‘Heart of the movement’ – Family and friends mourn Atlanta activist Janel Green

Atlanta activist Janel Green, who died after a long battle with breast cancer on Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo provided to Decaturish)

From a young age, Janel Jeras Green showed signs of the strong-willed woman with a love for people and the community she would eventually become, her mother Carol Jeras said.

Green, a loving mother, community leader and fierce activist, passed away on Nov. 2 after fighting a long battle with breast cancer, according to an obituary written by her sister, Jacqui. Janel was 55 and her passing is felt by her 16-year-old son, multiple family members, neighbors and fellow community organizers who worked alongside and learned from Green’s work in fighting for social justice in Georgia.

“She was the heart of the movement,” said Gerald Griggs, state president of the Georgia NAACP and Green’s partner in starting the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice. “She was the heartbeat of social justice here in Georgia. And so to fill that hole I don’t know if that’s possible, from the Women’s March to March For Our Lives, to the resistance that was built from 2017 to now, she was always right there.”

Green was raised around discussions of social movements in her household, Carol Jeras, her mother, said. Jeras said she talked with her two daughters about the women’s rights and civil rights movements that she witnessed and read about when she grew up.

“I made them sensitive to those things, and I would ask them questions so that they would have to think about well ‘How would you feel?’” Jeras said.

Throughout her time in the workforce, Green was always interacting with people in different spaces. Each job exposed Green to different experiences. She worked at The Boys and Girls Club before working with charter schools. She also worked for a public housing company in Chicago, Jeras said.

Green eventually decided to move to Georgia, where her mother and sister were located. It was also where she met her husband, Robert Sanders Green Sr., a partner who matched her energy and kept her on her toes while also supporting her.

“She and her husband had a lot of political discussions and social justice conversations,” Jeras said. “They would just bounce ideas off of each other and challenge each other and say, ‘No, you’re wrong about that,’ and they’d be looking things up all the time, and always having to prove everything to each other.”

Robert died of cardiac arrest in 2020.

It was after former President Trump was elected when Green was motivated to increase her efforts in community organizing and activism.

She helped organize the Women’s March, which Jeras remembers was one of the first times she got to see Green speak and see a side of her that was more than a daughter, “I’m like, gosh, that’s my daughter? I didn’t know she could do that.”

Jeras said it was a privilege to see this side of her daughter.

(Left to right) Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., take part in the Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Atlanta. Thousands of people marched through Atlanta one day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Janel Green (bottom right in white shirt) was one of the organizers of the march. She died on Nov. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Green’s work didn’t stop with the Women’s March. She created the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice with Griggs, helped organize the March For Our Lives event and she marched with the late Civil Rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

She also mentored others on how to organize and did her best to elevate the voices of those who are marginalized while also protecting them. She especially recognized her privilege as a white woman and was conscious of her actions when working with different communities.

“She was the friend that challenged me and I can honestly say that without her, I would have made so many mistakes in working with communities and not being thoughtful around ways to do activism and advocacy because I didn’t know anything about any of that,” her friend Lara Martin said. “I was just somebody that wanted to help and to be part of social justice work, and she helped me do that…I would not be the person that I am without her.”

Green was also involved in registering voters and organizing around elections. Griggs said Green’s work in organizing thousands of people and registering voters was key in electing U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

“Janel’s remarkable contributions to creating a stronger Georgia and helping others realize their power to make it happen has left a profound void,” Meredith Lilly, senior advisor to Warnock, said in an email. “Her unwavering support for Sen. Warnock’s mission to build a beloved community and bring the people of DeKalb County into the fold of our democratic process was commendable — and it is a legacy that those who knew her best will continue to carry on.”

Janel Green tears up as she hugs Staci Fox, left, CEO of Planned Parenthood southeast, in celebration on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Atlanta, after Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become 46th president of the United States. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Even as she continued to organize, Green was still working and raising her son, Sanders Jr. Jeras said Green liked to keep her personal life private, but she was always there for her son, getting him to try different sports, researching the best schools and supporting him.

Green also kept her battle with breast cancer private as well, not wanting to be seen as a cancer victim even as she advocated for changes to the healthcare system for others, Jeras said.

“When she was starting to get sick this past year, she’d be laying on the couch and resting and then all of a sudden she’d be making a phone call, and she would just light up because she was talking about some issue or something that meant a lot to the other person,” Jeras said. “So she continued with that as long as she could. It was amazing. It’s like this is what makes her so happy.”

Green didn’t want to step back from her work as an organizer and connector, not when it was something she was passionate about.

“When you’re in this movement you don’t really understand what the people the other movements dealt with until you start losing soldiers, and we lost a general in Janel Green,” Griggs said. “I don’t know how we fill that, but I know she’d want us to go on and to love her son and love her family members and carry on her dream to change Georgia, and we will do that.”

The family asks that in Janel’s memory, people “donate blood to help other chemotherapy patients,” according to the obituary written by Green’s sister.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Decaturish.