Reparations architect from Illinois to lead town hall in Amherst on Thursday

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-28-2023 7:25 PM

AMHERST — A national leader who has pioneered municipal efforts to provide government-funded reparations to Black Americans will be in Amherst this week to support both the town’s ongoing work to address harms perpetuated against residents of African heritage and to engage with college students interested in pursuing similar initiatives.

“I’m very excited to be part of the town hall and looking forward to being in community with Amherst,” says Robin Rue Simmons, a former Evanston, Illinois alderwoman whose work fashioned the first local-initiated reparations project when, in 2019, the leaders of the city of 75,000 people agreed to direct $10 million in cannabis tax revenue toward fixing ongoing and past harms.

“Amherst Reparations Town Hall: Building and Sustaining a Local Reparations Movement” will be held at The Powerhouse at 10 East Drive on the Amherst College campus Thursday at 6 p.m.

Last year, Amherst officials approved placing up to $2 million in free cash into its reparations fund that will eventually fund initiatives identified by the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, a group that has been doing community outreach since last summer and by June is supposed to bring forward an action plan for who would benefit from reparations and how they would be enacted.

While Simmons, who founded the FirstRepair nonprofit to develop models for local reparations, has participated virtually with the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, this will be the first time she has come to Amherst.

Simmons said that Amherst residents will have to develop a plan that is right for the community, just as is happening in Evanston, a Chicago suburb where Black residents faced housing discrimination for decades.

“Amherst outcomes are going to be very different,” Simmons said. “This work is hyper-local, and it’s up to the community to prescribe solutions.”

FirstRepair, she said, aims to be an ally to support reparative efforts across the country and to build more national consensus on the topic.

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The town hall will begin with a screening of the documentary, “The Big Payback,” which Simmons said is a fair and transparent look at what’s ahead for communities engaging in the work, and an honest account that explores reparation’s complexity and nuances. There will also be update on how reparations work is progressing in Evanston and about HR40, the federal legislation that has been stalled.

Mike Jirik, an Amherst College fellow studying the racial history of the college, will also talk. The Association of Amherst Students, as the student government body, is cosponsoring the event.

District 1 Amherst Town Councilor Michele Miller, who cochairs the assembly, said the town hall is an opportunity for residents and others to mark progress and build for the future together.

“Robin’s visit to Amherst is an invitation to all community members to learn more about the reparations work underway locally and nationally,” Miller said.

Simmons praised the incredible work elsewhere and the collaborations she has built with dozens of other communities committed to reparations.

In addition, U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern has called on President Joe Biden to form a reparations taskforce, using what Amherst is doing as a model.

Reparations Summitat UMass on Saturday

Though the town hall event is being held at Amherst College, there is also work underway at the University of Massachusetts, where the Alliance for Afro-American Cultural Education is holding a virtual “Reparations Summit” Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. That will look at the status, goals, and challenges of the national movement for reparations for Black American descendants of those who were enslaved.

College students have already been inspired by what is happening.

“I’m confident that there will be no shortage of opportunities to get involved,” Simmons said. “They can help to build the case through historical accounts, oral history and the data and impacts studies that will be needed.”

There is also a chance for interfaith communities to take part. Simmons observes that in Evanston about 20 synagogues, churches, temples and other religious organizations have joined in solidarity. On Martin Luther King Day, they announced close to $1 million that would be added to reparations in the city.

With Boston and Providence getting reparations projects underway, Simmons said she will head to Cambridge later in the week, speaking at the Black Policy Conference at Harvard University.

Simmons said Amherst is one of many communities participating in FirstRepair’s monthly strategy sessions.

“Together we’re all strengthening the local reparations implementation,” Simmons said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>