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Ald. Robin Rue Simmons Talks Reparations with Dear Evanston

As most of you know by now, Evanston's City Council made history last Monday night by passing the Evanston Reparations Initiative (8-1, with Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, the sole no vote)--using taxes from the sale of weed to fund reparations for its Black residents.

This coming Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., all Evanston residents are invited to a town hall meeting to discuss plans for how the reparations initiative will unfold.

The meeting, organized by by Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward Alderman, who pushed the reparations resolution through City Council, will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at First Church of God Christian Life Center and will be hosted by Pastor Monte' L. G. Dillard, Sr., a member of Evanston's Equity and Empowerment Commission, which is chaired by former 7th ward Alderman Jane Grover.

Actor and activist Danny Glover will be the keynote speaker. He is U.N Ambassador for International Decade for People of African Descent. He'll be joined by a team of commissioners from the National African American Reparations Commission - NAARC. You can get free tickets to the town hall here.

I talked to Ald. Simmons about this historic moment for Evanston just before the Thanksgiving break.

DE: When did it come to you that reparations is the answer for Evanston’s black community?

RRS: A few months into my term as Alderman, but I sent my first official email to discuss it in February of this year.

I sent an email to the chair and some of the members of the Equity and Empowerment Commission to discuss my concerns about our progress, or lack thereof, of bridging the economic gap. And I proposed reparations.

And thinking that reparations may be received as too radical, I titled the subject line "Racial Equity Policy." But in the body of the email I talked about reparations.

DE: Are there other cities of Evanston’s size that have either passed a reparations resolution that you know of? Or even other cities in general--big or small?

RRS: From our research, there are no other cities big or small that have passed a reparation policy, approved a fund, or appointed a subcommittee. So, if we do nothing else at this point, we’ve already made history.

DE: Right.

RRS: And secondly, we're making history in identifying the revenue source from our recreational marijuana sales tax.

So, at this point we’ve made history, and now we need to make impact as we continue the work and decide on what initiatives will be available to Black Evanston residents from the reparation fund.

DE: What's your goal and the goal of reparations in Evanston? What do you envision?

RRS: My goal is to create a fund to increase the household income of Black Evanston residents, increase the revenue of Black-owned businesses, and improve the infrastructure of historically Black and redlined neighborhoods.

I envision continuing to work on a plan that will have that impact. We’ve had countless efforts of home-buyer programs and business support.

We’ve done a lot of work in equity and inclusion.

We have M/W/EBE (Minority/Women/Evanston-Based Employment Programs)

... and none of it has been enough.

And as our wealth disparity grows, and our Black residency decreases, I thought it an appropriate time that we do something radically different.

DE: Let's talk a bit about the budget and the $10 million over 10 years. Where's that money coming from?

RRS: Everyone in Evanston is involved in reparations because the $10 million is going to be funded with taxpayer dollars. Everyone in the city is involved in reparations because the damages have come from city practices. Our city culture predates us. But yet we still feel the impact today.

At this point, we have a general consensus that reparations will be funded by our recreational marijuana sales tax revenue. And the impact will uplift all of Evanston.

It certainly will benefit every ward, our tax base, our morale, our preserving our diversity if we can uplift the Black community that has demonstrable, documented, undisputed damages in the name of redlining and continued discrimination and disenfranchisement.

DE: Talk about why you’ve picked the recreational marijuana tax.

RRS: As we explored ways to fund our reparation work, there were about a dozen different suggestions made. You know, opting in on your water bill, for example [note: Evanston residents can now do this].

Initially, I wanted 50 percent of our revenue from the sale of public property. And the additional revenue from the new professional and sporting events events at Ryan Field. And a portion of our real estate transfer tax.

And it was the suggestion of Alderman Ann Rainey that we use the recreational marijuana sales tax, because it's a pure tax. It's not already earmarked for anything. We would not have to negotiate it out of the budget. It’s an incoming revenue stream.

