Planting People, Growing Justice: A New Definition of Leadership

By  Artika R. Tyner

The social justice challenges experienced by marginalized communities across the nation are far-reaching and pervasive.  These challenges are exemplified through issues that negatively impact the quality of life experienced by millions of people, ranging from addressing the growing poverty rate to providing access to legal services. Currently 46 million people, or one in seven residents, live in poverty in the United States. Food stamps is the only source of income for 2 million families. For far too many Americans, experiencing poverty is commonplace. Regarding access to justice, Legal Services Corporation reports that 80 percent of the civil needs of poor people are not being met because of “chronically and grossly” underfunded legal services and pro bono programs. The widening justice gap creates obstacles to the protection of legal rights.

To eradicate barriers like these, a new definition of leadership must be embraced which draws upon the assets of the community stakeholders and promotes collective engagement. My leadership model of “planting people, growing justice” provides a framework for this new definition.  It recognizes the power of people to transform systems and promote justice. Further, my model gives a new definition to the role of leader by recognizing the ability of each individual to serve and lead in their communities. “Planting people, growing justice” provides a framework for lawyers who are committed to leading social change through the integration of three pillars: 1) initiation of social change initiatives; 2) cultivation of collective leadership; and 3) promotion of public policy advocacy. The following paragraphs will explore how pillars 1 and 2 influence the role of lawyer as leader and the application of social justice lawyering techniques.

PILLAR 1: Initiation of social change iniatives

The first pillar focuses on the imminent need to address social justice challenges that exist in our communities. It recognizes that social change emerges through collective engagement and shared leadership. This type of leadership occurs through a four-step process. The four steps are: 1) addressing a dire need; 2) asking questions, sharing stories; 3) enlisting partners; and 4) unleashing moral imagination. The byproducts of the implementation of these four steps are planting people (working together collaboratively to build and sustain social change) and growing justice (creating systemic change).

The Process of Planting People (Community Empowerment Paradigm)


Planting People

“Planting people” is an organic process, which yields a great harvest over time.  It starts from the ground up, as a seed is planted until it takes root. This seed represents resistance against marginalization and oppression to further the cause of social justice. The seed also signifies unity amongst community stakeholders. Together, they are able to build a shared vision of a just society and engage in community-building. As the seed begins to sprout, community members start to view themselves as leaders with the capacity to address their own challenges and realize their power to resist oppression.  This is an ongoing process of collective engagement, perseverance, teamwork, and diligence. The ultimate result is creating social change which equates to reaping a harvest of justice, fairness, and equity.

Growing Justice

“Growing justice” is the materialization of planting people. Community members can apply these principles to promote justice and the common good. This process of social change can be envisioned through the continual growth of the Banyan tree.  The Banyan tree as a metaphor illuminates the image of the partnership between community members and other key stakeholders working together in solidarity to eradicate marginalization. Unique to this tree is its ability to grow upward, since new roots are formed from the branches.  Each community member represents a branch as their leadership voice begins to emerge. These branches grow upward together and are intertwined as they exercise their united power and utilize their voices to advocate for social change. They in turn create new roots that establish a firm foundation for the tree and extend to new growth. The process of social change, like the growth of the Banyan tree, symbolizes power and unity.

Example of Planting People, Growing Justice

An example of the process of “planting people, growing justice” is illustrated through the work of the Community Justice Project (CJP) at the University of St. Thomas School of Law Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services. The CJP is a civil rights clinic which focuses on bridge-building with community stakeholders and problem-solving in distressed communities. CJP’s director, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds,  focuses on the dire need of addressing the quality of life disparities experienced by African American males. One such example is her leadership in the establishment of Brotherhood, Inc.

Brotherhood, Inc. is a community-led initiative that began in 2007 with the mission  to “enable African-American youths and young adults to envision and achieve successful futures.” The focus of Brotherhood, Inc. is to address the overrepresentation of African American males in the justice system and eliminate the unemployment gap impacting these men. Levy-Pounds suggested that the community members explore the Homeboy Industries model in Los Angeles, California as a possible model for establishing a narrowly tailored reintegration/job training program in the Twin Cities. This is a one-stop shop model that offers employment through social enterprises, job skills development, and life/practical skills development. The founder of Homeboy Industries, Father Greg Boyle, has a mantra: “Nothing can stop a bullet like a job.” Levy-Pounds and the community stakeholders believe that they have a chance to stop many bullets by aiding African American males in reaching success, strengthening their communities, and uplifting their families. The CJP and community stakeholders have planted a new generation of emerging African American male leaders. Today, these leaders are now growing justice in the community through their commitment to service to the community and promotion of economic development through their social enterprise, Brotherhood Brew.


Traditionally, the definition of leadership is often limited to the identification of key traits and associated with a position or title. However, leadership is exemplified through collective engagement and cultivation of the leadership capacity of each individual. This definition of leadership focuses on what the community can contribute together to the process of social change. It recognizes that leadership is about community stakeholders exercising their power to influence. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described a leader’s influencing capability when he stated, “I refuse to accept the idea that man cannot influence the unfolding events that surround him.” Service is a key vehicle for the exercise of influence in addressing the contemporary social justice issues of our time.

The theory of “planting people, growing justice” is informed by Robert Greenleaf’s principles of servant leadership. Servant leadership focuses on each individual’s ability to serve and lead. According to Greenleaf, “it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” The servant leader recognizes service as being paramount to community-building and deems service as a moral imperative.  Through serving, everyone can contribute to the growth and development of a strong community.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the significance of service in his speech titled “The Drum Major Instinct” when he stated:

“If you want to be important – wonderful.  If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful.  But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  That’s the new definition of greatness.”

King’s words offer an alternative paradigm of leadership that emphasizes the importance of service and the interrelatedness of the human experience. This new paradigm empowers each individual to become a servant leader.

The progress of a servant leader is evaluated by raising the question: do you empower others to lead?  This question introduces a new definition of leadership which is action-oriented and community-centered. This establishes the theme of “planting people, growing justice” as the center of social change efforts. Lawyer-leaders who lead social change acknowledge that each individual has the power to lead and power to make a difference. They are also planters of the seeds of social change.


“Planting people, growing justice” provides lawyers with a framework for serving as lead problem solvers and change agents. This is a new definition of leadership which is inclusive and collaborative in nature, with the goal in mind of building and sustaining social change. It advances a vision of lawyering where lawyers work in partnership with community members to create a shared vision of justice and make this vision a reality. 


About the Author

Dr. Artika R. Tyner is the director of diversity and a member of the clinical law faculty at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and is a member of the ABA Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline. She can be reached at 651.962.4960.

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