Dialogues on Reparations: Exploring Reparation Models Around the Country

April 12, 2022

In the second of its three-part series on the subject of reparations, the Boston Foundation sought a national perspective through the insights of elected leaders undertaking reparations efforts in their municipality or state. Host moderators Lee Pelton, President and CEO of TBF, and Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of King Boston, held a lively discussion with Dr. Shirley Weber, California Secretary of State; Robin Rue Simmons, Founder and Executive Director of First Repair and former alderman in Evanston, Ill.; and Tania Fernandes Anderson, District 7 Councilor, Boston City Council.

Using the theme of the series’ first discussion on the history and concept of reparations as a springboard, Pelton asked whether the term itself was well understood and how to navigate its use. Rue Simmons recalled that in Evanston, “Some supporters said, ‘Call it anything but reparations!’ But we wanted to be bold, and use the term. It’s important.” On the flip side, in California, Weber reported, “There’s no problem with the terminology. People are familiar with it from the reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.”

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The responses highlighted one of the biggest challenges for advancing reparations: the issue is massive enough to call for national-level resources, but experiences, understanding, and opportunities on the ground vary locally. The respective projects these two oversee suggest the range of ways to enact reparations and a common need for education, outreach, and partnerships. 

In Evanston, with its deep history of redlining and segregation, the focus is on Black homeownership. With funding from the sales tax revenue of adult-use cannabis collected by the city, boosted by philanthropy, the program has recently disbursed its first $400,000 in a $10 million program of reparations to help 16 Black homeowners pay down a mortgage, make home improvements or pass the money on to a descendant. Rue Simmons, who helped get the initiative underway during her tenure as Evanston’s 5th Ward Alderman (2017–2021), said, “The first thing we needed was community education. What is reparations? Why is it different from equity? We held community meetings, town halls, church convenings, and ward meetings to develop partners to back the program. We needed historians, philanthropists, academics, community leaders and electeds all on board. The faith community has had a big role, rallying both advocacy and giving.”

In California, the current movement evolved from tackling issues affecting African Americans there, largely around policing, profiling and shootings. The state’s Black Caucus realized they needed to do more, explained Weber. “Cities and towns had limited resources, so statewide was the way to go. The governor and other leadership were supportive. Even Republicans supported it. We began the conversation [on reparations] at the state level with locals having input.” The California Assembly created a statewide task force to hash out the details and scope of a reparations plan. Last month, the task force decided to prioritize reparations for African Americans whose ancestors had been enslaved in California or had lived there in the 19th century. There’s a strong focus on California’s unique history. Weber noted, “You can’t run through it in a minute. You have to spend time educating the people who are going to give you the money. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and effort … to forge allies for doing what is right. Relationships are extremely important.”

In her first term on the Boston City Council, Fernandes Anderson has already sensed that and agreed: “If reality is to match rhetoric, we all have to work together in good faith and listen to each other.”

Paris Jeffries and Pelton asked questions about pushing for systemic change and deflecting fears that reparations just mean “writing a blank check.” “There has been so much harm,” said Rue Simmons, “that I’m not for either/or. I support both direct and systemic reparations.” She added, “In our community meetings, hearing from the Black community about what form of reparations they’d want to see, a cash check was always the last priority. Education, housing, food, and the collective benefits have led the list.” Helping Black homeowners remain in their neighborhoods and resist displacement by gentrification has a broader impact on the community than a simple check would imply. In California, Weber pointed out, “A cash payout may not go far unless we’re talking a whole lot of money! The average cost of a house is approaching $1 million. That’s why the effort has to be ongoing and multipronged. We need actions that will change direction, not make some people happy for a short period of time.” 

As a city councilor, Fernandes Anderson is currently involved in developing the commission on reparations that the Council recently approved for Boston, and was heartened by the related efforts around the country. “I’m impressed by the tenacity and vigor of teams seeing things through from beginning to end.”

Tenacity defines efforts on the national front as well. House Resolution 40 (the bill number references the 19th-century promise of “40 acres and a mule” for formerly enslaved people) would establish a national commission on reparations. First introduced in 1989, it has been reintroduced every session since; newer versions have expanded the commission’s role from studying the issue to recommending remedies. Rue Simmons mentioned that the bill has more cosponsors in the House than ever, and a Senate companion bill. “There is the will, the heart to advance,” she said, “and the work we’re doing at the local and state levels informs congresspeople. They should be sending it to a vote. Call your representative!”