Authentic Solidarity often ends with a big aha! moment for the participants. The aha in question? “We really need reparations.”

After learning about the deep, extensive net of systemic injustices throughout our history and present-day (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, red-lining, and the strategic indebting of Native Americans, just to name a few), people come to realize we are never going to heal as a country, nor will justice be within our reach, without reparations.

But what are reparations? I’ve come to learn about the varying roles of government, philanthropy, business, individuals, and other efforts to support reparations by engaging in restoration and repair.   

The first thing to emphasize is that true reparations are the government’s responsibility. Nikole Hannah-Jones explains it this way in her New York Times article, “What is Owed?”: 

“Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it, and our federal government initiated, condoned, and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against Black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.”

In one of my first Authentic Solidarity cohorts, a participant shared with the group that her organization’s perspective (a progressive movement-building organization) was that in fact, if individuals claim their individual donations as “reparations,” it takes away from the burden that rightly should be placed on the federal government. This is an important distinction between individual acts of repair vs. broad-scale reparations owed by the government.

Another way to build toward reparations at the individual level is by supporting legislation in favor of the study and implementation of reparations from the government. Recently, HR 40 passed in congress, establishing the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. You can learn more about that bill here

What About Philanthropy?

A lot of my work, and the work of many of the participants in Authentic Solidarity, intersect with the world of philanthropy, my non-profit clients included (as many of them are funded in part by philanthropy). Philanthropy of course is interesting because the money comes from corporations. Corporations that gained their wealth through a system designed on stolen land and uncompensated labor. There is a movement in philanthropy to more honestly and transparently look at where the wealth they give away comes from, and their true motivations for giving money away. 

Edgar Villanueva’s groundbreaking book, Decolonizing Wealth, makes the case for reparations while outlining philanthropy’s specific role. He offers a challenge to the field of philanthropy to invest 10% of their wealth in communities of color. He believes, and I agree, that material/financial transfer is essential to healing. 

Edgar’s book offers seven steps to healing: Listen, Acknowledge, Apologize, Relate, Represent, Invest, and Repair. Again, careful to heed my colleague’s word around letting the government (or philanthropy for that matter) “off the hook,” these seven steps are ways that individuals, particularly leaders of organizations but also everyday people, can move towards a restorative practice.

You can find out more about the Decolonizing Wealth approach here

What About Corporations?

Yes, corporations have a role as well. Corporations, and those that lead them (predominantly White men), have an opportunity to foster positive relationships with staff and stakeholders by recognizing the economic and education systems in place which have afforded them a better chance at financial wealth than their minority counterparts. 

Micheal Gee describes the role of businesses in supporting reparations in the Harvard Business Review article, Its Time for US Business Leaders to Talk about Reparations.” Gee provides an example of how business leaders can support BIPOC entrepreneurship through the CEO of Vista Equity’s proposition of a “corporate ‘2% solution,’ which includes funding Black-owned banks and businesses. In his vision, 2% of net income of the nation’s largest corporations (approximately $25 billion annually) would be invested over the next 10 years.” 

What About Individuals?

This is the most challenging and I assume, for most of you reading, the most relevant question. My emerging sense of where to begin as one person is really two-part:  

  1. Making Financial Contributions – Material contributions are essential in any efforts toward restoration, repair, and reparations. I recommend individuals make an informed commitment to annual financial contributions to a Black or Indigenous-led organization(s). As part of Authentic Solidarity, I require that all participants make a donation while creating a supportive space to discuss the nuances and conflicting feelings that come up around money. We dig into difficult questions like, “Is this patronizing? Is it a cop-out? Should I invest in a relationship with the organization? Should it be anonymous? How much is enough?” It is important to work through these answers to not allow very legitimate questions stop us from making the financial contribution at all. One participant noticed similarities between my model and a Giving Circle, which has a long tradition in the US.
    My first Authentic Solidarity Leadership cohort landed on three organizations to provide collective financial contributions to. I still give to these three organizations annually. You can find out more about these groups on my webpage, Community Accountability.
  2. Tending to Relationships – The second element of my practice utilizes Edgar Villanueva’s “Seven Steps of Healing” in my interpersonal relationships with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. For example, how can I listen longer when a person of color brings up a perspective I perhaps don’t understand or agree with? If a person of color brings a blind spot to my attention, can I simply apologize rather than defend myself? Can I advocate within my organization for more serious metrics for representation and inclusion of diverse communities? While these are simply ways to be in positive and respectful relationships across differences, the weight of the responsibility to show up for challenging dynamics is stronger given what I know about history. All these actions, while not reparations, are small, active, and real acknowledgments that reparations are necessary – that we live in a society that is unjust, unfair, and in which race still matters.

Ultimately, reparations, both financial and interpersonal, are about healing. In fact, the United Nations’ definition of reparations is quite a bit more than financial contributions, including five formal categories: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.

All the practices highlighted in this blog, from transparent philanthropic investments to corporate and individual giving to interpersonal communication, are part of what’s required to generate the political will for government-sponsored reckoning and payment. 

And along the way, while at times this work still feels overwhelming, the forging of the path towards reparations is liberating for all. 

Te-Nehisi Coates, author of The Case for Reparations, shares a vision and purpose for reparations: 

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

The prevailing narrative on reparations is that it will make Americans, particularly White Americans, feel bad about themselves and the country, when in fact, it’s precisely what will set us all free.

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