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Where media meets social justice: alumna Chelsea Fuller on her career in community advocacy

Chelsea Fuller

Chelsea Fuller (BSJ, 2011) was twelve years old when she met civil rights icon John Lewis at Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, the unofficial headquarters of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Fuller had been traveling with her mother, Marjorie, and a group of students from Knox College to landmarks throughout the south to learn about and celebrate Black history in America.

“Representative Lewis spoke individually to every person in the room,” Fuller said. “I was a budding writer who loved my people, my history and my culture. He told me ‘there's nothing more powerful than telling stories and there's nothing more powerful than loving and being committed to your people.’”

Eight years later, Fuller transferred to WVU from Kent State where she was studying journalism and Africana studies. Her mother, who had previously been the assistant dean for intercultural life at Knox College, had just been named the director of WVU’s Center for Black Culture and Research.

“I grew up on the [Kent State] campus around the faculty in the Pan-African Studies Department who were literally members of my family,” Chelsea said. “So, leaving that community to come to a new place, a very white place, where we didn’t know anybody was really difficult. But our family was welcomed with open arms and I was able to make friends and acclimate quickly in the work that I was doing in student leadership.”

At Kent, Fuller helped lead and was a part of Black United Students, the University’s NAACP chapter, UHURU Magazine and the Academic S.T.A.R.S. Program. But at WVU in the late 2000s, those avenues of community involvement, particularly for students, weren’t established yet.

For Fuller, this presented an opportunity. After becoming active in the Black Student Union and identifying critical gaps in engagement, Fuller went on to create WVU’s own chapters of the NAACP and the Association of Black Journalists, the Minority Student Organization Council and the S.T.A.R.S. Program for Mountaineers.

These organizations remain active at WVU and in the College of Media today, creating spaces for and supporting LGBTQ+ students, students of color, students entering male-dominated fields and more, along with their allies.

“For students of color and those who identify as a member of a marginalized group, community can be really critical to whether or not students are able to navigate their college experience in a fulfilling way,” Fuller said. “When you have safe spaces in the form of student organizations, especially organizations that are supported by faculty and staff, students can see that the issues that are important to them are also important to other people. There's space for them to engage in critical discussion, and to brainstorm and dream about what the campus community could and should look like.”

Upon graduation, Fuller took a full-time position with the Dominion Post as a reporter and copy editor. Geri Ferrara, who retired in 2016, gave Fuller the freedom and encouragement to cover diverse stories for a local news outlet that lacked diversity in both the newsroom and on the front page.

“I couldn't just launch off and tell these beautiful stories about the black heroes of West Virginia if I didn't know how to report,” Fuller said. “Geri sat with me and ripped my stories apart and taught me how to be a good writer and how to be critical and how to be thoughtful, and a good steward of other people's stories. And that career moment was pivotal for me. It showed me that there are allies in unsuspecting places that you can lean on and that will help get you where you want to go.”

Fuller went on to earn a master’s degree in Strategic Communications from American University and transitioned from a practicing journalist to an on-the-ground organizer and communications expert. Today, Fuller is the deputy communications director for Blackbird, a ‘high-impact, low-ego’ movement-building agency that supports campaigns like the Movement for Black Lives, #MeToo and more.

The firm was founded in response to the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, uprisings following the murder of Mike Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. Until about six months ago, Blackbird’s work was ‘no-visibility’ and strictly behind the scenes – aiding organizations committed to Black liberation, civil rights and social progress with strategic communication, media, policy and overall capacity support.

“In 2014, we were still in a moment where the feds were bursting into the homes of organizers in Ferguson, so [Blackbird] really was created to keep people as safe as possible, and to ensure that the stories that were being told out of these spaces were being told in ways that were empowering for the folks who were otherwise being left out of the conversation or whose voices were being erased,” she said. “My entire career has been about making sure that people of color have a space to share their stories with integrity.”