Meet The Black Pastor Advocating For Justice, From East Atlanta To Palestine

Hometown Heroes is a series in the print issue of ESSENCE Magazine profiling changemakers in local communities who are working toward economic and racial justice.

Reverend Keyanna Jones is an East Atlanta native, an ordained minister, an interfaith leader, a wife and a mother. She is also a social justice activist and a community organizer at the forefront of Atlanta’s movement against the city’s plans to construct a multimillion-dollar public-safety training facility, referred to as “Cop City.”

Through preaching from the pulpit, protesting throughout her hometown and speaking to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, Rev. Jones has become a crucial voice in the pursuit of liberation. She also serves as a reminder of just how interconnected our collective freedom is.

Meet The Black Pastor Advocating For Justice, From East Atlanta To Palestine

Jones, who is the active pastor in residence at Park Avenue Baptist Church and a member of Community Movement Builders, has created a life rooted in service. After moving to New Jersey at around age 20 and living there for about 20 years, she returned to Atlanta to be with family.

While in New Jersey, she began her work as an activist—specifically in childcare and education advocacy. Witnessing the systemic racism embedded within the education system, unjust killings of Black people by police, and witnessing the growing presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in her neighborhood ignited her commitment to broader activism.

Meet The Black Pastor Advocating For Justice, From East Atlanta To Palestine

Since returning to Atlanta, Jones has not only brought her experience to the social justice fights back home, she has also brought a lifelong love and care for the city and its inhabitants. “These are my people,” she says. “This is where I’m from. My grandmother always taught me to fight and to stand up for people who didn’t have a voice. I grew up with a sense of, ‘if you see something wrong, say something.’ I’m going to ring the alarm.” 

That’s precisely what Jones is doing. “For me, it’s never been a question of where I stand on ‘Cop City,’ because it’s just wrong,” she says. “It’s oppressive. Even if people believe in ‘law and order’ and believe that we need police—you don’t need to build a massive facility that replaces 381 acres of forest land and a vital watershed in the heart of southeast Atlanta, which is super-Black. You don’t need to continue to perpetuate these instances of environmental racism.” 

The 381 acres of unincorporated land in Atlanta’s DeKalb County is part of what is now known as the South River Forest. It was previously the site of the old Atlanta Prison Farm, which was once a slave plantation. Prior to that, it was the Weelaunee Forest of the Muscogee Creek people. The South River Forest is referred to as one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta— “meaning, we literally need those trees to breathe,” says Jones. “Without those trees, what type of air are we breathing?” 

Having someone like Jones on the front lines of this movement combats the idea that Black people in the community support the facility—something Jones explains is not true. In the midst of the protests against “Cop City,” police have referred to those who are vocal against the project as “outside agitators,” pushing a narrative Jones describes as familiar. She recalls moments in history, like the Civil Rights Movement, when those in power used this narrative to undermine organizers. “They called Dr. King an ‘outside agitator,’” she points out. “When you think about the narrative that has been carefully crafted, and that the mainstream media here in Atlanta continues to propel, all you see is ‘White people from out of state,’ and that’s exactly what they want to promote.” 

She goes on to explain that the diversity of the “Stop Cop City” movement shouldn’t be overlooked, as it’s a reflection of the intersectionality of human rights issues at hand. “Climate change is real,” she says. “There are people who came into this movement simply because they want to save the trees. They’re thinking about the fact that trees are vital. In addition to absorbing mass amounts of pollution, trees keep flooding at bay. A tree canopy is important because it mitigates global warming.”  

But for the children growing up in this area, Jones emphasizes that there is and will be a sustained and more immediate impact. The Atlanta Police Department’s firing range, which has been in the area for years, influenced her decision to move to Decatur, a city close to Atlanta, in May of 2023.

The U.S. imperialism that funds the Israeli military to attack Palestinians is “the same U.S. imperialism that makes it possible for police to terrorize Black neighborhoods here in the United States.”

“I have a 9-year-old whom I homeschool, and the gunfire from the range was just too much for us,” she explains. “We had to move because it wasn’t something that was really conducive to a good learning environment for him.” The impact on children is something she wants more people to acknowledge. “Those gunshots are loud at night,” she says. “Think about what that does to the psyche of a child, as far as them feeling safe and secure.”

Although her work is very much grounded in her love for her hometown and its communities, her advocacy goes beyond city limits and national borders. She recognizes the connections between militarized policing from Atlanta to Gaza— and the importance of solidarity among oppressed communities worldwide.

“The Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) has a partnership with the Israeli military, to train officers from here in the United States,” she says. “They’ve trained ­Georgia State University Police, Georgia State Patrol and Atlanta Police. There are other police departments around the country that also train with Israeli Defense Forces [IDF].

Meet The Black Pastor Advocating For Justice, From East Atlanta To Palestine

“Palestine is important,” she opines, because the U.S. imperialism that funds the Israeli military to attack Palestinians is “the same U.S. imperialism that makes it possible for police to terrorize Black neighborhoods here in the United States.”  

Reflecting on all she does, Jones says her husband, Jerrod, is an incredibly important part of her work. “When we talk about finding our peace, my husband really is that for me,” she states. “Not only is he a great supporter, but he really is that place of refuge, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without him.” 

For people who want to get involved with local liberation efforts, Jones suggests a dual approach. “Find out what you’re passionate about,” she says, “what really speaks to you, what makes you say, ‘I’ve got to do something about that.’ When you find it, find a community where people are organizing and they’re active around that, because that’s also where people are being taught.” 

This article appears in the 2024 March/April issue of ESSENCE

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