As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to become a lawyer. I grew up as a child witness to the War on Drugs during which I saw my community destroyed as our moms/dads, sisters/brothers, aunts/uncles entered the prison gates for nonviolent drug offenses. They were locked up and locked out. Locked out of society. They returned to the community with a permanent scarlet letter that read “F” for felon which restricted their access to jobs, voting, and even housing. Our community was broken. Hence, I was convinced that the law is a language of power. I was determined to become well-versed in this language in order to fight for the rights of my community.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
My most transformative course was my first English course taught by Professor Kristina Deffenbacher. I discovered my passion for writing and research. I learned the importance of how storytelling shapes cultures and creates unity. I also discovered that I had a gift. My writing was a powerful tool to challenge narratives, transform policies, and promote community engagement. I made a commitment during this course to serve as a lioness who writes for justice. As says the African proverb, "Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."
You are an educator, author, speaker, and advocate for justice. What inspired your career path, and what do you find most fulfilling about the work you do?
My career path was inspired by my foremothers and mentors. I am a first-generation college student. I remember my Grandma Nellie fostering an early love for reading and learning. She was a domestic worker, hence she was determined that I would never work with my hands. I have also been blessed with many mentors throughout my lifetime. As a Page Scholar, Justice Page and Mrs. Page taught me the importance of service in the community. They also challenged me to inspire and motivate the next generation of our youth to become leaders and change agents.
The most fulfilling aspect of my work is serving as an educator. My motto is “we see a problem, we create a solution.” I work with my students to create solutions to the most pressing social justice challenges of our times. We use an interdisciplinary approach to engage in strategic problem solving to address racial disparities in the criminal justice and education systems.
You are the founder of the nonprofit Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, which utilizes the arts and humanities to promote literacy and diversity in children’s books. Tell us more about the mission of this organization, and how you became involved in this work.
Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute seeks to create social change by inspiring the next generation of leaders. We achieve this goal by promoting literacy and diversity in books. Addressing the national reading crisis is personal and important to me. As a civil rights attorney, many of my clients learned how to read in prison. The reality is:
· 1 in 4 American children are not reading at grade level by 4th grade.
· If you are not reading at grade level by 4th grade, you are four times more likely to drop out of school.
· If you drop out, you are also three and a half times more likely to be arrested during your lifetime.
We organized PPGJLI as a grassroots organization in my living room. We began with a goal of donating 1,000 books. We have since donated over 17,000 diverse books and reached 5,000+ children through our Leaders are Readers program.
What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career? Why do you think a well-rounded arts and sciences education is important in today’s society?
My liberal arts education provided me with the tools to engage in the art of changemaking. Daily, I combine my talent as an artist with my technical competence to reimagine, create and build a better world. My work as a poet and author has given me the tools to pause, reflect and build. This informs my strategy and action plan for addressing racial and ethnic disparities. My work as an attorney, educator, and business leader provides me with channels to achieve these goals.
A well-rounded arts and sciences education is vitally important. It should start with our youth. It will provide them with the tools to challenge themselves and change the world around them. These tools include critical thinking, restorative justice, analytical, team building, and oral advocacy skills. They will leverage these tools to solve complex challenges through a robust exchange of ideas and strategic action.
Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?
I would like to learn more about economics and business development. My goal is to build a Black ecosystem that aids in bridging the racial wealth gap in my hometown of Rondo and nationwide. I will support small businesses in growing and scaling in order to meet the needs of emerging markets. I will also aid in training the next generation for the jobs of the future.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
The best advice I was given is from my mother. She admonished me to “be the best original, be yourself.” This advice has carried me throughout my life journey. It is a daily reminder that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I have a unique set of gifts and talents. It is my responsibility to share my gifts with the world by leaving the world a better place than how I found it.
What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I am reading Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One by Majora Carter. This book has provided me with valuable tools for restoring our community’s ecosystem. I am from the Rondo community, a historical Black economic hub located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Our community experienced racial removal with the construction of Interstate 94 due to the enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. We lost our homes and future intergenerational wealth. My goal is to rebuild our community as a vibrant and sustainable economic and cultural hub.
I am listening to podcasts on ShelettaMakesMeLaugh platform, which provides a wealth of resources related to community development.
Published on March 7, 2023.