UNITED STATES

Improbable Joy: Jeanelle Austin speaks about George Floyd, racial justice, and the discipline of hope

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

“I suspect that were kinship our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice—we would be celebrating it.” – Father Greg Boyle

Written by Joseph Carlson
Jun 14, 2020

Perhaps it is no coincidence that we seem to be witnessing an awakening of sorts;  the moment is ripe for it.

The world is wrestling with the labor pains of re-emerging from a moment of profound disruption. The fear and threat of the novel coronavirus has brought to a screeching halt all of our comfortable patterns of community and  consumption. It has ushered in a profoundly altered consciousness of our physical bodies and public spaces. It has provoked new questions and fierce debates about what it means to care for our neighbor, the vulnerabilities of a globalized economy, to what degree the state should curtail liberties in the name of public health, and whether or not organized religion serves an essential function in our society.

In a very real way, we have all now tasted a form of incarceration. That experience has begun to transform our awareness. Maybe it was fitting then that the issue that would captivate our attention would be the systems we’ve sanctioned to incarcerate and those we’ve empowered to police. Stripped of our freedom to live, work, and worship in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to, and with our addiction to busyness laid bare we–particularly White America–were primed to see things in a new light. 

Into this tinder-box the flaming match of George Floyd’s slow and cruel murder was tossed. That 8 minutes and 46 seconds, documented and shared with the world, have sparked a global movement against police brutality and systemic racial injustice. This movement is upending political gridlock and rapidly changing the conversation around criminal justice reform. 

As with any story of reformation, its successful outcome rests on our willingness to enter into the narrative. To exercise our agency. To trade judgement and disbelief for the twin disciplines of curiosity and compassion, and in so doing discover the power we hold to help steer the story into a future of deeper flourishing.

In an effort to provide a point of entry into this current moment and the issues at hand, we sat down to listen and learn from Jeanelle Austin. Jeanelle is a reformer who combines a life steeped in learning with a passion for justice and penchant for action. She does not just opine. She creates culture. She practices servant leadership. She responds to the call. 

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

With the first wave of outrage and protests sweeping across Minneapolis, Jeanelle’s family asked her to come home and help a bereaved and seething community navigate the rising chaos. She bought a one-way ticket from Austin, Texas to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Born and raised three blocks from where George Floyd would ultimately breathe his last breath, Jeanelle is no stranger to the racial and socio-economic disparity woven into the fabric of Minnesota life. 

If you ask Jeanelle to tell you her story you’ll hear her share about a good life, one marked in part by family and faith, educational achievements and a track record of leadership. But, you’ll also hear about something that is deeply embedded into her experience of growing up Black, the development of what W.E.B DeBois named the “double consciousness,” the feeling that one’s identity is divided into several parts. 

With characteristic ebullience, she’ll share about how the education she received in majority White, Christian schools lent her a voice that caused her cousins to ask her, “Why you talk that way?” She’ll share experiences like nearly being left behind on a service learning trip to Botswana by her exclusively white group because they “couldn’t see her” amidst the crowd of black faces. Or being detained at the airport under suspicion that she was not, in fact a U.S. citizen, but rather a Kenyan with a forged passport. Or, the experience of being told through a translator that locals, seeing her standing in line to order food from a restaurant, were confused and jeering, telling her how the the color of her skin should place her in the position of server, not patron.

For the last 15 years Jeanelle worked within Christian institutions of higher education, in part helping to facilitate deeper understanding around issues of race, inequality, and injustice. First at Messiah College in the Office of Multicultural Programs, and then at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she eventually served as the Director of Operations for the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies. She did all this while earning two Masters degrees, the first a Masters of Intercultural Studies and the second a Masters of Divinity in Christian Ethics.

She’s organized conferences and developed trainings. She’s convened discussion panels on the beauty and belonging of Black hair, and overseen community prayer vigils over unjust immigration policies or the deaths of Philando Castille and Freddie Gray. She’s worked with the Pasadena Police Department and marched in protests. Along the way, she learned how frequently people off-load their agency and moral responsibility onto the institutions to which they belong.

