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From left: Dino Robinson, Sebastian Nalls, Cicely Fleming and Robin Rue Simmons

One year has passed since the Evanston City Council voted to authorize the restorative housing program, the first of the local reparations initiatives, and it’s been more than two months since the first 16 recipients were selected to receive $25,000 housing grants.

“Because we are the first, we are celebrated for our bold step and that commitment,” Robin Rue Simmons told the RoundTable. “But we’re also looked at to solve the race gap in wealth, education and other disparities.”

For background, the city’s Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program is the first initiative in Evanston’s $10 million commitment; 4% of the total ($400,000) is for housing.

Applicants deemed eligible for the program and selected to participate may receive up to $25,000 to buy or remodel a home or to pay down a mortgage. The home must be in Evanston and must be the applicant’s primary residence. The $400,000 figure is enough to pay for 16 grants of $25,000.

To be eligible for the program – the application window closed Nov. 5 – Black Evanstonians must fit one of three categories:

  • Black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969.
  • Direct descendants of a Black resident from 1919 to 1969.
  • Someone able to submit evidence proving housing discrimination due to the city’s policies or practices after 1969.

The anniversary of the program provides an opportunity to reflect on the different opinions of those advocating for and against the local reparations effort. 

The RoundTable sat down with four people who have made notable contributions to discussions on the issue: Robin Rue Simmons, Dino Robinson, Cicely Fleming and Sebastian Nalls. 

Rue Simmons, former council member of the 5th Ward, spearheaded the local reparations efforts. She’s the current executive director of First Repair, a nonprofit she founded dedicated to guiding the local reparations movement at a national level. 

Dino Robinson is the founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, an archive that documents Black North Shore History. Robinson also authored a 70-plus page report on discrimination in Evanston. 

Cicely Fleming is the former council member of Evanston’s 9th Ward and is the only council member to vote against the reparations proposal. 

Sebastian Nalls is a 21-year-old Evanstonian who was also a 2020 Evanston candidate for mayor. He founded the Evanston Rejects Reparations Facebook page. 

The leaders recently took time to discuss with the RoundTable the most controversial points of conversation concerning the local reparations effort.

Should we actually call this program ‘reparations’?

Rue Simmons said the restorative housing program is a form of reparations because it is a remedy in direct correlation to specific harm in Evanston enforced by the municipal government in the form of racist zoning laws that persisted until 1969. 

“It’s reparations because we acknowledged our harm,” she said.“We have made a commitment to repair that harm with remedies that we can measure the outcomes.”

It isn’t simply a “social equity program,” because it’s specifically for Black residents, Simmons said. When we call it “reparations,” she continued, it encourages institutional white leaders and faith organizations to learn about their own role in sustaining racist practices, because we make the practice commonplace.

Fleming does not believe the housing program qualifies as reparations because the money would go directly to a bank or a contractor instead of to the recipient. She said that she doesn’t think it’s reparations when recipients can only spend the money the way you tell them.

“Only addressing the needs of 17 people with no other plan in mind is not causing repair, it’s causing harm,” Fleming told the RoundTable. 

She said the current reparations fund is reliant on a cannabis user tax that Evanston has no control over the use of, so it isn’t sufficient, and if the city really wanted to repair harm, it should identify a steady stream of money that is usable right now.

Robinson said that he considers the program a form of reparations and insisted “there’s no such thing as ‘real’ reparations,” because nothing has ever been implemented before. 

“So when we start something, there’s always going to be critique.” He said that the process will take time to show an impact and that we can’t expect to fix 400 years of adversity in a few years. 

He said that what Evanston is doing will take small steps, which is demonstrated by history. The Civil Rights movement took 70 years to gain traction after Reconstruction ended in the late 19th Century, he added.

He said that the city making an investment into the homes of Black Evanstonians is strategic to ensure that the Black community remains and thrives. 

He believes that “banks get rich” is a poor argument against this program, because “we live in a country that has caused harm to Blacks from every angle,” citing how Black people still attend school after centuries of educational discrimination, still attend hospitals after health discrimination and still use government services after the government has caused harm. 

Nalls said that it’s difficult to say if the housing grants count as reparations because there are so many different stances on what reparations are, with equity programs on one end and direct cash payments on the other. 

He said his main criteria would be that the program is designed by the community itself, and he “felt that that really hasn’t occurred” with the current project.

Has there been enough community engagement on local reparations?