That suggestion made the most sense based on the damages that over-policing and unfair arrests of Black Evanston residents, and the damages that felony convictions for marijuana possession, have caused to individuals, families, and households, and therefore our Black community.

We have had 71 percent Blacks arrested versus 15 percent whites for marijuana over the past 36 months in Evanston. And we know that we are less than 17 percent of Evanston's population. And there's not anywhere near that wide a disparity between Black and white Marijuana use.

DE: Right. I believe usage is roughly equal among Blacks and whites.

RRS: So with that said, seeing that the Black community suffered the damage and now it's a celebrated, anticipated, multi-billion dollar industry that the Black community cannot afford to participate in with those expensive licensee requirements, I thought it appropriate that we use that fund to uplift the Black community.

DE: Many people, when you say 'reparations,' think that Black individuals are going to receive a check in a certain amount. So I want to ask you this way: how will City funds and resident-contributed funds be allocated--to whom and for what?

RRS: At this point it is still to be determined. My intention is not that we have a universal payment where every Black resident gets a $1,000 check. My intention is that there are specific initiatives based around wealth-building activities that empower families--including home ownership, business development, and community infrastructure.

An example of that would be a homebuyer program that subsidizes home acquisition costs, possibly funds to improve and preserve our existing home ownership in the Black community.

And I would like to see these payments go directly to qualifying households and business owners.

At the same time that I’ve been working on this reparations policy, I have made a referral through the Economic Development Committee, which I chaired at the time, to have a citywide financial fitness campaign.

We sent our RFP out some time ago soliciting financial institutions about their interest in exclusively supporting Black residents with financial literacy in all areas--whether it's credit budgeting, home ownership, business financing, or auto loans.

My goal is that all Evanston residents--and in the case of reparations, Black Evanston residents--use this new campaign to strengthen their income and credit worthiness to qualify for mortgages and other loans they need. Once qualified, the reparations fund would give a direct payment towards a home or a business.

These are some ideas.

All of this has yet has to be discussed with the subcommittee and with the City Council for approval. But my goal is is that these funds are direct payment to Black Evanston residents and not to fund programs that will then serve Black Evanston residents. I want to see Black households' net wealth increase. I want to see the Black community have a *direct* impact from this reparation fund.

DE: Last Monday, the City Council passed the 2020 budget. There was mention about residents being able to allocate part of their water bill to reparations. Can you just explain that a little bit, how that will work and when it will start?

RRS: Anyone paying a water bill in the city of Evanston now has the option to pay above and beyond their water bill--designating any amount--towards the reparation fund. Just check the box and designate if it’s $5 or $5 million. City staff will direct that stated amount to the reparations fund.

DE: And with the reparations fund that is separate from the City budget, from the tax on marijuana sales--there's also a fund to which individuals, foundations, non-profits, businesses, religious organizations, all of those entities--can contribute. And the city oversees that fund as well?

RRS: Correct.

DE: And it's tax deductible?

RRS: Yes. That is my invitation to the entire community. It’s time that we move past the policy and start uplifting the Black community.

DE: There's a new book by Jenny Thompson called "The Takeover," which addresses Northwestern University's history of racism on campus and as it affected the city. Do you think Northwestern should contribute to reparations?

RRS: Oh absolutely. I haven’t studied enough yet, I’m learning more every day. And right now, I want to finish the work of the City Council because I do govern and lead on the City Council. And I have seen from an inside perspective areas of opportunity for growth. I have seen the effort that has been good but not good enough. So for now, I’ll speak for the City of Evanston, but I do think that Northwestern should follow our lead.

And I would refer people to read "The Takeover" as a reference.

DE: Yes, absolutely.

DE: Do you hear from white and Black Evanstonians who are against the idea? What are some of the arguments you hear?

