Humanities at Play: Dr. Carlotta Penn

Dr Carlotta Penn

Carlotta Penn is a creator—an author, a songwriter and a poet. She’s a learner—a thirsty student with a bachelor’s degree in communication, a master’s degree in comparative studies and a doctorate in education. She’s an educator—a longtime teacher who is now a senior director at the Ohio State University, overseeing partnerships and engagement activities in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Global Engagement at the College of Education and Human Ecology. And she is also a mother who wants her three young children to see themselves in the books they read. It’s a conviction that led her to found Daydreamers Press, which publishes children’s content highlighting multicultural perspectives. The 42-year-old’s most recent project is a collaboration with Ohio Humanities—a children’s book about the Lincoln School Marchers, a group of Black mothers in southern Ohio who were civil rights heroes. The Columbus dynamo opens up here. 

What lights you up?  

Love is the most brilliant light. The love I feel for my children, spouse and family. God’s love. My love for good food and for acting on creative inspirations. The love I see exchanged among people in my community. The experience of entering a community far away and different from my own. So many lights.  

What frustrates you?  

The too-fast pace of US society, and the feeling of time passing by.  

What makes you laugh?  

The group chat. My text message conversations with family and friends bring spontaneity and laughter to each and every day. I will always love the company of my dearest friends and family face to face, but the digital bonds cannot be discounted! 

What professional mission are you on?  

Daydreamers Press seeks to carry on the legacy of Black storytelling, art and advocacy for representation and justice. We publish content that highlights perspectives and knowledges of multicultural communities. We honor the work of those Black writers and creators who have come before Daydreamers Press and that of our extraordinary contemporaries. 

What personal mission are you on?  

To be the best I can wherever I am, and to do the best I can with what I’ve been given. I really just want to make the most of my brief time on earth.   

Why is human connection so important?  

Collectively, we need each other, and any given community is best when united. But on the interpersonal level, I know from history and experience that even brief human encounters can change the course of someone’s life for the better.  

What is a memorable time from your childhood—and why was it defining?  

My siblings and I spent lots of time with our cousins growing up. I remember long days outside finding furry caterpillars at my grandparents’ home. Some of the best times were writing and performing skits for the grown-ups. These are defining experiences because those relationships are some of the best I have. And I’m still writing and sharing stories. 

“Love is the most brilliant light.”

Carlotta Penn

Who made a powerful mark on your life, and how?  

My father, Gary Penn, Sr., led an inspirational life that integrated family, faith, entrepreneurship, blue collar work, service and arts. I learned from him to pursue dreams and listen to God’s voice in our lives, in the midst of both ease and adversity.  

What accomplishment are you most passionate about, and why?  

I have  two. First, I co-produced a documentary about the experiences of millennial Black women in Columbus during the 2020 pandemic. The Black Women Story Project is so in line with my professional mission to listen , share and honor the lives and knowledges of Black women. I had the joy of working on this with my friend and co-producer Donna Marbury, who is a writer and creative in Columbus. Second, working with Ohio Humanities and the women of Hillsboro, Ohio, on the Lincoln School Marchers story has been amazing. Publishing a picture book about Black mothers, children and a community advocating for justice is an extra-special honor.  

Who do you love to learn from? 

James Baldwin’s essays and interviews are always worth taking in. He was brilliant and compassionate, and his confident, easygoing demeanor in the midst of conflict is aspirational. Virginia Hamilton’s essays and speeches are also especially meaningful to me now, since she wrote many of my favorite children’s books.  

Why do you love Ohio?  

I love Ohio because it holds the people I love most.. But there’s more to love about Ohio—the changing of seasons, the parks and libraries. And so many talented artists of all sorts came to brilliance here.  

What one story or person do you wish every Ohioan knew?  

In 1947, my grandfather Thomas O’Rare Penn and a co-worker, Muriel McMullen, helped rescue four people who had fallen into the Scioto River when lightning struck the Broad Street Bridge. They weren’t thanked or recognized until 1990, when City Council honored them. Though there was also a white man who helped in the rescue, it’s believed their bravery went unrecognized because, as my grandfather said, “Back in those days, Black people didn’t get recognized unless they killed somebody.” I share this story as an example of the role everyday people play in shaping our communities. 

What are you certain is true?  

Every day is a new chance to start again. It’s worth it to just keep going.  

If there is a single mission you could mobilize people around, what would it be?  

I wish we would all take good care of ourselves and each other.  

If people defined you with one word, what do you hope it is?  

A Daydreamer, of course!