Nalls told the RoundTable that he learned about discontent among Black Evanstonians while campaigning door-to-door during his mayoral run in 2020, during which the 21-year-old said many of the Black residents he spoke to didn’t have a good understanding of the direction the program was going to go. 

He said the housing program did not have enough community involvement in its approval, considering that a proposal was drafted after a series of community meetings, but that proposal wasn’t changed after it was openly critiqued, instead, it was rushed to a vote. Because Nalls believes it wasn’t community-informed, he’d rather not call it “reparations” if an overwhelming majority of people disagree with the designation.

Rue Simmons says that dozens of meetings occurred since 2019 and through the drafting of the first proposal, which passed in March 2021. 

“The very vocal few that have such strong opinions about the reparations program were absent from the process, mostly, with very little exception,” she said. The list of recommendations that came from those meetings can be found here

Rue Simmons said there is always more opportunity for community engagement. She said the program has not concluded, and that she invites those with critiques to join the process. 

“Legislation and policy work is not done on Facebook.”

Robinson agreed that there was ample community engagement. He said that those who believe that only became involved in the local discussions after the cannabis reparations fund made national headlines. He believes that because many critics missed the process, they wanted to “start all over again.” 

Flemings agreed with Nalls, and added, in her formal statement on the matter, that the timeframe of the passage of the proposal was not dictated by the people, and believes that the proposal was rushed to accommodate election season. 

In terms of the ongoing monthly public reparations committee meetings, which occur at 9 a.m.  on the first Thursday of each month, Nalls points out that these meetings are in many ways still inaccessible. They generally occur in person, and the meetings are not recorded.

“I’m not a part of these discussions, and I try to speak up for a certain position, the response is always, ‘Well, you should have been there in those discussions.’ … But if I can’t get to the civic center, how can I possibly participate?”

Is Evanston unfairly scrutinized?

Simmons said that Evanston gets extra critique as the first reparations program because people look to it to solve the wealth gap but, she said, the Evanston city government is only one of many “institutional and governmental” accomplices that are responsible to pay reparations back to Black residents. 

“I am fully aware that there is no single policy, no budget that could pass in Evanston that can atone for the harms of Black America.”

Robinson said that similar critiques also arose during the Civil Rights movement, where there were many groups with different ideas about how to accomplish what was ultimately the same goal. 

He noted how those working behind the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., those following the teachings of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, those aligned with the Black Panther Party and others aligned with the Southern Christian Leadership Council had different approaches but went for the same thing, he said. 

“They were sometimes pitted against each other, arguing their case about how to do it, but the angle was still the same: Civil Rights.”

From Nalls’ perspective, he said that being first, Evanston inherently sets the stage for other municipalities on how to accomplish local reparations, whether or not they want the responsibility for copycats, it sits on them.  

A semi-formed inaugural reparations program leaves room for communities uninterested in true repair to do the bare minimum and get props for it, Nalls said. 

“They can say, ‘We can create a program that really benefits 15-20 Black people out of our population of 3, 4 or 5,000, and then call it a day and say that, ‘Look, we repaired them.’”

The program does not provide long-term details for rollout. Is this a weakness?

Robinson said that when the idea of reparations was presented to the community in February 2019, local leaders found that people were “tired of talking” and wanted to do something tangible, fast. 

“And we can work out the kinks as we move forward. We believe that was a very important part.” 

For this reason, he agrees the vote happened quickly. 

Nalls believes the original proposal should have encompassed a detailed outline of the entire reparations program and not just the housing program, as well as how the funding would be spent. He said that different areas of health care, policing and public safety remain unaddressed by the reparations program, and Evanston could have set the standard higher nationally. 

“And then, you know, Black activists across the nation can say, ‘Hey, look, this is what Evanston did. We shouldn’t be held to a lesser standard than what they did. We need to go above and beyond, if anything.’ So that propels the movement.”

On Fleming’s website, in her statement explaining key reasons she decided to vote against the housing program, she lists the program’s lack of detail. She said that, in not having a detailed outline for local reparations, the city is essentially asking Black residents to trust that more is coming. But the city has a history of harming Black people locally, and so they haven’t earned the trust that they are expecting.  

What role do private institutions like local banks, hospitals and universities play in reparations? 

Rue Simmons said that the city will need to partner with activists and community members in order to accomplish full-scale reparations. She told the RoundTable that banks, the school district, Northwestern University and some other local businesses are “accomplices in the racial divide we have here in Evanston.”

