When she was 10 years old, a fourth-grade teacher asked Debora Bridges during a classroom lesson “what it felt like to be a slave” as a “little colored girl.” It happened in 1961. In Amherst.
Although her mother and grandmother were able to scrounge up an apology after speaking with the school’s principal, the incident was not an isolated one for Bridges or other members of her family.
“That’s just something that went on,” says Bridges, who will soon turn 70.
With ancestors who are among the first Black families to settle in Amherst, Bridges is all too familiar with the harms that have been inflicted on Black people in the Pioneer Valley. In an effort to avoid the repetition of harm of future generations, Bridges has recently joined the town’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly, a group of residents dedicated to developing and recommending a municipal reparations plan that includes both a reparations fund and a communitywide process of reconciliation and repair for harms against Black people.
The assembly’s creation in June 2021 is a key piece of a significant policy change in Amherst whose goals are enormous: A commitment to ending structural racism and achieving racial equity for Black residents. To meet those goals, spelled out in a December 2020 resolution, the Amherst Town Council voted to not only create the Black-majority African Heritage Reparation Assembly but also to establish a reparations fund and this summer set a goal of committing $2 million over the next 10 years aimed at repairing hundreds of years of harm perpetuated against Amherst residents of African heritage.
Although a report from the Reparations for Amherst group has documented harms that have occurred in town — including racist deed covenants, which is a type of contract that imposes conditions on the use of land, to incidents in the public schools — Bridges, who was appointed to the assembly in August, said she felt that she could provide an authentic voice to the work being done by the group as a “fact check” of sorts.
“I wanted to be on this committee not only because I feel that they’re doing the right thing here, but because I felt that they needed to have another voice in there, one that’s not just telling other people’s stories,” Bridges says. “I think they needed somebody who is a direct descendant of these people they’re talking about (who) had harm done to them. And as a descendant, you know, I felt it was important for me to represent that voice in history within this committee, where it was really not in their body or makeup of their initial report of the ancestors here.”
She recalled a number of memories from her upbringing that included sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he told her stories.
“It’s one thing to let someone tell a story about other people’s history, but it’s another to get it straight from the descendants,” she said. “I remember the smell of the room as I sat on my grandfather’s lap, the tears that ran down his face as he talked about when he went through, you know, harm and racism and whatnot. And you’re part of that listening to those stories, and nobody can tell that the way descendants could … So (with me) they get a voice that has experienced the harms, as did my daughter, my grandfather, and also my great-grandfather. People may know that things happened, but when you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, it’s different.”
What’s happened so far?
A little more than a year after its creation, members of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly have been working to further refine and discuss ways to get and receive information from the African American community as relates to reparations, says Irvin Rhodes, who is a member of the assembly.
The group commissioned the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute to look at the 2020 census and identify where African Americans possibly may live in Amherst. Now that the group has a better understanding of where most of that population lives, Rhodes said the assembly plans to increase its visibility on the town’s website, conducting a survey of what the African American community thinks and wants in relation to reparations, and then compiling that information.
“The biggest part of our work is yet to come,” he said. “We have come miles and we have miles to go.”
As part of its July vote to establish the reparations fund, the Town Council approved a motion to transfer up to $205,000 annually from certified free cash into the town’s dedicated reparations fund until the town’s contributions equal $2 million.
District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who is the co-chair of the assembly and played a key role in raising the issue of reparations, said that close to a year into the assembly’s work, the group has accomplished many of the foundational steps needed to complete its charge. In addition to the census, Miller said the group is making significant progress on special legislation to define reparations as a public purpose in Amherst.
“What is less seen, is the internal work the assembly has done to create an environment of trust and unity among members. This will be especially important as we begin the process of listening to the community and creating eligibility and use criteria that will be embraced by the Town Council,” she said. “In addition to the ways the Assembly is hoping to serve the Amherst community, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly is acting as a lodestar for other cities and towns hoping to bring healing and repair to their communities.”
Charting the course
Miller noted that the assembly has received guidance from local and national reparations leaders like former Evanston, Illinois Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons and Kamm Howard, chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N’COBRA. While serving on the Evanston City Council, Simmons led the push to establish municipal-funded reparations legislation for the city, a suburb of Chicago. As part of those efforts, Evanston became the first city in the U.S. to make reparations available to its Black residents in March 2021. As part of its pledge, the city will distribute $10 million over the course of 10 years through donations and revenue from a 3% tax on the sale of recreational cannabis.
“When I was an elected leader, I realized that no version of what we’re doing, including equity policy, will get us to the repair and to close the racial gaps that we have and that the harms and in some cases, crimes, against Black people at a municipal level,” she said. “I wanted to do all I could in my role as an alderwoman.”
Simmons, who currently serves as the chairperson of Evanston’s Reparations Committee, has since founded her own nonprofit organization called FirstRepair, which informs local reparations nationally.
At this point, the first initiative Evanston has committed to is acknowledging and addressing the historical harm done to its Black residents through the city’s discriminatory housing policies and practices, said Simmons. She noted that a historical report on the city’s policies identified housing as the strongest case for reparations, with evidence of discriminatory zoning ordinances between 1919 and 1969. The report identifies that anti-Black zoning laws were enforced in 1919, which were later outlawed in the late 1960s.
Qualifying residents need to complete an application and come in with documentation that shows their race and place in Evanston in that period of history or their relationship to someone in that period of history. Simmons also noted that eligibility documents can include a yearbook photo, birth records, baptismal records and obituaries. The city has distributed $400,000 to 16 eligible Black households with each receiving $25,000 for home repairs or down payments on property.
