Christian Harris of Oak Park discusses the lack of support from elected officials at the reparations symposium. Credit: Gina Castro

Evanston is leading the way for the nation’s reparations movement. 

That’s why for the past two years the national reparations symposium has been held in Evanston. 

Thursday night, reparation leaders from more than a dozen cities reported on the progress of reparations in their communities and praised Evanston for paving the way.

“You’re doing the work to cleanse this nation of structural institutional racism,” said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission, to the group of leaders. 

“The only chance that this nation has to achieve any form of a more perfect union is because of the work that you’re doing,” he said.

The three-day symposium continues through Saturday. A news conference is scheduled at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, followed by a town hall from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Evanston Township High School that will feature Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. 

“As someone who has been in this movement for a very, very long time, there was a time when the issue was not popular, it wasn’t sexy, you were swept under the rug … and look where we are now,” said Nkechi Taifa, founder and director of the Reparation Education Project. “I’m very proud to be able to sit here and see all of these jurisdictions here.”

Taifa, who is also a Senior Fellow for the Columbia University Center for Justice, praised Evanston’s Robin Rue Simmons for escalating what Taifa called “the modern era reparations movement.”

The event was part of the Second Annual Local Reparations Symposium. It was put together by the National African American Reparations Commission and Rue Simmons, executive director of FirstRepair.

Evanston’s reparations program, the first of its kind in the nation, is leading the country and the world, Daniels said. He added that this past summer he visited reparations leaders in Ghana and Columbia, who cited the historic initiative. 

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, with microphone, discusses the importance of elected officials supporting reparations programs during Thursday’s Second Annual Local Reparations Symposium. Credit: Gina Castro

The symposium invited 60 participants and their partners to learn first hand how Evanston built its reparatory justice initiatives. This three-day event is seen as an opportunity for the nation’s reparations leaders to share ideas they’ve developed and lessons they’ve learned.

Each speaker was allotted five minutes to share a report on the progress of reparations in their city as well as roadblocks. A persistent issue they described was lack of support from elected officials and city governments.

The nearby village of Oak Park began its own path toward reparations after being inspired by Evanston’s work, said Christian Harris, who leads the Oak Park Reparations Task Force.

The task force collaborated with Dominican University in River Forest to collect Oak Park Black residents’ thoughts about implementing a reparations program. But when Harris presented a reparations proposal to the village board, the board didn’t support it.

“That board was completely not interested in really anything we had to say,” Harris said. “The only victory we had for that evening was they sent a letter in support of H.R. 40 to our congressional delegation of Oak Park, which was nice, but not what we wanted at all.”

The Oak Park task force has continued its efforts without local government backing, Harris said. 

Opposition from elected officials has prevented Lansing, Mich., from moving forward with a reparations program, said Angela Austin, who works with the Black Lives Matter grassroots organization and is a reparations leader in Michigan. 

Support from local elected officials is key to creating and implementing reparations programs, Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss said.

“The value of having a network of relationships with enormously incredible community leaders is indescribable because this work is controversial,” Biss said. “… I don’t think we’d be here without it.”

There was a range of representatives from cities in California. Kelly Fong Rivas from the city of Sacramento Mayor’s Office discussed trying to heal the broken trust between the city’s Black community and city government. 

Kelly Fong Rivas from the city of Sacramento Mayor’s Office takes notes while Cheryl Grills talks about California’s newly formed Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Credit: Gina Castro

Civil rights attorney Areva Martin is representing Black residents in Palm Springs, Calif., whose homes were destroyed as a result of racists policies during the 1950s and 60s. The city of Palm Springs told Martin it wanted to right its wrongs to the Black community but didn’t know where to start. So she invited Palm Springs City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger to the reparations symposium to learn more about initiating a reparations program in the city.

Palm Springs issued an apology in 2021 for the harm it did to its Black community. Now the city is looking to hire a consultant to “develop a process for making it right,” Ballinger said.

San Francisco discussed its Dream Keeper Initiative that launched in 2021 and invests $60 million annually into its Black community. 

California is home to the nation’s first statewide task force on reparations. The Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans began in 2021 and is working to develop forms of reparations for the state.  

“We know as California goes, so does the rest of the nation,” Martin said.

Evanston isn’t just teaching other states about creating reparations programs. Evanston is also learning from other states too. 

The ancestral acknowledgment the city’s reparations committee launched in October was inspired by San Francisco.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. The fiction of Evanston Reparations continues to be supported by this type of media. The challenges in Evanston’s Black Community are no different today than when the so called reparations program was created in 2019. There has been zero impact or repair. In fact, the majority of Black Evanston residents do not support this fake initiative. Proof of this can be found in these carefully orchestrated meetings that allow no public input. This isn’t good journalism, because it has consistently pushed a one sided narrative. I think this does a disservice to our community.

    1. Thank you for your comment. We don’t expect everyone to agree on what we cover and that is why we have this forum. We want to be able to present differing opinions. But we also expect people to be factually correct. This is where I will push back on your assertions. This was a symposium. So, yes it was orchestrated as any symposium should be or people who came from across the country would not have had the structure to get any work done. It is incorrect to say that there was no public input. Last night there was a town hall meeting where the public was invited. I believe about 200 people signed up and about 100 showed up. It is true that no one spoke from the public. But we point that out in our town hall story. I will say that the public has a place to go for complaints as the city’s Reparations Committee monthly meetings are also all open to the public. As for your broad claim that our story is “bad journalism,” I take offense. We have talked about the controversial nature of this program, published letters and quoted people who do not disagree it. Often the people who write comments are not published here because the comments go against our policy, people do not use their full name and resort to name-calling. But we have questioned those running it about issues and problems. Our 101 series looks at all the issues and financing. The story you are commenting on, was one about a symposium. There were no protests or people at events claiming another side to it. To try and gin that up on our part would certainly have been bad journalism. Susy Schultz, editor