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Introducing Jeanelle Austin, ASU's inaugural activist-in-residence

Lead caretaker of George Floyd Memorial discusses the politics of memorialization and the importance of rest and reflection for activists

Portrait of Jeanelle Austin, inaugural activist-in-residence at ASU's Center for Work and Democracy.

Jeanelle Austin is the inaugural activist-in-residence at the Center for Work and Democracy at ASU.

January 04, 2022

It can be argued that activists often don't have time to adequately process what they've experienced and learned before considering their next steps. But the knowledge and ideas they develop are essential to solving problems in the community.

The Activist-in-Residence program at the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University is specifically designed to address this issue by providing a space that enables activists to reflect on their experience before moving forward in a welcoming and stimulating environment. Through the program, activists have access to ASU faculty and students who can act as resources or, at the very least, provide necessary support.

The program also serves to help better orient the ASU community to what's going on in the world, away from standard academic debates, by exposing the community to the experiences of front-line activists.

Jeanelle Austin has been working in George Floyd Square, the so-called "cop-free zone" that emerged at the site of Floyd’s murder in May 2020, as the lead caretaker of the George Floyd Memorial and is the co-founder, with members of Floyd’s family, of the George Floyd Global Memorial, an organization that is dedicated to preserving the offerings left at the memorial and the story of the uprising.

Austin, who has been selected as the Activist-in-Residence program's inaugural activist-in-residence, sat down with ASU News to discuss the politics of memorialization and the importance of rest and reflection.

Question: Please tell me about your professional and academic background.

Answer: I studied Christian ministries in my undergraduate studies, and then I ended up going to a full theological seminary and earned a master's degree in arts and intercultural studies, followed by a master's degree in divinity with an emphasis in ethics. I had been doing a lot of work around racial justice and doing a lot of racial justice facilitation since 2004. I had also designed workshops and facilitated all kinds of opportunities.

When I graduated from grad school, I was working in academic administration, and I stayed in that realm for a total of 11 years. During that tenure, I did a lot of work, working on an institutional level of “How do we think through addressing racial injustices?” At the time of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I was the director of operations for the Center for African American Church Studies. I was faced with a challenge from the institutional side: How does an institution respond to social injustice, and what is our role and relationship within the context of this community in which we are embedded? And how do we think about the role of the Black community within the shaping and the forming of the institution itself? So I had come from the space of dealing with racial justice from interpersonal levels to thinking on institutional levels and societal levels, and thinking about what it looks like to navigate and interact with police institutions and so forth.

Q: What happened after that?

A: I had left that role in 2018 to venture out on my own, first pausing for my healing journey. I think that's probably one of the most important times and seasons in my life because I think as activists, so often we’re "Go, go, go," and we never pause. Eventually, my body forced me to pause.

Q: Rest is so crucial. What changed for you after that period of reflection?

A: Well, coming out of that season of pause, that's when I launched Racial Agency Initiative. My friends had encouraged me. They were like, "Jeanelle, stop giving your stuff away for free. Do what you can, but charge people." And so I had come out of that season looking at how activists were burning out, and not just our typical idea of who an activist is. But even people from behind the scenes working in institutions were burning out left and right. My question was, “Is it possible to pursue racial justice sustainably?” That’s where I started focusing my work around joy and looking at what it takes for people to leverage joy in their own lives.

Q: It sounds like that was the perfect catalyst for launching your business.

A: Yes, pursuing racial justice with joy became the tagline of my company. And I began to focus on a strength-based approach and how to take the best of who someone is and help them see ways in which they can practice racial justice as a way of life, as opposed to an outcome to a particular event. Fast-forward to when George Floyd was lynched about three blocks away from my family home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my family called me home. So then, I was in a moment in time where I had to practice what I preached. And what does that look like to come into the context of a community? What does it look like to navigate putting my resources on the table? What does it look like to figure out my strengths and leverage the best of my strengths to move a movement forward?

Q: How did this thought process lead to your work with the George Floyd Global Memorial?