She recommends that local businesses look at the list of recommendations for reparations created by the Black community on the city website, which includes,“free tuition at Northwestern, free tutoring by Northwestern financial participation and revenue sharing with Northwestern, a 5th Ward school, a Black history center, trauma care by our healthcare systems here in town, business grants, housing loans – these are the responsibility of our partners in town that mostly support what we’re doing but need to do more to support it in a measurable way.”

At the March 3 reparations meeting, Rue Simmons suggested involving other city institutions, like the interfaith community, in the reparations conversations in order to brainstorm solutions to problems out of the city’s purview to solve. 

Nalls told the RoundTable that it’s the responsibility of elected public servants to put pressure on local private institutions to contribute but that “ultimately, it shouldn’t be up to the labor of individuals who are activists” to make sure those entities contribute. 

For example, he says the city could have larger discussions about expanding Northwestern’s financial contribution to the city through the Good Neighbor fund and other city discounts they receive for ambulance Emergency Medical Technician services. He said that these are discussions the city could have during the budgetary process or during the city manager search. 

The mayor, city manager and council members may not have the “hard” power to force action, Nalls said, but they have “soft” power, influence to use to have these discussions and work with different advocacy groups to be more strategic in achieving specific ends for the reparations program.

Will there be cash payouts?

The city has stated publicly that if a city issued cash rewards to residents, the residents would likely have to pay state and federal taxes on the money, decreasing the impact of the cash benefit. To circumvent this, the city is dispersing the money through a third-party entity that will pay the bank or contractor directly. 

Fleming told the RoundTable that “there’s no reason” the city can’t give cash payments and that tax argument is an excuse. On Fleming’s website, she writes that historical practices provide a framework for how reparative compensation looks. 

“In no instance were the impacted parties denied cash payments or an opportunity to decide how their repair would be managed,” Fleming wrote. “This practice alone is based on a white paternalistic narrative that Black folks are unable to manage their own monies.”

Rue Simmons told the RoundTable that she would like to see all forms of reparations, including cash payments, but that cash was the least recommended option during the 2019 public process that occurred. She added that the cash would be eaten up quickly, consumed by a capitalist community, without first addressing the financial industry, policy and more. 

“Cash would not be maximized until we also have other forms of repair to complement it.”

Robinson agrees. He said that cash payments are what people latch onto, but that it doesn’t make sense to use a local effort and localized money to dole out money that the federal government will tax. 

“That doesn’t make sense for somebody to, say, receive $25,000, [and] after taxes, [be] left with $16,000.”

He also added that people most often pass down wealth to family members through home ownership. Without Black homeownership in Evanston, there’s no Black community, and then all other Black needs – educational, cultural or health and wellness – disappear, “because there isn’t the presence of a Black body.”

What should come next for the local reparations movement?

Fleming told the RoundTable that it depends on how much money remains. 

“Last I checked, there’s not much money,” she said.

She would designate a new funding source before she puts together a new program. But if the program doesn’t allow for autonomy in how recipients use the money, “then it’s just not going to meet the bar for me.”

Rue Simmons said that once the housing program recipients’ first 16 have been dealt with, a community engagement process should come next, similar to those that occurred in 2019. She wants to emphasize, though, that Japanese-American and Jewish communities who have received reparations are still fighting their own fight today, and some are still receiving benefits from programs passed in 1988. 

She said that there’s no expectation or precedent for a program to solve community issues in a year’s time, so people should have realistic expectations.

Nalls said that his current focus from an advocacy standpoint is on how we can create a better program moving forward. 

“​​Every first-time program is going to have its shortcomings. We want to make sure that the next one is better than the first.”

Robinson told the RoundTable that, with all the critiques that exist, everyone involved with the process has those same critiques, and he invited critics to join the process to make the program better. 

“You could choose to look at a glass as half full, or you can look at the glass as half empty. And what I hope that people start realizing is that you have a glass and there’s water in it. Now let’s find a pitcher and also find a water source to make it full, and be sure there’s plenty of water for everyone.”

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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  1. Thanks for publishing. Would love also to hear some White Evanston point of view about Reparations. It is *our* responsibility to ensure that this process — acknowledgement, documentation, repair, restitution, truth, reconciliation — continues and blossoms, because it is we who have benefitted from the structures and practices of race/caste in Evanston and the US more broadly. I love the closing quote by Mr. Robinson: “You could choose to look at a glass as half full, or you can look at the glass as half empty. And what I hope that people start realizing is that you have a glass and there’s water in it. Now let’s find a pitcher and also find a water source to make it full, and be sure there’s plenty of water for everyone.”