Planting People, Growing Justice: Training Students to Lead Social Change By: Dr. Artika R. Tyner

The social justice challenges of our time have created a pressing need for strong leaders to take a stand and initiate action. Presently, marginalized communities are facing immense social challenges, whether it be obtaining access to livable wage employment or securing affordable housing. In the time of social crisis and when there is a pressing need for social change, “great necessities call forth great leaders” (Bennis & Nanus, 1985). Today, there is a beckoning call for “great leaders,” and students who are passionate about social justice are prime candidates for assuming these roles. However, these students must become equipped with the tools required to effect social change in a comprehensive and holistic manner. This begins with developing core leadership competencies/dispositions in the arenas of servant leadership and transformational leadership. The classroom is the learning laboratory for applied practice therefore it should be transformed into the training ground for leadership development.

Social Justice in the 21st Century

            The social justice issues of the 21st century are multifaceted and interrelated. One such example of this is the rising poverty rates and emergence of income inequalities/wealth distribution gaps.  Currently 46 million people, or one in seven residents, live in poverty in the United States; this creates a barrier to accessing the legal system and to exercising political power (Short, 2012). For 2 million families food stamps is their only source of income (Edelman, 2012). The poor are often marginalized, feel excluded from the rule making/public policy process, and lack the allies needed to facilitate change in political agendas and budgetary allocations that impact their social and basic human needs (Bezdek, 2004). “Needed now are theories and practices that support liberty and opportunity for the poor and disenfranchised, in their contests with the rich and super-franchised” (Bezdek, 2004). Social justice educators are developing these concepts in the field while serving as practitioner-scholars. One such example is the work of renowned social justice educator, Dr. Edgar Cahn. Cahn has originated theories and practices that focus on eradicating poverty and training students to lead in the promotion of social justice. Dr. Cahn developed the theory of co-production, which focuses on the creation of a shared vision of justice and strengthening of communities. The core principles of co-production are:  an asset perspective (each one has strengths); honoring real work (the work the market fails to value); reciprocity (empowering the recipient); community (acknowledging our interdependence); and respect (each voice is owed a listening) (Cahn, 2011).

In addition to the theory of co-production, my theory of “planting people, growing justice” offers a complementary framework for leading social change through the integration of three pillars: 1) initiation of social change initiatives, 2) cultivation of leadership, and 3) promotion of public policy advocacy. This blog will focus primarily on the second pillar and how we as social justice educators can train our students to lead in the process of social change.

Leading Change

Leadership is often viewed as positional or hierarchical. It has also been characterized as an innate set of skills endowed to a select few. However, leadership in the social justice context is exemplified through collective engagement and cultivation of the leadership capacity of each individual. It focuses on what the collective can contribute together to the process of social change. How can we lead together in the fight for justice?  The operative word is together since the purpose of leadership is to strengthen the leadership capacities of others and aid them in unveiling their assets. This is a transition from the role of a social justice professional to an authentic collaboration- the role of community partner. This type of leadership is representative of the organic leadership category where “the leader is part of a collective that through dialogue crafts a vision to challenge dominant ideologies, structures, and practices” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2009).

The role of community partner is informed by two theoretical frameworks: servant leadership and transformational leadership. Servant leadership provides a theoretical framework of service that inspires each individual to serve and lead. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf, 1970). It requires a leader to beckon to the call of servanthood (Autry, 2004). The leader’s primary purpose is to serve others and promote the common good (George, 2003). According to Adair (2005), “Democracy needs experts, representatives, and leaders, but it needs them as servants and not as masters.” The servant leader utilizes his/her professional training as a tool to serve the needs of others.

Transformational leadership focuses on the process of engagement that occurs between leaders and followers which aids in raising standards of morality and upholding collective values. The transformational leader inspires others and motivates them to seize the future by bringing their shared vision of justice to fruition.

In essence, through both frameworks, the progress of a leader is evaluated by raising the question, “[d]o you grow the people you lead?” (McGee-Cooper & Looper, 2001).  This question introduces a new concept of leadership which is community centered. This establishes the theme of: “planting people, growing justice” as the center of social change efforts. Therefore, leaders who lead social change acknowledge that each individual has the capacity to lead and the active participation of every person is essential for social transformation to occur.

Tips for Training Students to Lead Change

Social justice educators can apply practical strategies for building the leadership capacities of students. Teaching strategies include:

Engaging in reflective learning: Reflective learning serves as a key instructional tool for teaching leadership development. Students will gain a deeper understanding of what leadership means and how to establish their own leadership platform. Reflective learning begins with students defining leadership. For example, when exploring servant leadership, students should begin with describing this type of leadership. For example, a servant is characterized as one who expresses submission or debt to another; while a leader offers direction to others and uses influence to create change. A combination of these definitions describes the characteristics of a servant leader.

Identifying one’s leadership characteristics: There are certain core leadership characteristics, like the ability to create a vision, exercise emotional intelligence and promote collaboration. Students can use a leadership assessment to aid in identifying their leadership characteristics. One such example is the assessment tool entitled: “Becoming a servant leader: do you have what it takes?” (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2007). Following completion of this assessment, students should discuss with their classmates their findings. Students can then be divided into teams to compare and contrast their leadership qualities. Each student should also draft a reflective essay related to their leadership characteristics and how to apply these skills. Another valuable leadership assessment tool is Strengthsfinder (found in Now Discover your Strengths), which identifies one’s top five areas of strength (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). This leadership assessment can aid students in ascertaining their leadership qualities, creating a strategic plan for implementing these strengths and then continuing to enhance these strengths throughout one’s career (Tyner, 2008).


As social justice educators, we must continue to challenge our students to lead in the process of social change by engaging in community partnerships through an assets-based community development approach. This begins with raising our students’ awareness about the social challenges of our time. The next step is training our students to lead in the process of social change by adopting the attributes of a servant leader and transformational leader. This will plant the seeds for social change and our society will reap the harvest of justice.

Artika Tyner is an attorney, educator, writer and community advocate. Dr. Tyner is a member of the Clinical Law Faculty in the University of St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services, Community Justice Project (CJP) Legal Clinic. She is also the director of diversity and chair of the Multicultural Affairs Committee.


Adair, J. E. (2005). How to grow leaders: The seven key principles of effective leadership development. London, England: Kogan Page.

Autry, J. A. (2004). The servant leader: How to build a creative team, develop great morale, and improve bottom-line performance. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Barbuto, J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2007, October). Becoming a servant leader: Do you have what it takes?. NebGuide. Retrieved from

Bennis, W.G., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charges. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Bezdek, B. L. (2004). To forge new hammers of justice: Deep-six the doing-teaching dichotomy and embrace the dialectic of “doing theory.” University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, 4, 301.

Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2009). Learning as a way of leading: Lessons from the struggle for social justice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. Free Press.

Cahn, E. (2011). Priceless money: Banking time for changing times. Washington, DC: Time Banks.

Edelman, P. (2012). So rich, so poor. New York, NY: The New Press.

George, B. (2003). Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader (Rev ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center. (Original work published 1970).

McGee-Cooper, A., & Looper, G. (2001). The essentials of servant-leadership: Principles in practice. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications.

Short, K. U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau. (2012). Supplemental poverty measure: 2011 (P60-244). Retrieved from website:

Tyner, A. (2008). Discovering your strengths and reaping the benefits. ABA The Young Lawyer, 17(3),

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