Blazing their own trail: Only the 2nd community in the nation to officially commit to reparations, Amherst is in important and uncharted territory

  • Members of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly include, clockwise from front left, co-chairwoman Michele Miller; Alexis Reed; Pamela Nolan Young, director of the town’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Debora Bridges; Jennifer Moyston, assistant director of DEI; and Irv Rhodes. staff photo/carol lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2022 7:34:07 PM
Modified: 9/20/2022 7:33:28 PM

Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the Valley Advocate.

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 get 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,” said 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 to future generations, Bridges 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 set a goal this summer of committing $2 million over the next 10 years aimed at repairing hundreds of years of harm perpetrated against Amherst residents of African heritage.

Although a report from the Reparations for Amherst group has documented harms that have occurred in town — from racist deed covenants that impose conditions on the use of land, to incidents in the public schools — Bridges, who was appointed to the assembly in August, said she felt 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 discussing and refining ways to get and receive information from the African American community as relates to reparations, said Irvin Rhodes, another member of the assembly.

The group commissioned the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute to look at the 2020 census and identify where African Americans 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,” Rhodes 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 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 address 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 including 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 it 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,” Simmons said. “I wanted to do all I could in my role as an alderwoman.”

Simmons is helping Amherst in many ways, including virtually attending meetings related to reparations. 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 Michele Miller, leaders like academics like Professor Amilcar Shabazz, and stakeholders like Kathleen Anderson, and university partners that are, you know, taking these steps,” Simmons said.

Solar programand reparations

Though still in its early phases, Amherst’s reparations 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.

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 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.

“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 ... large majority of benefits accrue to those owners,” Breger said.

Miller described the assembly’s partnership with the UMass Clean Energy Extension as a potential model for how institutions can begin to reverse the effects of systemic racism and achieve racial equity for 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,” Miller said.

Creating the wheel

While restitution for people of African heritage isn’t a new undertaking the U.S., for communities like Amherst, there is a sense of creating the wheel, said Alexis Reed, another member of the town’s 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,” Reed said. “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.”

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 install playgrounds that will “explicitly benefit everyone,” she said it’s hard for people to see how introducing programming like critical race theory into a school curriculum will benefit people beyond those of 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.

And perspectives on addressing reparations vary.

Rhodes said he believes harms committed in the past  have been passed down to successive generations as lost opportunities. Reparations, he said, aim to level the playing field for the children who have been affected by those harms.

But with so many possibilities, this may also present potential legal challenges.

While the committee is still identifying ways to distribute funds individually as well as through potential educational initiatives, Miller said she hopes the community will remain understanding as the assembly 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.”

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