RRS: I haven’t heard from a single Black Evanston resident that is against it. I heard directly from one white Evanston resident who was against it. She proposed other solutions, which I appreciated. I respectfully disagreed with her, but I appreciated the thought that she had given it. The beauty of Evanston is that same woman, the only woman that emailed me against it, attended my last 5th Ward meeting and she was there on a completely different agenda item.

And she stayed the entire meeting and followed up with a long note thanking me for the meeting, for the work, and understanding why reparation is needed and offering her support. She said hearing directly from her neighbors on the damages, how it feels to be excluded in such a dynamic community, the barrier to progress for the Black community--she had a change of heart.

I’m certain there are folks that are not in the court, and have strong opinions about this. How can you not, one way or the other.

DE: What do you say to Evanston residents who aren’t Black, who may have lived here all their lives--or who recently moved here--who say, 'Why do I need to give money? Why should you take my taxes, I wasn’t here, I wasn’t involved, my family wasn’t involved?

RRS: That's the first response that I would expect. And my response to that is that this is a reparation for the impact of Jim Crow and redlining in the city of Evanston. And this is the responsibility of the City of Evanston.

But we’re all directly involved because our city values and celebrates its diversity. One of our goals as a City Council is diversity and inclusion. And it is, I imagine, one of the top three highlights of what makes Evanston great, somewhere in there with trees and beaches ... diversity. And with that said, if we want to enjoy the diversity here and promote it, then we all have a responsibility.

DE: If you think about it, if you are white, when you choose to live in Evanston, we know many people pick it because of its diversity. And so, you’re essentially living your life on the backs of the people who provide the diversity.

RRS: Right.

DE: And so, you’re responsible for the community.

ROBIN: You’re responsible for the community and you know this is our chance to hold true to how we embrace it and move beyond our drive-by diversity and our segregated neighborhoods, and let Evanston be livable for all.

DE: Do you think white people should see reparations as a punishment? How do you think white people should see it?

RRS: No, this is not a punishment to white people. My hope is that it’s an opportunity to unite and move beyond the acknowledgement of our origin, our history. Beyond the apology should be action for equity: our wealth divide; our education gap; our life expectancy gap all speak to the need for something additional to support the Black community. It’s not a punishment, it is an opportunity to strengthen our city.

The white community has to participate because the white community has had the benefit of generational wealth transfer that was founded in the slave trade.

DE: Where does Evanston's Latinx community stand in terms of reparations to the Black community?

RRS: This is a Black reparation and the Latino community has reached out to support it.

DE: Psychologically, what do you think would be the benefits of reparations to Black residents and to white residents?

RRS: Well, I think psychologically it’ll be good for morale. It will give hope to Blacks that we are being heard and we are wanted. And that there is a genuine effort in re-establishing our Black community’s wealth. We had a significant wealth loss during the Great Recession in foreclosures. And our home ownership has declined. We are still at staggeringly low percentages of Black home ownership.

I believe this would be a statement to Black families and Black business owners that Evanston is the leader we say we are. And it would bring hope that there is future here for us to continue building legacies.

DE: Yes, what about all the thousands of Black residents in Evanston who over the last 10 years or so have left Evanston? They’re not included in the reparations, but that’s such a sad thing. Because so many of them left for --

RRS: So, it was the leaving of thousands of Black residents in a short time period that led me to this radical pursuit. And every day, at least every week, we have families that are either moving or looking to move because they can’t afford to stay here. Because we aren't included in the economic vitality and the growth in the business community.

And my peers are relocating to communities north of here and much further south of here to have quality housing in a comfortable living experience for their families. And it’s very disheartening to see generations of families being displaced out of Evanston because of not only the cost of housing, but the damages of predatory lending, the over- assessed Cook County property taxes.

I believe we're now 16.6 percent of Evanston's residents, but that will decline if we do not address this. The housing stock is going up in cost and value. And at this rate, the Black resident rate will continue to decline.