Most recently, she has taken all of that experience and founded the Racial Agency Initiative, a company that serves as a resource for racial justice leadership coaching. 

It’s not just Jeanelle’s life story and experiences, nor is it her education and employment that make her voice a worthy one to listen to, it’s the tone and quality of her message. They ring with the note of integrity and the contagion of joy. We would do well to listen and learn.

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

Nations: Tell us about your work with Racial Agency Initiative. What’s your vision?

Jeanelle: At Racial Agency Initiative I coach individuals and I consult with companies to help folks leverage their agency for racial justice, to be able to identify racism within their scope of influence and respond to it. The whole point is to be practicing racial justice as a way of life.

My vision is for us to pursue racial justice with joy. And how we do that is through our strengths. Because when we are doing what we are good at it naturally gives us joy. So if everybody can figure out how we leverage our strengths for racial justice, as a way of life, [then] when stuff pops off we know how to serve, we know how to give, because we have been building our capacity over time to know how we can utilize our gifts, our skills, our resources to actually move the needle of racial justice forward. 

I’m learning how deep the problem is as I’m coaching people, of folks not having language to talk about race. It totally makes sense, because if you grew up in the same kind of school systems that I grew up in, the chapter or paragraph, it was really only a paragraph about slavery in your history book. You were never taught how racism functions and works in the United States of America. I learned that from my family. I learned that from my friends. I learned that growing up being Black in America and from Black media. If you’re not black or not connected to the Black community you might not be getting that same kind of education.

I’m realizing that so many people don’t have language to talk about race. Therefore people don’t have the confidence to speak into certain situations. People freeze. People become fragile. People become afraid.

And man, anger, fear, frustration, anxiety and all those emotions, let me tell you, they are awesome to rally people, to get a protest going or a march going but it doesn’t bid well to form sustainable movements. It’s like sugar, they give you a high and then a hard crash. Then everybody burns out. 

That’s what happened to me, I burned out. I had to find a different way. I realized that joy is the better way. Because joy doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain and there isn’t anger and there isn’t frustration and there isn’t sorrow and there isn’t suffering. But joy means that we’re able to do the things that we know give us life and we are able to focus on justice as a life-giving outcome. It is a joy that is set before us that we are pursuing and for which we are carrying the cross and the burdens of civil disobedience, marching and protesting, standing by our neighbors and standing by our communities, and standing by the families regardless of how imperfect the person is who might have died.

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

“And man, anger, fear, frustration, anxiety and all those emotions, let me tell you, they are awesome to rally people, to get a protest going or a march going but it doesn’t bid well to form sustainable movements. It’s like sugar, they give you a high and then a hard crash. Then everybody burns out. “

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

 

Nations: You use this phrase, “justice as a way of life” often. What are some expressions of a just way of living that you’ve developed in yourself? What impact have those expressions made?

Jeanelle: Here’s a recent example: each morning since I got here I’ve been waking up at 6:00 or 6:30 and cleaning the entire intersection and block-long memorial for George Floyd. I do that work because while I was at Fuller, after a protest of police brutality two friends and I created a Black Lives Matter memorial on the steps of Payton Hall and for a year the three of us preserved that memorial, day in and day out. So I had this experience about what it actually takes to preserve a memorial. What to leave, what to take away.

Mondays are my “me-day”. I didn’t protest. I practiced self-care because, as I often tell people, “If I die in the process of achieving justice, whiteness wins because the goal of whiteness is to kill the black body.

So Tuesday, the morning after the rains here this week. I went out to clean the memorial and there were tarps everywhere. What normally takes me an hour to clean took four and a half hours. It was exhausting. 

I shared that experience with a friend from Fuller, Lauralee, and later she tagged me in a story on Facebook of someone she knew in Minneapolis who spent the day cleaning up on Lake Street where a lot of the riots and burned down buildings were. After cleaning he came up to the memorial and he commented on how it was a space of reverence and peace for him.

Lauralee tagged me in that because she wanted me to see that the hours I had spent cleaning the memorial helped somebody else center themselves for the work they had to do. So, this connection of how all of our work actually supports each other and uplifts each other and encourages each other. For me, that was a deep moment of joy. It brought me great calm and helped me extend grace to all those who watched me work rather than participate.