A: Well, I have a mentor and he’d always tell me, "Do what you can with what you've been given." And that's the posture that I went forward with. What do I have, what can I give and how can I do my part? What does restorative justice look like? Police are in our streets. The national guard is in our streets. There was a lynching that took place in our neighborhood, children traumatized, adults traumatized.

What does it look like for the city to actually practice restorative justice with a neighborhood and not just go the typical route of having a trial and paying out settlements to a family and calling that justice? Is that justice, if it could happen again? 

Justice is going to have to cost something, and not just to the family where you cause harm, because there was harm done in an entire community. So I had been protesting through tending to the memorial. And I would always say that I live in the balance between preservation and protests — and that organically evolved into what is now known as the George Floyd Global Memorial, where I serve as the executive director. My job requires facilitating an imagination, not just around how do we preserve and hold the story for generations to come, but also, how we build an institution within our social imagination where we practice justice within its institutional DNA.

Q: You’re the first activist-in-residence at ASU’s Center for Work and Democracy. Why did you choose ASU, in particular, to bring your message and speak to the community?

A: It was an opportunity to share an experience and knowledge, and to help people think through what is happening. I think this idea of an activist-in-residence is shaped around this concept of boots on the ground. Like, how do we understand what it is that real people, in real time, in real life go through, and then how do we learn how to posture ourselves? I wanted to explore how to strategize to get racial justice in a way that causes less harm to the people around us.

There's a lot of people who don't understand that the basic act of breathing, it's an act of protest. And so how do you take those ideas and concepts and bring them into a classroom and help people think about the work that I'm doing and the protest aspects of memorialization? What is the role and the purpose of memorialization, and how do we participate in it? How do we use it as a form of protest? Or how do we understand the way that it operates and moves in our government, in our country, and how does memorialization impact people disproportionately for better or for worse? I wanted to think about the systems and structures as it relates to racial justice in our country. Also, coming into this role creates an opportunity for me to pause, rest, reflect. I can actively work against stereotypes and say, "As a Black woman, I am human. I need to rest. I need to pause. I need to think. I need to recover. So that way, I can be better for the work to which I have been called.”

Q: Given the multitude of all of these ideas and figuring out how to apply them, what do you think is most surprising in your experience so far?

A: I think learning more and more about memorials in this country and how memorials have been a catalyst for harm toward the Black community.

Q: How so?

A: I mean, we've seen the protests around the country about Christopher Columbus statues, and the conversation around Christopher Columbus has been on the table for a very long time. And I think states started changing Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day a while ago. We think about these monuments, these memorials, and we're taught about them in terms of “This is our history, this is great, this is important, this is knowledge. This is how we are supposed to remember the past.” But what happens if the memory of the past is perpetuating the memory of violence? And then there are those “holidays” you're forced to take off to commemorate that person. We need to think about how memorialization can act as a form of racial oppression to people living today, and how history impacts our present.

So here at George Floyd Square, we watched as people came together and claimed space and claimed the land as an opportunity to memorialize a man who was no hero. His life was stolen. His life was egregiously taken from him. And it ripped the gut of so many people around the world, that people came to protest and built a memorial. And I often call it “the memorial that the people built.” That is profound and contrary to how the government typically goes about a way of memorializing, who gets to be memorialized and remembered. Then there's also this aspect that goes back to oral tradition in the Black community of memorializing in spirit. And so I think what we also see in society, especially in Black cultures and Black traditions, is the memorialization of figures, not through stone and marble and physical spaces, but words and voice and song. So there are so many different forms and shapes of memorialization that we see take place; it points to social disparities, because if you can't memorialize through reclaimed space and own space, well then how do you memorialize?

What does it look like for the city to actually practice restorative justice with a neighborhood and not just go the typical route of having a trial and paying out settlements to a family and calling that justice? Is that justice, if it could happen again? 

— Jeanelle Austin, inaugural activist-in-residence at the Center for Work and Democracy at ASU 

Q: What are the ways that people in the community and ASU students who attend your discussions and roundtables can affect change surrounding these ideas?

