Fifth Ward aldermanic candidate Bobby Burns would like to see certain provisions included in the reparations program that is expected to be up for discussion at the March 22 City Council meeting.

“I believe that we need to make sure that we provide direct cash benefits for those who prefer it,” he said. “We need to make sure that we have a commission that allows people that were directly injured or harmed to determine how funds are allocated. We need to make sure that that we have a participatory budgeting process that allows for that same community to direct funds.”

But Carolyn Murray, his opponent in the race, said the proposal now on the table is not true reparations but closer to the first-time homebuyer program that she used years ago to buy her house and then slid out of view.

“To reintroduce it as a reparations option,” she said, “I think this is just like a smack in the face to the ancestry that we have here in the Fifth Ward, as well as those people who could be in the hundreds of thousands that would be eligible to receive this type of compensation.”

To “marginalize it to only 16,” the initial number of potential recipients of the initial distribution, “is just very disrespectful,” she added.

The two candidates made their comments at the League of Women Voters of Evanston forum March 13 for candidates in the City’s Second  and Fifth Wards.

The League, along with the Evanston Public Library, has been sponsoring the candidate forums leading into the April 6 General Election.

The reparations program is expected to have strong impact on the Fifth Ward, which has the City’s highest percentage of African-American residents, including families dating back generations.

The program is designed to compensate Black community members for the discriminatory housing and banking practices which took place in Evanston between 1919 and 1969.

Black people who lived in the City before 1969, or are descendants of family members who did, would be eligible for $25,000 to be used toward a home purchase or mortgage.

The revenue is being generated through the City’s tax on cannabis sales. Officials are looking to make the first disbursement of $400,000, giving $25,000 to 16 qualified people.

At the March 13 LWVE forum, the candidates were asked about some of the criticism of the City Reparations Committee proposal, including its emphasis on housing assistance.

Mr. Burns said in addition to the option for direct funds, “we need to make sure that that we have a participatory budgeting process that allows for that same community to direct funds. We need to make sure that we identify new sources of revenue. … And we need to just do a better job of educating the community about the program and the details around it.”

Ms. Murray said she remembered early meetings on the issue and residents expressing their “interest and desire of being represented, and even being a part of the movement of this.”

Stemming Violence a Priority 

At the forum held virtual because of social distancing constraints, the League’s moderator Josie Yanguas asked the candidates about the violence that has hit the Ward recently and what short-term term and long-term actions they would support to prevent it from happening in the future.

Two men were found shot to death and another man injured outside a residence on the 1800 block of Hovland Court late morning March 12.

Ms. Murray recalled her own experience, losing her son Justin to gun violence in 2012.

The shooting occurred as she was organizing the City’s first major gun buyback event.

“Part of the reason why [I organized the program] is because I heard gunshots outside my window,” said Ms. Murray, a retired Navy veteran. “Some of my shipmates in Iraq did not get as much gun shots in Iraq that I was experiencing outside my window.”

The most recent shootings occurred only a few blocks from where her son was killed, she said. She said the City needs “to strategically plan to have active gun prevention and prevention for crime moving forward.”

She cited her own work with three of the City’s former police chiefs and their receptiveness to a “serious collective community-based response to gun violence.”

 Mr. Burns spoke of a number of keys to addressing what he said has been an ongoing issue.

“When a conflict escalates to the point where someone is using a firearm on another, the best course of action is violence interruption, conflict mitigation,” he said.

“I think the second thing that we need to do is … we need some type of getaway for our young men and women, where they are open to going somewhere where they can find community, where they can find mentorship, where they can find structure, discipline and opportunities that they may not be able to find here in the Fifth Ward, and we need to identify ways to fund it.”

As for a third strategy, “We need jobs in the community. There is nothing more important to housing stability and employment stability. [With] those two things in your life, you’re much more likely to be able to reach your full potential.”

Asked by Ms. Yanguas what were the issues specific or unique to the Ward that needed to be addressed by the next Council, both candidates included violence in their response.

Ms. Murray noted that she has been advocating for safety from violence since 2012. She was the invited guest of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky at Barack Obama’s State of the Union address the following year because of the gun buyback program which had removed 300 weapons off the street.

“It is not normal to hear gunshots outside of your house. It is not normal to lose a neighbor, at least once every year,” she said. “And I will never be comfortable – I will never not want to push for a gun buyback, gun awareness community block clubs – just getting the information out, that we will not tolerate any type of violence in our neighborhood, that we are collectively working against and creating safe environments for children.”

Mr. Burns said bringing in “conflict interrupters,” trained mediators, to mediate ongoing conflict would be among his goals.

He also named affordability as another priority.

“We have houses in the ward that are going for four hundred, six hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Folks can’t afford that, so we need to find both affordable houses to purchase, but also better determine what people can pay and what they’re willing to pay to live in Evanston.”

The entire forum can be viewed on the League of Women Voters f Evanston website.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.