Now Simmons is sharing her knowledge and experience with Amherst, attending meetings related to reparations virtually. Although there are now hundreds of other communities throughout the country working to make reparations available to its Black residents for past harms and discriminatory acts, Amherst is the second community to officially pledge to do so.
“I’m just so grateful for cities like Amherst, allies like Michelle Miller, leaders, like academics like Professor Amilcar Shabazz and stakeholders like Kathleen Anderson, and university partners that are, you know, taking these steps,” said Simmons.
Solar program and reparations
Though still in its early phases, the assembly partnered with the UMass Clean Energy Extension to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Energy Pilot Program grant that would provide funding to pilot a solar program for Black residents in Amherst as a form of reparations, according to Dwayne Breger, director of the UMass Clean Energy Extension and extension professor of Environmental Conservation.
According to Miller, the UMass Clean Energy extension is now responding to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation call for proposals for policies to build and sustain economic security and wealth for families and communities of color, using the pilot as the subject of the proposal. “This proposal will build on our work under the USDA proposal, and focus on the town of Amherst and its commitment to African American reparations and consideration of solar asset ownership,” she said.
Working with town government, community partners, university researchers and the Clean Energy Extension, this project calls for the formation of a small business by and for the African American community in Amherst, to develop, own, and maintain a 100- to 200-kilowatt solar project and return the benefits of ownership to the African American ratepayers of the town.
To implement the solar project, local community resources that support small business ventures, solar financing, and community energy will work collaboratively with the African American community to establish a replicable model for local solar ownership that generates sustained wealth for communities of color, according to the proposal.
If the grant proposal is accepted, the UMass intends to extend the pilot project into a research-based evaluation of the perceptions and acceptability of this form of reparations by the African American community; the economic impacts of local solar ownership on the local community; the comparative efficacy and equity of policy support for local solar ownership relative to other forms of reparations and energy burden relief programs; and state and federal market and policy barriers and opportunities to support the replication and expansion of solar asset ownership to reduce the racial wealth gap.
“Right now, a vast majority of solar in Massachusetts and across the country are owned by third party, tax equity solar investors. And that’s where the largest benefit, the large majority of benefits accrue to those owners,” said Breger.
Although there are benefits reaped in Massachusetts, he said they’re often relative to net metering off-takers, as they’re called, to local town governments through tax or pilot agreements. Still, Breger said those are all relatively small economic returns and benefits compared to what the owners are receiving.
“So we’ve been doing a lot of work to look at alternative opportunities for local ownership and to encourage local ownership, and particularly local ownership that is targeted toward providing economic benefits to our most needy populations, including low income. And then this opportunity converged with the work that we were doing as well as the groundbreaking work that the town of Amherst has done with regard to committing funds for reparations to our African American community,” he said.
Miller described the assembly’s partnership with the UMass Clean Energy Extension as a model for how institutions can begin to reverse the effects of systemic racism and achieve racial equity for the people who have been most impacted by the climate crisis.
“Environmental injustice and racial injustice are inextricably linked and the solutions, particularly those that result in profit like solar ownership, cannot be separated,” said Miller.
Creating the wheel
While restitutions aren’t a new venture for the U.S., for communities like Amherst, there is a sense of creating the wheel, says Alexis Reed, a member of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly.
“We’re doing things that haven’t been done before. And it’s not to say that American restitution hasn’t been done before, but we’re really trying to accomplish this in a way that is not symbolic. It will end up being something that’s not a symbol, that’s not tokenizing,” said Reed. “I think that we’re looking at this in a very nuanced way, and we’re trying to work within particular frameworks and trying to use very specific nomenclature in order to work within the laws.”
Additionally, Reed noted that a really challenging aspect of the assembly’s work in trying to change the culture and prevent future harm is trying to understand how to change people’s perceptions.
While many people are comfortable with funding projects to build dog parks or installing playgrounds that will explicitly benefit everyone, she said it’s hard for people to see how introducing programming into a school curriculum like critical race theory will benefit people beyond African heritage.
“So it’s really about informing people and needing to change the culture and people being willing to be a part of that structure change,” she said. “I think that it’s hard for people to think outside of the structures that we’ve already created. I think that it’s difficult for people to imagine a new society, a new way of living. I think that people are very proud of what they have now. But don’t recognize that while it may be a thing of pride for you, it is denigrating and undignified for a lot of other people. And so for me, it’s sort of a situation of trying to make people understand that this is an issue that really will, in the end, benefit everyone. And that sometimes, it’s OK to do things in someone else’s favor, when you may not personally benefit from it.”
And perspectives on addressing reparations vary.
With harm that has been committed in the past, Rhodes said he feels harm has been passed down to the next generations as lost opportunities. In looking at reparations, he said he looks at leveling the playing field for the children who have been affected by those harms.
But with several possibilities also presents potential legal challenges.
While the committee is still identifying its pathways to distribute funds both individually as well as through educational means, Miller said she hopes the community will remain understanding as the assembly begins its embarks on its next steps.
“We have to blaze our own trail, without a map, and quite frankly, through some challenging terrain,” she said. “We understand residents are eager for us to provide details of the reparative plan and to understand better how the money will be used. We ask for patience and support as we move through a process of consulting with residents of African heritage to produce a robust and inclusive reparative justice plan that will benefit all members of the Amherst community.”