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Courageous Character: Jeanelle Austin

Jeanelle Austin’s life’s work centers around pursuing racial justice with joy, and helping give others the tools to do the same.

Joy wasn’t always a part of her work; in fact, it was glaringly absent. After years in academics, community organizing, and on the front lines of protests, she felt burnt out. “I kept putting my own needs aside to care for the people I was working with and for, without having the tools and resources to navigate my own emotions,” said Jeanelle.

Hoping to develop a more sustainable approach to fighting injustice, she started her own company called Racial Agency Initiative to provide justice leadership coaching, “I just didn’t believe that the fight for justice and equity should always end in pure exhaustion,” said Jeanelle.

Then George Floyd was murdered less than a quarter mile away from her childhood home, where her mother still lived. She was living in Texas at the time. As unrest grew in the days following, she provided remote guidance to her family in Minneapolis, drawing on her training and experience as an organizer and activist.

Photo Credit Billy Briggs

A week later, her sister convinced Jeanelle that her skills and knowledge would be more helpful on the ground in Minneapolis, and she bought a one-way ticket to Minnesota. Today, Jeanelle is the lead caretaker of George Floyd Square and Executive Director of the George Floyd Global Memorial, a grantee partner McKnight was honored to support following Mr. Floyd’s murder. Jeanelle continues to speak publicly through Racial Agency Initiative. 

During the first week of the uprising, she began tending to the memorial at George Floyd Square as a form of social resistance and self-care. “I said I’m just going to wake up early every morning and tend to the memorial,” said Janelle. “I knew memorials could be powerful forms of protest because I cared for one for a year in 2016, after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.”

As the memorial grew, she and other caretakers worked tirelessly to preserve the offerings left at the memorial and the story of the uprising. Working at the unique intersection of preservation and protest, caretakers operate with the guiding principles that everything is somebody’s offering, and the people are more sacred than the memorial itself.

Eventually, they hope to create a permanent memorial in the neighborhood to house and display all the offerings they have collected since the spring of 2020—a place where the offerings can live and continue their life of protest.

Jeanelle earned a BA in Christian Ministries from Messiah College and an MDiv in Ethics and an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

McKnight: What future are you working to build?

Jeanelle Austin: I am working to build a future where we can all live on the other side of justice together, where we value people over property and center the sacredness of human life.

I started my own company, Racial Agency Initiative, to live out the challenge I have given to others: to leverage your agency for racial justice. I ask myself, what is my platform, and how can you bend it towards justice?

When I started to lead the preservation efforts at the George Floyd Memorial, I questioned if I was qualified for the work. I thought, ‘I’m not a conservator. I’m not a museum person.’ Then I realized that my training in theology is perfect for this work because I understand the sacred, and that people are sacred, and I think as we build a more just society, we have to center people and not property.

At the core of the work is an effort to root and anchor people and their posterity. The offerings we are preserving are reminders of our culture and story. I think racism thrives on forgetfulness, and so we fight it by forcing people to remember. We can leverage the Memorial and the power of remembrance and contemplative reflection to help people understand their platform and posture to pursue justice, too.

Jeanelle working in the George Floyd Global Memorial offering room. Photo Credit: Chasing Joy Photography

“I am working to build a future where we can all live on the other side of justice together, where we value people over property and center the sacredness of human life.”–JEANELLE AUSTIN

McKnight: What or who inspires you to act?

Jeanelle Austin: As a theologian, I am inspired by Bible verses. One verse that kept coming back to me when I started my company was the scripture in the Book of Hebrews that talks about Jesus and says, “For the joy set before him endured the cross.” This verse anchored me in understanding the concept of joy and how it can intersect with pain. Jesus was willing to endure a public lynching with the hope and the joy that people could someday be free through his execution. For me, it shapes this idea around keeping focused on the joy of the other side of justice. I often say to folks that I believe we can all get to the other side of justice together. That is me reaffirming my joy to say that the other side of justice is possible, and we don’t have to settle.

Volunteers repainting the Mourning Passage near George Floyd Square. Photo Credit Jeanelle Austin

“I have a lot of individual gifts, talents, and experiences, but none of what I do would be possible without the community. Everybody plays their role. We would say, bring your gifts to the square.–JEANELLE AUSTIN

McKnight: Can you share more about your community?

Jeanelle Austin: Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” The pursuit of justice for my community is also the pursuit of love for my people and my community.

The concept of Ubuntu is important to me. I have a lot of individual gifts, talents, and experiences, but none of what I do would be possible without the community. Everybody plays their role. We would say, bring your gifts to the square.

I recognize that my gifts would not be successful if it weren’t for other people utilizing their gifts. I wouldn’t be able to do this work without the community defense keeping George Floyd Square from burning or being destroyed. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if teacher and educator Marcia Howard hadn’t decided to host morning and evening meetings to educate neighbors on what was happening and why it was happening.  If it wasn’t for Jennie with the Peoples’ Closet, who took on the responsibility of the clothing donations that people were just randomly dropping off at George Floyd Square. If it wasn’t for Mileesha, who cooked and fed the people. If it wasn’t for Ms. Angela, George Floyd’s Aunt, who came through and supported our work as a family member to say, “Yeah, keep going.” If it wasn’t for elders who would come by and encourage us and say, keep on keeping on, you’re doing the right thing. If it wasn’t for kids who would come in and affirm and say this place is amazing.

George Floyd Square is a community first and foremost. It is a people in pursuit of justice together, and I love being able to do my part in the community.

Topic: Courageous Characters, Vibrant & Equitable Communities

May 2024

English (Canada)