Talena Lachelle Queen ’95
Talena Lachelle Queen loved writing and planned to build a career in broadcast journalism when she arrived at what was then Montclair State College in 1991.
Looking back, Queen, who was recognized in 2018 as the first Poet Laureate for her hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and earned the New Jersey Clean Communities Council’s (NJCCC) “Education Award,” said her Montclair State education went beyond classroom curriculum.
“My professors were empowering,” she says. “They taught me that I could do anything.”
Queen did start her career in broadcast journalism but made several pivots, taking her to Seattle, Washington, for 18 years before returning to Paterson in 2015.
But those college lessons of empowerment are ones Queen still leans on and tries to pass on in her roles as a poet, an activist and a fifth-grade language arts teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Paterson.
“I want my students to know that their talent is unique to them and useful for their life,” she says. “It’s not about this grade or this moment, but about how we use those moments to inform our future.”
Queen has spent the last two decades finding ways to make an impact in her community. In 2011, she founded Her Best Self, a program of the National Black United Fund, creating a yearlong curriculum that matches young women with mentors who can help them build leadership skills as they do community projects and “live purposeful lives on purpose.”
“I want these girls to see that they can do anything,” Queen says. “You just have to plan it and stop having it be a dream and make it an action.”
As Paterson’s Poet Laureate, Queen organized an October poetry festival, and speaks at events throughout the region.
In August, Queen was recognized by the NJCCC for her efforts to place “Little Free Library” book lending boxes throughout the city and encouraging people and civic groups to voluntarily “adopt” those parks with funding and beautification efforts.
Queen says the program, which included poetry and storytelling events, can help close the literacy gap while giving communities more reasons to enjoy local parks.
“People who read more have a different trajectory in life than those who don’t, so I figured the best way to make a big impact was to make reading very cool and fun,” she says.
Starting with her first location in 2017, Queen initially hoped to place 15 Little Free Library boxes by 2020. The response from the community was so strong, she has expanded her plan to include all 46 of the city’s parks.
– Suzanne Marta