DE: What's the difference between contributing to the reparations fund versus supporting, or working for, or volunteering for organizations, say Curt's Cafe or the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, or other organizations doing racial justice work, or supporting Black businesses? What about contributing directly to Family Focus Evanston or Shorefront Legacy Center or the Chessmen Club of the North Shore, Inc.?

Or what if somebody decides they’re going to open a nonprofit center that provides free trauma therapy to any family whose been involved with gun violence.

Are those reparations also?

RRS: They are necessary services that include support for the Black community. All of this works together.

Reparation is not going to be the only answer to bridging our gap and Black inclusion. It will take every non-profit to continue doing the work that they are doing. And it will take every major donor to continue donating. But as we can see, it has not been enough. We still today have a gap in every area that I mentioned. So, it’s not that you pick and choose. It's not either/or. It's both/and.

DE: Are there ways to get involved in this effort other than giving money?

RRS: So, other than giving money to the reparations fund, you can intentionally support a Black business. You can be conscious and strategic about who you sell your property to. If you have single-family or multi-family housing that you’re looking to sell, consider selling it directly to a Black family at a fair rate, and not to a developer that will demolish it or restore it beyond affordability for the next buyer.

You can visit Shorefront and become more informed and aware of our history and see how that inspires you to take action.

You can support a host of non-profits in town that are stabilizing Black households.

And of course, you can contribute to the reparation fund.

Also, if you have any ideas on initiatives that will bring impact, please share them.

DE: One of the thorniest problems with making reparations to victims of these huge historical injustices is deciding who’s included and who isn’t. And I know there’s a movement of people, called ADOS, American Descendants of Slaves, who believe that reparations should only be made to people or programs that benefit Black people who trace their heritage to ancestors who were captured in Africa, brought to America, and enslaved. So, it wouldn't include immigrants from Africa or, say, from the Caribbean. Will Evanston reparations include programs for Blacks who came here from Africa later or from other countries, and who don’t trace their heritage back to slavery?

RRS: Absolutely. And this has to be agreed on by the City Council, but my goal would be that all Black Evanston residents, whether your slave boat dropped you off in Virginia or in the Caribbean, I’m hopeful that we do not differentiate between Caribbean Black and African American.

We have a strong Caribbean community here from various islands. And they absolutely are on my mind as I’m thinking about reparations or working towards reparation.

We all agree that this is for all Black Evanston residents. We will have to determine how you qualify. That is yet to be determined.

DE: Will you focus any of your reparations work specifically on the 5th Ward?

RRS: Yes, as it relates to infrastructure. So, the redlined part of Evanston is the west end of the 5th Ward. And there has been less investment in infrastructure there over our history.

DE: How do you see Evanston’s truth and reconciliation process working? How does it tie into reparations? And should we be talking about reparations before we talk about truth and reconciliation?

RRS: Well, all of it is overdue. So, it ties in because there are enough residents that don’t understand why reparations; don’t understand our history. And there are residents that have a story to share. It’s important that we share the stories, and that they are received, and I’m looking forward to the Equity and Empowerment Commission leading our city through this process.

DE: Anything else you want to talk about?

RRS: The more progress is made, the more I learn and realize how much work there is to do. The more I realize how it will take every single one of us doing our part; no one is smart enough, no organization influential enough to get this work done alone. It’s going to take everyone to remove their egos and be committed to this work.

I’m sure there is some more I should say, and I never feel like I honor it properly. But I don't want to get stuck in having to have all the answers before we move forward, because as you can see from our data, that’s not been healthy for our community.

So, I’m committed to moving forward and learning and growing from anyone who has anything to share that is actionable, or enlightening, or inspiring.

Whether it’s an educator or one of our senior residents who has lived in the community for generations. And I’m hoping that everyone in Evanston does whatever their part is. Everyone has a role, Black, white, institutions, educators, business people, everyone.

My hope is is that if everyone focuses on their part, that we can be a model city to bridge our gap.

Read more here.

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