A: Depends on who they are. Again, I talked earlier about posture. We have this mural at George Floyd Square, "the blue mural," is what it’s most commonly called. And it was thrown up about three days after George Floyd was murdered. And it was done so quickly that people started to ask questions like, "Wait, who did this mural? And how did it get here?" And it was discovered that it was a team of artists, mostly white artists, and no Black artists were invited to be on that team. But think about this, though: The Black muralists were still in shock, still grieving, still dealing with their dilemma of being in a Black body in America. Posture matters; what a Black person can do is different from what a white person can do. This is different than what an Asian person will do, or a Latinx person will do versus someone who is an immigrant to this country versus someone who is born and raised in this country and understands its dilemmas differently. So I think the first step is for us to also reflect and say, "How am I coming to this space? How am I coming to this movement that is all around us? And what am I bringing to the table for better or for worse?"

Q: What's something you like least about what you're doing?

A: I dislike having to navigate the fractures of the community. Like when people can't get on board with each other. It's hard enough trying to battle systemic racism, but then if we have to battle each other just to battle racism, that's just a no. So, I think when we're constantly going at each other's throat and we're playing into this idea of crabs in a barrel — that doesn't make sense to me.

Q: What is the thing that you like the most?

A: In this role, I think the most life-giving thing is to go to the memorial early in the morning and tend to it when there's nobody around. The mundane work of tending to a memorial knowing that that act, in and of itself, is an act of protest, and nobody has to be watching. That gives me so much joy. I think the other thing that gives me joy is providing options and opportunities for people. 

Q: You refer to yourself as an activist, and some of the people you work with as well. How did you come to identify with that word and feel comfortable with it? And do you feel like it serves you?

A: For many, many years I did not consider myself an activist. I always considered myself an advocate. As an advocate, I identify as somebody who is working behind closed doors to be a mover and shaker and make things happen. I think it was the Trayvon Martin protests that pushed me to start thinking about what it means to move out from the unseen spaces of being an advocate into the seen spaces of being an activist and speaking about what people can do and how people can respond. I grew into this identity of being an activist, but it didn't come without having to come face-to-face with Black mortality, with Black death.

Q: Your upcoming roundtable, "Oasis," talks about what it means to be strong as a Black woman, but not being the strong Black woman stereotype, and touches on the importance of rest. Can you elaborate on what participants and spectators can get from these discussions?

A: When Black people are coming face-to-face regularly with the names of people who've been lynched and who've died, you have to ask, "Can our bodies even take it? Can our psyche take it?" I mean, it's a lot to hold. It's a lot to handle. It's a lot to ask for, because between all the microaggressions that Black people already face in life, the added challenge is that across this country’s history, Black women are almost always at the head of social movements. What is not seen are the names and faces of the women who are harmed in the process and how taking risks puts our lives in danger. We don't talk about Sandra Bland as much; we don't talk about Breonna Taylor as much. We don't talk about the young women who have died as much. And those traumas impact us consciously and unconsciously. So we need to be extremely mindful of the role of self-care in the process.

Q: What are some of the skills that you need to do this kind of work?

A: Courage. I think courage and being brave. And a level of setting boundaries.

Q: Boundaries make miracles.

A: Oh, yes. Setting boundaries, knowing what you can and cannot take, and then being willing to step back and say, "I need to pause." We have to be willing to not desensitize ourselves. And that's hard, because I think normally, what people will say is, "Well, desensitize yourself to it, so that way it doesn't impact you." But I think it's the opposite way around. I think we have to stay sensitized to what this is to have the grit, to fight, to end the lynchings. But then also to have the mindfulness to pause and say, "I need a break because this is too much, this is too heavy. I've had too many doses of Black death for a day or a week or a lifetime." 

Q: What’s one takeaway for the community, as they engage with you through your discussions and lectures in 2022?

A: There is always more than one approach to address an issue. And sometimes we need to pause and listen to those who've not had the opportunity to voice their ideas and let them lead. Even if they fail, let them lead because how else will they strengthen their wings to fly high, to grow, to be who they've been called to be in this world?

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