Dialogues on Reparations Part Three: Exploring Reparation Models in Institutions

September 21, 2022

Overlapping Roles Unite Institutions on Exploring Reparations

On September 21, 2022, the Boston Foundation hosted the third in our series of conversations on the topic of reparations. Our earlier discussions focused on the history and positioning of the concept of reparations and engaged panelists from other cities in sharing reparations efforts and plans from around the country. This time, the conversation turned to how institutions can approach reparations within their sectors, with a focus on higher education, health care and philanthropy.

As moderator, King Boston Executive Director Imari Paris Jeffries prefaced his questions by saying, “Our goal is to build collective understanding of the term reparations. We have first to acknowledge harm so we can move forward to fight structural racism and start repair.” He asked, what are the roles different kinds of institutions can play in this work?

Speaking on behalf of higher education, Cynthia Neal Spence, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Justice Fellows Program at Spelman College, was clear: Institutions of higher education serve as sites for spreading understanding of and exploring actions around reparations. “We are grooming the next generation of leaders,” she said, listing several ways that is happening: 

  1. We must educate, to make sure students and faculty are well informed. 
  2. We must partner with other truth, reconciliation and reparations centers—in higher ed and beyond. 
  3. We must offer a way to establish community views of how reparations would look locally.

From the health care perspective, Michael Curry, President and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, also stressed the importance of education, or perhaps of re-learning what we thought we knew. He quoted Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895), the first African American woman to earn a U.S. medical degree: “They seem to forget there’s a cause for every ailment, and it may be within their power to remove it.” Crumpler was talking about the medical community’s treatment of the formerly enslaved, Curry explained, but the statement applies just as well to health and social ailments today.

“In the healthcare community, we are looking at the ‘taint of race’ in our system. What does it mean that you couldn’t go to a hospital until the 1960s due to segregation? What does it mean to be uninsured? That by the time you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s stage IV and not I. We are starting to provide context and understanding about how we got where we are; why we are dealing with disproportionate disease, morbidity and mortality.” Similar historical dynamics lurk behind incarceration rates, relationships with police, being unbanked and lacking wealth. “It is truth catching up to history,” as Curry put it. “Once we get the awakening [to these dynamics], we can talk about the policy. Black Americans deserve to be repositioned, not only to compensate for slavery but for the failed promises since.” 


Click here to watch the webinar


Welcome & Panel Introduction

Leigh Gaspar, Vice President and Special Assistant to the President & CEO, The Boston Foundation

Conversation and Audience Q&A

Michael Curry, Esq., President & CEO, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers
Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director, King Boston (Co-Moderator)
M. Lee Pelton, President & CEO, The Boston Foundation (Moderator)
Dr. Cynthia Neal Spence, Associate Professor of Sociology; Director of the UNCF/Mellon Programs, Spelman College

Closing Remarks

M. Lee Pelton, President & CEO, The Boston Foundation

Resources Referenced by Panelists

Crafting Democratic Futures Project – network of scholars and community-based organizations developing research-informed reparation plans for specific locations

Racial Equity in Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table – Echoing Green/Bridgespan report

Out in the Rural – film (23:00) about 1967 Tufts-Delta Community Health Center in Mississippi

The Color of Law – by Richard Rothstein

The Sum of Us – by Heather McGhee

The Cumulative Costs of Racism and the Bill for Black Reparations – paper by William Darity

U.S. and the Holocaust – Ken Burns's three-part television series

For TBF President and CEO Lee Pelton, philanthropy’s focus in this work should be to seek change via the balance of power. “The Boston Foundation focuses on supporting leaders and creating opportunities to advance the development of future leaders in multiple spheres.” He cited recent sector research showing that Black-led entities received 24 percent less philanthropic funding than their White-led peers and a far lower proportion of unrestricted assets. He made the point that the challenge is not just monetary.

“Reparations is not about cutting a check. It’s about repairing a community. It begins with unwinding economic and social policies that led to harm. Reparative justice then calls for programs to, for instance, increase home ownership. It will be costly—but it’s not merely cutting a check. Erasure of systemic wealth disparity must be a priority of reparations efforts.” 

Spence pointed out that the establishment of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) was itself an act of reparations, providing access to education that had been denied to enslaved persons and their families. “We are developing the future leaders that Lee is talking about. When we teach individuals who have suffered the consequences of [inequitable] systems, it is our role and responsibility to prepare them to be changemakers.” 

Curry expanded on that point—and on the impressive extent to which leading Black professionals are associated with HBCUs—to say, “This is not just about what the system did to Black people, but about a diminished democracy. We are not living up to our potential. If we relegate talent to a small pocket of people—White males—we’ve hurt ourselves. This conversation is about repositioning a group in this country whose absence hurts us all.” 

The conversation accelerated and expanded to cover the anticipated costs of broad reparations and the real costs of doing nothing, and a series of pressing needs: to vote and be a “reparations voter;” to fight “zero-sum” thinking, to bring cultural considerations to credit scoring systems; to identify and mend other environmental problems holding people back; to form multisector partnerships and interdisciplinary teams that will engage in social justice and advocacy; and to combat misconceptions about reparations. 

Plus the need to always, always keep learning.  

As Spence urged, channeling a gospel standard: “Don’t get weary, children!"