From Washington Square Park to NYPD headquarters, Chelsea Miller was on the front lines of the racial and social justice protests that rippled across New York City after the murder of George Floyd, her pleas and chants often amplified over a megaphone.
But Miller’s advocacy didn’t end after the streets quieted. In the years since the 2020 protests, the 26-year-old has continued to work with and support young activists and social justice movements across the nation and the globe.
She’s set to discuss the state of 21st century youth activism and links to historical movements at WNYC’s 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, with “Notes from America” radio and podcast host Kai Wright.
If you missed out on tickets to the “sold out” event , there are two ways you can still catch the show: Watch the live video stream at wnyc.org; or tune into “Notes from America” at 6 p.m. on Sunday on 93.9 FM and AM 820.
Miller will soon launch a new company that builds upon her current work, CPM Global, which plans to advise companies, governments and others interested in supporting social justice movements, and creating campaigns to amplify the stories of women and people of color.
She recently sat down with Gothamist to discuss her takeaways from the 2020 protests, the current state of racial justice activism, and what she calls the global “second wave of 2020” – activism in the future. Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What do you see as key successes of the movement in 2020? And things you’d want to change moving forward?
The wins, we will not see them in their entirety for another 10 to 15 years. There is a new generation that has been awakened as a result of what happened in 2020. We are underestimating just how powerful that movement was because we’re grounding our understanding of what a victory looks like in policy and systemic change, when the reality is that these systems were never designed to move to begin with.
What we have to ground our understanding of what our victory looks like is: what did our generation say? We know that there was [the] largest voter turnout. We know that we did get a conviction. We know that it was one of the largest social movements in history.
Now, as far as things that some may consider to be failures, I would say it goes back to the [lack of] systemic change. I don’t necessarily see it as a failure because it was predictable. Even the civil rights movement wasn’t won in a year, wasn’t won in two years. There were even failures within that movement, and that lasted for over a decade. A lot of people talk about the Million Man March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but they don’t know the decades of work that went into even that.
We know historically the way that America works, where it’s a swinging pendulum, right? Where we make progress in one direction, and there’s always that backlash that pushes us in another direction. And I think that we are in a period of tension which will ultimately define the way that the pendulum shifts.
What comes next?
There’s going to be another social movement and unrest. And I think that it’s going to be a lot more global than we think. Because 2020 gave us a taste of what it looks like when young people come together. But for a lot of us, we were not prepared for just how powerful we were.
I think that we are not ready for the level of collective disruption that’s coming out of this next generation as a result of that.
You’re saying that there’s a young generation that’s excited to take the reins. I feel like there’s [also] a discourse out there that the public appetite for racial justice has waned. Exactly how galvanized are people for racial justice right now?
People have to realize that even when you take a look at the civil rights movement, every single year, people weren’t outside by the millions. Every single day, people weren’t outside by the millions.
When people are saying the thirst for racial justice has quenched, it hasn’t quenched, we’re actually just exhausted.
Like, we are depleted. Folks are tired. Folks are experiencing various levels of trauma from being on the front lines – are recovering from that. People are figuring out their finances as a result. I know so many people that left their jobs during 2020. Paired with the fact that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic where people lost so many family members and friends and experienced trauma in that sense as well.
People sacrificed so much in 2020 that it’s easy for you if you were not on the front lines to say that that energy is gone, when in reality that energy was stripped. It was stripped because of so much that had to be given for the wins that we saw.
There seems to be also a fatigue of what some people see as phony activism: feeling like anybody can label themselves an activist, and what does the term mean anymore?
I always say that we don’t need more activists. We need more organizers. We need more people who are within community who can mobilize community.
And the reality is that activist is a term that I think in some way, shape, or form, we should all be. What that looks like to each of us looks different, but I don’t think that it is my activism and my beliefs that have given me this platform. I believe it’s what I have done with the things that I’ve held to be true. I think that it’s what I’ve done when the cameras weren’t on. I think it’s what I’ve done when there were no flowers to be given.
I would say, find the folks who you align with, who you believe in, and also understand that this is why so many people talk about a leaderless generation. You can have folks that you help to inform your opinion. You can have folks that you use for certain aspects, and you guys don’t always need to agree on every single thing.
I know that you have chosen to work with a bunch of different brands: Versace, Nike, Puma, Toms, Facebook. There’s a strain of activism that says working with companies is fundamentally contrary to doing activist work. How do you reconcile that? Is there a space to make change within these kinds of institutions?
I think that it’s really important to be able to distinguish between the work and the way people pay their bills. For example, someone can be an artist, a musician, an actress: this can be their work, what they do in society, how they gain financial freedom. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to what they contribute to the movement. Normalizing the fact that you can have a 9-5, a career, hobbies, that can also be connected to your work but also be different.
The reality is that we live in a flawed world. Every single company that we either buy or support. For me, it’s a constant discourse that I even have with myself. What does it look like to show up and show up authentically? That’s why I say that no matter the space that I’m in, it’s my responsibility to disrupt. And so there’s no campaign that I’ve ever worked on where I’ve been bought. There’s no campaign that I’ve ever worked on where I haven’t spoken my truth.
You also have to keep in mind that you cannot simply do this work to speak to people who think like you. You also have to figure out how to reach people who don’t. So it’s a constant balance as well between figuring out what are the platforms that will allow for us to reach the folks who traditionally or typically wouldn’t see you.