Nations: Joy is one of your core principles and driving motivators for the work you do. How do you cultivate joy? How do you make joy a discipline?

Jeanealle: When I sit down with my clients the first question that I ask them is, “What brings you joy?”

When I’m asked to introduce myself at conferences or discussions I say, “Hi, my name is Jeanelle Austin and I’m with Racial Agency Initiative and I cloud-watch and I blow bubbles and I eat ice cream” and I just list all of the things that give me joy on a regular basis. 

I think it has to become a discipline, reminding myself of the things that I know give me life. It’s so critical. Why? Because when you get to a moment like this one, of civil unrest, you have to know the things that will give you life so that you can practice adequate self-care for the sustainability of the journey so you don’t burn out. 

So yeah, you have these big concepts of things that bring you joy, like justice. Deep things. But, we also have to remember the small things, the little things. 

You have to use creative imagination to understand how the work of racial justice can be interwoven into the work that you already do so that it doesn’t feel like a burden being handed down and that racial justice is somehow separate from the life that you live and the work that you do. That is how you start creating joy for the work of racial justice. You start with what people are naturally good at. Start with what naturally makes people happy.

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

Nations: Does it surprise you that Minnesota, and specifically Minneapolis, became ground zero for what has now grown into a protest movement circling the globe?

Jeanelle: No! Philando Castile died here in 2016. I was surprised Minneapolis didn’t burn down then. It’s an incredibly white state and so many people choose not to see the racism. I have so many examples of different forms of racism that I saw or experienced growing up. Countless friends beat up by police officers, a mother demanding to know why her teenage son was being arrested and thrown in jail for the night simply for protesting her child being taken. 

It was common for my white classmates to be forbidden to come into the city because of its perception as dangerous. Once, when we returned in the fall a classmate described a “missions trip” they had taken and I realized they were describing my neighborhood. And I realized that no one knew the context of where I lived. They had never been there. I think they imagined I lived elsewhere. Like I was somehow different. That I somehow wasn’t “one of them.” It’s an all-too-common move of whiteness: to take the black person that you do know and like and to separate them out from the rest of the community and say, well you’re not like them.

I told a friend recently, “I think the Governor got saved. He’s come in talking about systemic racism and how it’s absolutely terrible. How when you give someone a fine and they can’t pay the fine so you put a boot on their car and now they can’t get to work and they lose their job so now not only can they not pay the fine but they can’t pay rent either and now they are homeless. So, sometimes issuing someone a fine triggers a series of events that have devastating consequences. That has to lead to the conversation about who’s getting fined, ticketed and over-policed. More often than not that’s poor communities of color. To have the governor of Minnesota name that this is an issue in our cities and state is significant. It matters.”

“It is a joy that is set before us that we are pursuing and for which we are carrying the cross and the burdens of civil disobedience, marching and protesting, standing by our neighbors and standing by our communities, and standing by the families regardless of how imperfect the person is who might have died.”

Nations: How has it felt to be on the ground and in the community during this time? What has it felt like to see the swell of solidarity around the country and across the world? 

Jeanelle: There’s been several cycles of emotion. There’s been pain. My sister-in-law used the term “gutted”. There’s anger and frustration with the rioting. Because there’s some stuff that regular protestors did out of anger and frustration, like when they took down that third precinct. That was the retaliation, a building for a life and the mayor let them take the building, evacuating the building because a building can be rebuilt but a life can’t be. On the news, from President Trump we’re hearing Antifa. On the ground here, we’re hearing KKK and white-supremicist groups vandalizing and starting stuff. Which is so frustrating because it’s counter to the peaceful protests.

There’s frustration over why it took so long for the officers to be charged. They got fired for what they did, so why did it take so long for them to be charged?

There’s skepticism and an attitude of whether or not the promises of addressing the dysfunction, launching a civil rights investigation and dismantling the systemic racism within the police force will actually happen.

