Homegrown activist takes leadership at George Floyd memorial

Jeanelle Austin
Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Jeanelle Austin is one of a number of organizers and caretakers of the 38th and Chicago George Floyd memorial, or George Floyd Square (GFS) as it has come to be known. Although previously residing in California and then Texas for more than a decade, Austin took off like a superhero back to Minnesota in response to the murder of Floyd.

“I just went into organization mode,” she said after arriving at her childhood home, which is within walking distance of GFS.

Austin’s background includes a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies (MAICS) and a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics (MDiv) from Fuller Theological Seminary.

She is the founder of RAI (Racial Agency Initiative) of Justice with more than 15 years of experience in diversity and inclusion work. She has also spent time in that capacity in academia serving as the director of operations at the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller.

She believes her time away from home in academic settings and performing organizing work prepared her for such a time as this. “I lived in LA for about 10 years, so I understand the concept of protests. Having worked with different community organizations that have traveled through different cities.. [I] have navigated protests across the United States,” said Austin.

Activism on a national scale

Over the last several months Austin has worked alongside other colleagues committed to protecting the sacred ground where George Floyd tragically lost his life by maintaining its cleanliness, providing resources to the community’s families, and working as a go-between for citizens and the City of Minneapolis. “I just kept at it, kept going,” she said. “There were days when there was plenty of help, and there were days when it was just me.”

This was not Austin’s first time working in this capacity. “I knew how to tend to a memorial, so that was my way of giving back,” she said. While in Los Angeles, Austin lived through the surge in activism sparked by the consecutive executions of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the Orlando night club shooting, and the murder of Freddie Gray.

In her leadership position, she was involved in organizing various prayer vigils and more. “I organized a die-in within 24 hours. We didn’t think that many people would show up, but over 200 people came from all across California—USC, UCLA, Orange County. The outcome was overwhelming. Even the chief of police showed up.”

Back home, utilizing her experience in racial justice work as well as personal ties to the community, Austin has been more than instrumental in the development of the George Floyd memorial.

“It takes training and skillset like everything. It does not just happen overnight. You know how when you used to have those tornado drills in school? It’s like that,” said Austin when asked how one equips themselves for activism on behalf of racial and social justice. “There is something about being able to practice so that when the moment comes, you already know what to do.”
Austin founded her company Racial Agency Initiative in an effort to help folks understand better what they can do when it is time to activate.

Racism and Christianity

While Austin’s many passions and experiences fuel much of her work for the GFS and the city of Minneapolis, it is perhaps her spirituality and her personal faith that drives the core of her work. “Justice is a Biblical concept, deeply rooted. I talk about justice as ‘God’s justice’ and not the criminal justice system, because as soon as we look at the criminal justice system as our standard of justice, it will fall short sincerely.”

Austin pointed out how even biblically it is human nature to rise up when justice is not served. One has to look no further than the Bible’s liberation story of the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. “There is something about injustice that causes the kind of rage in a person or in a community to rise up and revolt. If the people who have the capacity to institute justice deny [citizens] this, then that is the outcome that can be expected,” observed Austin.

How then does Christianity rationalize being used to support ideas like White nationalism or as a mechanism to turn a blind eye to communities that suffer from the reality of racism every day? “What we are really dealing with is bad theology,” explained the street theologian. “If your theology oppresses people, then your theology is bad because that is not the character of God and that was not the ministry of Jesus.”

What now, Minneapolis?

According to Austin we all have unique skills that we can bring to effectively push this work forward. “It’s been great to help people see how their professional work fits into the overall movement for Black liberation.” Austin encourages people to think deeply about how they can contribute to the movement, whether that be through being on the streets, making phone calls, creating illuminating art, prayer, organizing and so much more.

“Really how I got involved was just by showing up,” she said.