A young girl was stopped suddenly by the image on a book cover, featuring an African American girl with glasses and a superhero cape.
"That girl looks like me!" she exclaimed.
It was a children's book, "Justice Makes a Difference," that Artika Tyner co-wrote, one of the many books by diverse authors or featuring diverse characters that Tyner's nonprofit is distributing to Twin Cities kids.
Tyner, a St. Paul civil rights attorney, law professor and author, started the Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute in 2014 to boost literacy rates for children of color by distributing culturally relevant books. Now, thanks to a boost in funding, she's distributing extra books ahead of the new school year, and she's on pace to hit a milestone in October, doling out 15,000 books.
"There are other organizations that donate books just in general. But with the population we serve, we're looking to create those mirrors — those positive representations of children of color in books — and then windows — for all children to build those cultural bridges in real time," said Tyner, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas.
"There's not any other organization in our region or specifically nationally that focuses on diverse books like we are."
Minnesota faces wide racial disparities in many health and educational outcomes, including literacy. In 2021, about 48% of Minnesota third-graders achieved state reading standards, but only 32% of third-graders of color were proficient, compared to 57% of their white peers, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.
Planting People Growing Justice (PPGJ) gives out books to kids at schools and to community groups, and hosts writing competitions. Tyner was inspired to launch the organization after working with people who were learning how to read while in prison.
"I knew if I wanted to really create new pathways to success, and to address and end mass incarceration, that I had to invest more in the community. And what better way to do that than through education and literacy initiatives?" she said.
Fewer than 10% of books are written by an author of color or feature a diverse character, Tyner said, something she's trying to change by promoting diverse books through the organization's bookstore (which is located online and at Gideon's Barber Shop in Minneapolis).
She's also written nearly 30 books — from children's books to leadership books for adults.
"I never had that growing up," Tyner said. "To be able to give that gift to young people, to see a positive representation on the pages of books, learning about unsung heroes, learning about their history, for me, that's the greatest blessing that I could have."
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2017, Tyner has expanded the all-volunteer organization and hopes to soon hire paid staffers to sustain the nonprofit, which has a modest $200,000 annual budget. (To donate or for more details, go to ppgjli.org.)
"We have to take it to scale to have an even deeper impact," she said.
She's also getting a big financial boost this fall, thanks to a $10,000 grant from NBA player Jrue Holiday and his wife, Lauren Holiday, a former U.S. soccer player and Olympic gold medalist, who started the JLH Social Impact Fund to support Black-led or Black-owned organizations. The couple is also slated to give up to $10,000 in matching funds after Tyner raised more than $10,000 in an August fundraiser that coincided with Black Philanthropy Month.
The money will help Planting People Growing Justice provide an additional 3,000 books to kids this year.
Tyner is also aiming to expand her efforts to address the literacy crisis statewide. The St. Paul-based Bush Foundation named Tyner one of 24 winners of its prestigious Bush fellowship earlier this year, and the up-to-$100,000 award will help Tyner do just that, bolstering her skills and efforts.
"Dr. Tyner is a magnificent example of a leader in the community that we love to support. She's done extraordinary work already," said Damon Shoholm, the grantmaking director of the Bush Foundation.
"I'm in awe of her, as I am many of these fellows for what they do across their communities," he added. "And they do it, more often than not, if not always, without a formal charge from somebody, without the resources behind them that some others may have to do this work, and without the positional power or authority to make these changes. They just do it because they think it's the right thing to do."
Tyner's goal isn't just to close literacy gaps, but to inspire the next generation of community leaders.
"Oftentimes we can observe a problem, but the reality of it is we need to be willing to roll up our sleeves and create the solution," she said.
"And that's what I'm committed to doing."