Prof. Artika Tyner is the director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, where she focuses on civil and human rights and criminal justice reform. She also runs a nonprofit that promotes literacy and diversity in books. And she’s the author of children’s books, a series on the fight for Black rights, as well as several leadership guides. The Rondo neighborhood native talks about her latest release, “The Inclusive Leader: Taking Intentional Action for Justice and Equity” and the ways she works to enact social change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You began your career in elementary education. What changed your trajectory?
A: I didn’t think about all the social justice issues that come right into the classroom: homelessness, food insecurity, access to early childhood education. We had some kindergartners who couldn’t recognize basic colors or letters — preparation that sets the trajectory for the rest of your K-12 experience.
But what frustrates you is where you find your passion. And I thought I could address many of the challenges facing young people with two tools in my hand, one of law, and one of public policy.
Q: Though you grew up poor, those students opened your eyes to a new degree of hardship.
A: I never knew I was poor until we filled out our FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. I was like, “How did we live?”
My mother sewed our clothes, made our jam and our bread. I never knew that we were living in poverty ourselves because of the kinship network within the Rondo community. I went to Walker West academy for music. We had all these enriching experiences where we didn’t have to think about how much money we had, because we were a part of a broader village or community. Abundance was our way of life.
Q: What connects your many roles, from academic to attorney, to advocate, to author?
A: To be able to tell those underrepresented stories: The stories of folks who are living at the margins of society, but whose stories should be at the forefront of agenda setting.
Q: In your new book, you share what you’ve learned working as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professional for nearly 20 years. What most needs to change?
A: Instead of looking at DEI as just a moral imperative, as something that feels or potentially looks good, it’s reframing it as a business imperative. How do we ensure that we’re cultivating the type of talent that we need for innovation and sustainability within a global economy?
Q: More specifically, how can organizations cultivate diverse talent?
A: Oftentimes I go into an organization and the first defense mechanism is, “Oh, I have a Black friend. I have a female mentee.” All those things are interesting, but I want to see the data. I want to see your evaluation metrics. I want to know the trajectory of how someone goes from an entry-level position to become CEO of your organization. Is it possible or is it not?
Q: You stress how hiring diverse employees isn’t enough — you have to retain them.
A: Everyone loves to say they created a pipeline for success. OK, you’ve brought some numbers, but do you retain them? This is the inclusion piece. Do they have access to the same opportunities? If you look at data, no matter the sector, yes, we might be able to get to a little bit of diversity at midlevel management. Beyond that, it drops off.
Q: Your book describes several barriers to advancement faced by employees of color. Can you give an example of the impact of cultural taxation?
A: After the murder of Mr. Floyd, nearly all of my mentees were asked to do DEI work for their organizations. If you’re working in a law firm and someone tells you to do DEI work, you know they don’t care about your career. Because if you’re young in your career at a law firm, you’re supposed to be focusing on billable hours and your subject matter expertise.
Q: Instead of pointing out their Black friends, how can people be true allies?
A: We always want to focus on relationships cross-culturally, at the friend level. Let’s focus on systems and on systems change. And then we can think about really creating these friendships. We can assure our friends that we’ve given them a promise that we’re taking that intentional action for justice and equity. Not just for them, but for all of us. Because I believe in this idea of the power of human capital being tapped into, of the innovation, of the creativity, of the shared humanity and common destiny.
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569