience ignited my passion for learning more about the law and serving as an advocate for justice.

You are determined to make changes in the legal system and promote racial justice, why is that?

I find inspiration from the lawyers who paved the way for my advocacy as a civil rights attorney. One such example is the pioneering educator and attorney, Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston dedicated his life’s work to burying Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine of separate but equal. He trained the next generation of Black lawyers who would create new inroads to justice and freedom. This included legal giants like Thurgood Marshall (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice), Oliver Hill, and Spottswood Robinson III. Houston spent decades laying a solid foundation for the advancement of racial justice through case law. Although he did not live to see it, he laid the groundwork for the school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. He admonished lawyers not to forsake our responsibility to advance racial justice when he stated “the lawyer is either a social engineer or parasite on society.” I hope to never be in the latter category by taking a stand for justice.

Daily, I renew my commitment to using my legal training to make a difference. I use my ability to analyze complex social issues to develop sustainable and durable solutions. I use my pen and paper to write for justice. I lift my voice to give voice to the voice the issues impacting my community

You have been Honored as Attorney of the Year 2022 by Minnesota Lawyer, how did that recognition make you feel?

I am humbled by the recognition. I dedicate the award to my foremothers who challenged me to lead by example and make a difference in my community. My first role model was my grandma Nellie who served in our community each and every day. She fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, clothed those in need, and visited the sick. Her example inspired me to redefine leadership. She did not have a formal position or title. Her leadership came from her heart and illuminated the world.

You are the founder of Planting People Growing Justice™ Leadership Institute, can you explain more about the organization?

I founded our nonprofit, Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, which focuses on promoting literacy and diversity in books. Our goal is to end the nation’s reading crisis. This is personal for me because far too many of my clients learned how to read while in prison. What a miscarriage of justice. This meant my clients could not read their indictments or advocate effectively for their rights. This is a widespread challenge when over 60 percent of offenders are illiterate and 85 percent of youth in juvenile facilities cannot read. According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”

This is evidenced by the fact that one in four American children cannot read at grade level by fourth grade. When you are unable to read at this point, you are four times to drop out of school. You are also three and a half times more likely to be arrested during your lifetime. I was determined to eliminate one of the key entry points into the tangled web of mass inceration by focusing on literacy.

At Planting People Growing Justice, we are committed to growing futures. One book at a time, one child at a time. To date, we have donated over diverse 15,000 books and inspired 5,000 students through our school visits. We host our award-winning Leaders are Readers program at schools and community organizations. By having diverse authors read their books and share their multicultural stories, we aim to encourage reading and inspire future BIPOC literary artists to share their own stories. Our read-aloud events promote cultural preservation and reflect their rich cultural heritage.

There is a concern that not everyone is equal when it comes to the law, and only those with money can properly defend themselves, would you agree with that, and if so, how would you like to see that change?

It is our responsibility as lawyers to provide the support and resources needed to create equal access to justice. Human Rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson warns, “we have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” Through our probono work, we can bridge some of these gaps. We can help those in need to not only understand their legal rights but also provide the legal representation needed to protect their rights.  

You are motivating attorneys to do more pro bono work, how successful are you with that campaign?

My work focuses on inspiring lawyers to serve as leaders. The preamble to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct outlines this moral responsibility to lead change: “As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.” I leverage my book, The Lawyer as Leader: How to Plant People and Grow Justice, as a blueprint for strategic action. The book outlines the steps needed to advance social change which include: finding your passion, redefining leadership, finding a way to get involved, and connecting with others who share your passion areas and commitment to make a difference. I measure my success by how many attorneys I have challenged to pick up the mantle of leadership by serving in their communities. I have reached thousands of attorneys around the world through my keynote addresses, CLEs, and lectures. Together, we are bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

If you could change just one thing about the legal system, what would it be and why?

I would transform legal education and continuing legal education by placing an explicit focus on training lawyers to be inclusive leaders. This will provide lawyers with the tools to build a more just and inclusive society. My book, The Inclusive Leader: Taking Intentional Action for Justice and Equity, provides a pathway for law students and lawyers to effect change through reflecting on and grappling with unconscious and implicit biases, encouraging honest discussions, and taking action to change organizational behavior for the better. Competence in these areas manifests in improved client services, strong teams, and the betterment of society. I developed my Leadership Framework for Action™ which provides four stages of learning:

  • · Intrapersonal (engaging in self-discovery)
  • · Interpersonal (building an authentic relationship with others)
  • · Organizational (establishing strategic outcomes and promoting equity)
  • · Societal (developing sustainable, durable solutions)

As learning and growth emerge in these stages, we can challenge bias in the legal system that impacts the administration of justice and procedural justice.

One of the big problems about working in the legal profession is the cost, not everyone can afford university bills, what can be done about that?

We can create more scholarship programs to help cover the costs. I received a scholarship from the Page Education Foundation. It was my golden ticket to success. It provided me with the financial resources to make my dreams possible. In addition, I received mentorship from Justice Alan C. Page and my senior mentor which served as a light on my path to law school and a career in law. Most importantly, I was inspired by Justice Page to serve and lead in my community. I mentored elementary school students and motivated them to pursue their dreams of attending college and building successful careers. 

You have already done so much for the legal profession, what are your goals for 2023?

I will continue teaching students about the law and training them to lead change. I will expand my efforts in training the next generation of law and public policy scholars. Through our nonprofit, I will collaborate with others to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. PPGJ will also be launching a new Constitution Day program and learning curriculum. Lastly, I am writing several legal-related children’s books that will focus on civil rights law, civics education, and community engagement.

About Dr. Artika Tyner

Dr. Artika Tyner is the founder of Planting People Growing Justice™ Leadership Institute. She’s a passionate educator, author, and advocate for justice. An engaging speaker and dynamic presenter on leadership, civil rights, diversity, and social justice topics, Dr. Tyner has helped audiences and organizations across the globe gain new tools for leading social change. Her goal is to teach, educate and inspire. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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