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.