Helping Native Americans be Heroes in Their Own Stories

Red Planet Books & Comics, Albuquerque, NM

 

Following in his Family’s Footsteps

Lee Francis was raised by educators. His mother taught at the same middle school he taught at, and his father worked in higher education. Lee discovered his own love of teaching after graduating with a theater degree from the University of Missouri – first teaching workshops, and later in the classroom. It was there that Lee grew frustrated by the lack of reading materials whose protagonists his students could identify with. “They didn’t get to be super heroes in their own stories.” That recognition drove Lee to marry the storytelling skills he honed through his background in theater and script writing with his lifelong love of comics to launch Native Realities, a publishing company dedicated to Native-centric media. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur, my uncle was an entrepreneur, and my father was an entrepreneur – that spirit of creativity, business and risk taking it’s always been there – it’s just been about finding the passion.”

Supercharging Native Pop Culture

After launching his publishing business, Lee sought to expand his impact beyond what he could create through his own business. “There’s a huge gap for material and resources that are focused on and created by Native and Indigenous peoples.” The result was Indigenous Comic Con, a collaboration with arts and entertainment group, Meow Wolf, which convenes leading Indigenous creators, illustrators, writers, designers, actors, and producers from the worlds of comic books, games, sci-fi, fantasy, film, tv, and graphic novels. “Nothing else like this had been done before in terms of bringing all of these worlds of pop culture together for Native people.”

 

In the months following the first Indigenous Comic Con, Lee found that working out of his home was no longer workable and started looking for office space. The materials from the festival – like posters, banners and signs – were taking over his home office, and as he took on new staff, he didn’t have a place for them to work. In his search for office space, Lee became fixated on a shuttered salon. “We kept looking in the empty windows, and I just had this mind like, especially in downtown Albuquerque, dead space is just so damaging.” Lee approached the landlord about signing a lease and found a solution not only to his search for office space, but also for his yearning to expand the impact of Indigenous Comic Con. “We wanted to have a place where people could find Native comics and native source materials throughout the whole year, not just during a three-day festival once a year.”

 

Opening Red Planet Books & Comics taught Lee the value of a brick and mortar business in transforming his neighborhood. “We got more press and more attention when we opened up the bookstore than when we launched the publishing company,” he reflected. “That has had an incredible amount of staying power, and we’ve been consistent in that we’re still getting requests for interviews to talk about Red Planet.” In addition to highlighting the value of Native pop culture in Albuquerque, having a storefront has enabled Lee to more effectively support local entrepreneurs by hosting quarterly pop-ups in front of the store and offering space inside the store for them to sell their products. An example of this collaboration is Duende District Bookstore. “They run a tiny pop-up bookstore inside of our bookstore,” he explained. “We basically have three shelves and they fill them with books that focus on writers and communities of color that are a little bit outside of the range of what we do.”

Building a Support Network

Lee credits his success in translating his passion into a growing business to the organizations and individuals that supported him along the way. “The early success of these types of ventures often depend on the person in charge and how they’re being supported.” Creative Startups, an entrepreneurship accelerator program and Americans for Indian Opportunity, an organization focused on advancing cultural, political and economic rights of Indigenous peoples, helped Lee navigate his early days as an entrepreneur and a leader and grow his network. The American Indian Library Association and Debbie Reese, author of American Indians in Children’s Literature, have helped Lee’s business gain exposure among Native audiences and informed the content development for Native Realities. As he looked to grow his bookstore, Lee learned about Accion while researching resources for Native entrepreneurs. A loan from Accion enabled him to update his comic book store with murals, bookshelves and new inventory, and in the process, he found a new partner. In addition to providing guidance on business management and growth, Accion has supported Indigenous Comic Con as a sponsor. “Accion is not just a lending organization. It’s part of that ecological support system,” Lee said.

Paying it Forward

Throughout his entrepreneurial journey, Lee continues to consider education as “my life’s calling.” In addition to inspiring Native youth through the materials he creates and distributes, Lee continues to engage in education through workshops focused on entrepreneurship and career development for young people. “Native people have more barriers,” he said. “I need to open as many doors as I possibly can so that my son and Native kids have as many opportunities as the western kids that will make them content, happy and healthy in this world.”

 

Recognizing the impact of his own support system, Lee is passionate about ensuring that other Native entrepreneurs have access to a strong network of champions. “I had a lot of supports and I built up a number of networks over three to four decades,” he explained. “We want to be able to reciprocate that for other Native entrepreneurs who often face daunting challenges in their communities where they’re trying to start a business.” As he works to connect other Native entrepreneurs to resources, Lee also appreciates every opportunity to learn from them. “I’m a learning entrepreneur just like everybody else. That’s the beauty of an ecosystem – we get to explore and experiment and imagine together.”