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State and local reparations leaders gathered in Evanston Dec. 9 to 11 for a symposium hosted by the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and FirstRepair, the nonprofit launched by former Evanston Council member Robin Rue Simmons.

More than 60 leaders flew in from local reparations movements in cities including Detroit; San Francisco; Boston; St. Louis; and Asheville, North Carolina. A Friday town hall included national and international leaders on the issue such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Eric Phillips of Guyana; and Vanessa Hall Harper, chair of the City Council in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The audience applauds at the Dec. 10 national town hall meeting on reparations, at First Church of God in Evanston. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown) Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

“We haven’t had people all around the country represented talking about redress for Black people since Reconstruction,” said Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

Howard told the crowd at First Church of God in Evanston on Friday that reparations have “always been on the lips of some of us in this country” – with advocates including Callie House, who co-founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association; the Nation of Islam; and organizations like N’COBRA – “but not mainstream America,” until now. 

Much of the weekend was focused on the Evanston Reparations Initiative – Evanston local reparations are the most structured municipal program in the country. But the meeting also featured robust conversations about different ways to achieve reparations locally.

“I don’t want people to come away with the notion that this model is the only formulation … there can be variations,” said Ron Daniels, a convener of NAARC. “Evanston adopted a variation … that’s working here. But that’s not the only way that it can be done.”

Ron Daniels, convener of the National African-American Reparations Commission, addresses symposium attendees on Dec. 10. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

One of the reasons NAARC called the gathering, Daniels told attendees Friday night, is for collaboration, cooperation and network building. 

Qualifying criteria for reparations

On Thursday, at the first of the symposium’s workshops, Daniels explained how NAARC came to be. Formed in 2015, the national coalition was inspired by the CARICOM reparations commission, set up in the Caribbean islands. 

In 2013, 13 prime ministers unanimously agreed to pursue reparations via CARICOM, which seeks to advance the legal, ethical and moral case for reparatory justice from all colonial entities that had slaves in the Caribbean. NAARC has created a preliminary reparations plan to help “guide the struggle for reparations” that is specific to people of African descent in the U.S.

Next, the symposium went over the qualifying criteria that NAARC has created for municipal reparations.

“We went through this exercise because we wanted to make sure that people weren’t saying it wasn’t reparations, just some radical form of public policy that they were attempting to get passed,” N’COBRA’s Howard said, as leaders from both organizations led the discussion. 

An attendee holds up the Pan-African flag and a Black Power fist during the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, on Dec. 10 at the First Church of God in Evanston. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown) Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

Here are the six criteria a municipality must meet to have a reparations program that would be considered legitimate by NAARC.

  1. The municipality publicly acknowledges the harm that occurred, as well as the legacy of the harm in the present day.
  2. The injured party must decide what the injury is and the repair.
  3. The injured party must control the resources, and the community decides how funds are spent.
  4. Reparations are policies directed at specific groups to repair specific harms committed by society. 
  5. The community and  governmental body must develop a stakeholder group. The stakeholder group must be chosen through a democratic process, with the public kept informed.
  6. Municipalities should retain consultants to advise community stakeholders and government on ways to develop and implement reparations initiatives. 

Evolution of Evanston reparations 

Later in the same workshop, Simmons discussed the evolution of Evanston’s Reparations Initiative, dating to 2002, when then-Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, now a NAARC commissioner and circuit court judge, led the passage of a resolution in support of HR 40, the federal reparations bill. The initiative ended with the closing of restorative housing applications last month. 

Cook County Circuit Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a former Evanston alderman, addresses attendees at the national town hall meeting on reparations at First Church of God. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown) Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

“We think of the Little Rock Nine as being parallel to the Evanston 16. We will first award 16 beneficiaries [restorative housing grants],” Simmons said. “A small but tangible first step. And there’s precedent for local initiatives really driving historic, monumental, transformative federal policy.”

As activists and grassroots leaders from cities across the nation listened to the presentation, a robust discussion emerged as the local leaders asked Simmons questions about the city’s process. 

A man from Asheville, North Carolina, asked what advice she had for an outside entity putting pressure on a city that won’t cooperate. 

Simmons responded, “Your independent body that you’re working with, your community group, has to in some way collaborate with the city.” She recommended that Asheville focus on education and finding community partners to educate and inform spaces that Black people are not in.

Another out-of-state visitor asked how Evanston settled on $10 million as the figure for the initial phase of reparations. 

Simmons responded that the $10 million to be collected from the city cannabis tax is only an initial investment in reparations and that Evanston reparations leaders have a lot more work to do to study the harm impact locally and then project the costs. 

A panel of Evanston leaders and national reparations movement representatives appear on stage Dec. 10 at First Church of God. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown) Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

Most of the visitors recognize Simmons as the face of the local Evanston movement since she led the passage of the local initiative in 2019. “Who leads the movement now?” one asked. “And how did you codify it?” asked another. 

Current City Council member Peter Braithwaite, chair of the city reparations committee, explained Evanston’s process of passing an ordinance that created the Reparations Committee and made it a permanent body for the city.

“So it doesn’t matter who’s in office, there’s three aldermen that’s here on this committee,” he said. “There are four members of the community that are on this committee, so it’s a permanent part of the city’s infrastructure.” 

Local efforts across the country

Several conference attendees told the RoundTable that reparations discussions are underway in their communities.  

Kathleen Anderson of Amherst, Massachusetts, is co-chair of the New England chapter of N’COBRA. Anderson said that in Massachusetts, there is a statewide conversation about the issue and there have been efforts to pass a state reparations bill.

Will Bowles, from Kansas City, Missouri, said that a reparations coalition there started a year ago. The group is putting forward ideas for local projects and “we are at the precipice of getting those delivered,” Bowles said. “We wanted to collaborate with our people and see what they’re doing and see what else is going on around the nation.”

Bowles said that before any revolution, “our people come together, and it didn’t just happen overnight.” He said that it takes people coming together and talking about the best strategies to move forward. “This is the calling of our ancestors, to come together. And that’s what is being fulfilled.”

Robert Elijah Thomas, an activist from Asheville, North Carolina, told the RoundTable that his city’s local reparations movement is finally up and running. A resolution was passed in July 2020 apologizing for the city’s role in slavery and appointing a city manager to study city harm against Black residents.

In July 2021, Asheville activists secured a $2.1 million commitment to reparations from their city, about one-fifth of Evanston’s commitment of $10 million via the cannabis tax fund.

“I’m an activist on the outside. So of course, I’m not satisfied with what is currently going on, because I see the potential of how it could be better,” Thomas said about his hometown movement.  “But it is better than nothing at all.” 

Thomas said a key takeaway for him was learning how to set up an independent funding structure for the reparations commission that is controlled by the Black community and not elected officials. Thomas also said he learned a lot about the prerequisites required for a plan to be formally called reparations. 

When asked which local initiatives he admires, Thomas said that each city has something he likes, and he views none of them as perfect. Evanston has the most fully formed version, he says, but his favorite is in Providence, Rhode Island, where, earlier this year, the city released a 194-page report detailing 400 years of Rhode island’s abuses against Black people.

“Their city, their mayor, and their elected leaders meet regularly, weekly, with community activists and community members while structuring their reparations process,” Thomas said. “So it changes this narrative of … ‘We’re gonna do it for you.’ They’re actually doing it with their community and in a completely different fashion.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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