But, there’s also an element of celebration. There was celebration in the community when the four officers were arrested. The memorial has stayed as sacred space. People have been protecting it all night long to ensure that no one comes in, because the officers did that Saturday night. They rolled through the memorial with their trucks. It was caught on camera, but that part was removed from the clips in the news the next day. But now, the city has come in and helped to protect it, surrounding it with cement blocks. It’s become a place of healing.

The international response is the most critical thing in my estimation, because when I look at the history of race in the United States, every step of progress has been accompanied by international pressure. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights movement, these things did not come because we marched alone. It also happened because our brothers and sisters globally joined us in highlighting the hypocrisy of the United States in these areas.

People are marching because of the pain in their own communities and are marching across the country because it’s not just an issue here. Let the governors, city councils, senators and community leaders take note. It’s time to make the economic and policy changes necessary to achieve justice. It’s time to question how much funding we are giving police departments. Every bullet that goes through black bodies represents our tax dollars. That’s not okay. How our tax dollars are being spent in our communities need to be re-examined. We have to start holding police departments accountable for how they use their resources. They need to realize that they are us, we are part of the same community. It is not the police versus the community.

 

Photo: Isaiah Rustad

Nations: Are you hopeful that this moment and the current momentum represent a shift in our country’s consciousness that might actually result in substantive change? Is this a watershed moment?

Jeanelle: Hopeful is a very powerful and very significant word. Especially because in many communities in the United States you have black and brown people who very deeply struggle with hopelessness. It’s hard to become hopeful when you’ve experienced so much hope deferred or hope denied. So, I feel that there is opportunity here. An opportunity for white America to step in, and help put pressure on our government and make this a watershed moment. 

It’s not over because the four officers were arrested. I am watching and waiting to see what will happen, as I work and serve. I do hope that we make decisions that are marked by righteousness and justice, on behalf of the widow and the orphan, the systematically marginalized and oppressed. I hope we don’t make decisions for corporations and special interest groups and career politicians who won’t give up their seat to make way for leaders of the future who are imagining a new way to govern and care for people, to exercise servant leadership.

L.A. protests, photographed by Stanton Sharpe

L.A. protests, photographed by Stanton Sharpe

“To everyone who says, “these things take time”—how is it that I’ve seen Facebook grow from an idea of Mark Zuckerburg’s to a global force in half my lifetime and progress on racial justice and equity have inched along? Change don’t take that long. It’s about the will to change.”

L.A. protests, photographed by Stanton Sharpe

L.A. protests, photographed by Stanton Sharpe

Hope is a deep component of faith and faith is critical if we are going to get to some place that we’ve never known. If we’re gonna get some place we’ve never been before we have to have faith that we’re gonna get there, and hope is an element of that faith. So, I have to hold onto hope. And, I hope with a grain of salt because this would not be the first time where big words and promises have amounted to nothing. 

To everyone who says, “these things take time”—how is it that I’ve seen Facebook grow from an idea of Mark Zuckerburg’s to a global force in half my lifetime and progress on racial justice and equity have inched along? Change don’t take that long. It’s about the will to change. In order for equity to be achieved, white people will have to recognize the need to sacrifice and give up some things. One of the things white people need to give up the most is the fear of retribution. Because honestly, black and brown people aren’t trying to get back at white people. We’re just trying to live, to breathe, to be. The irrational fear of black and brown people has to be given up. That, then followed by economics. Putting their money where their mouths and beliefs are as well as their physical bodies.

We are in an election cycle and that matters. When you look in the history of the United States, both the Democratic and Republican parties have failed the black community. This is not about one party against the other party. It’s about the ideology of whiteness and how that has served to oppress black and brown bodies regardless of who has been president. Right now, we have a president who has demonstrated a lack of leadership during a time of civil unrest. His willingness to lead with the threat of force does not give me confidence that he will move to aid in the healing, to help us understand our collective history. 

How do we learn and grow together regardless of our political ideologies, holding space for difference if it’s not modeled well? We need to engage with one another in a way that holds space for divergent stories, and values and seek mutual understanding without the threat of force. We can affirm the value of family, community and country. We can do this differently, as Americans. We can let go of the power of the White House and turn towards one another and ask what must be done to achieve healing in our communities.