Opening a Conversation on Reparations

The Boston Foundation takes seriously its opportunity-its responsibility-to explore and elucidate the subject of reparations with a broader audience.

February 16, 2022

By M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO

When I assumed the role of President and CEO of the Boston Foundation in June of 2021, I was no stranger to the Foundation's civic leadership in Boston and, in particular, its singular ability in convene thinkers and doers to discuss, debate and examine big, substantive contemporary issues. As someone who has been civically engaged my entire adult life, now I am grateful for the opportunity to support and expand that convening role. Indeed, the enduring obligation of the Foundation as a civic leader is to create the space and the context for important, critical, public dialogue.

During the last two years, all of us have experienced the very public exposure of the deep-seated and structural disparities that have long plagued our country. It is no longer possible for anyone of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the systemic barriers that intensify the many challenges faced by Black Americans and people of color—challenges that intersect with other forms of injustice based on class, wealth, gender and ethnicity.

After George Floyd’s murder, I shared a deeply personal letter with the Emerson College community, sharing my reflections and experiences as a Black man, living in America. I recounted my early years growing up in Wichita, Kansas, my mother working as a housekeeper for rich White folks, and my dad a laborer until he got a good paying job with the city. I told how I have been called the n-word in every city I have lived in and pulled over for driving while Black. As I have assumed various leadership roles over the last few decades, those credentials have helped to provide a vaguely protective shield, but that shield is not impenetrable, nor does it bring me peace.

I made the promise when I took the helm of the Foundation that we would be bold, courageous and daring in our role as a civic leader and ensure that we are elevating voices that have been ignored for far too long. Since joining the Foundation I have been meeting with leaders in the field of reparations on the local, state and national levels. I’ve listened and I’ve learned, recognizing that both practices require a persistent commitment.

Through these conversations, statewide convenings and public hearings, it became evident to me that there is a broad spectrum of engagement with the controversial concept of reparations, ranging from longtime scholars and experts to novices, to those who are merely curious. I know that there are some people who have a very strong and negative reaction to the term reparations and others who understand the concept, but do not understand why it matters.

As the Boston City Council considers an Ordinance Creating a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans, the Council recognizes that there are several different ways of thinking about how to repair the historical social, political, economic and other harms done to African Americans, including but not limited to rehabilitation, restitution, compensation and reconciliation, with a guarantee that these harms will never be repeated.

Several other municipalities in the Commonwealth as well as cities and states from one end of the country to the other have taken up this matter in earnest. At the federal level, H.R. 40, a bill introduced year after year but which continues to languish in the Congress, would establish a 15-member commission to study the effects of slavery and discriminatory policies on African Americans and recommend appropriate remedies, including reparations.

These various concepts of reparations are being discussed and debated, even as most Americans do not have a complete or full understanding of what they are. The increasingly frequent conversations about reparations in our nation’s civic and political spheres provide us with an opportunity—and some would say with the obligation—to use our civic leadership platform, especially our convening role, in expanding and elucidating the conversation about reparations to a broader audience.

In the coming months, the Boston Foundation will be hosting a series of conversations on reparations. Because we are still struggling with the pandemic, the dialogues will be held virtually and reach a wide audience.

Our goal is to make progress in building a collective understanding of the term so that we can understand more fully its importance and its nuances. Timely discourse can lay the groundwork for meaningful change that has the potential to benefit everyone. As Heather McGhee writes in her brilliant book, The Sum of Us, “It’s time to tell the truth, with a nationwide process that enrolls all of us in setting the facts straight so that we can move forward with a new story, together.”

The first of the Boston Foundation hosted dialogues is online on February 17 at 10:30 a.m. Register to attend, or visit in the following days to see a recording of the event. Future events will be posted on