Amherst Town Council urged to move on reparations plan

<br /> Amherst Town Council urged to move on reparations plan<br />

  • Michele Miller, chair of the of African Heritage Reparation Assembly, stands outside a Juneteenth Community Jubilee Celebration on the Amherst Common in 2021. FILE PHOTO

  • Michele Miller, chair of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, left; Alexis Reed, back left, a member of the AHRA; Pamela Nolan Young, director of DEI department; Debora Bridges, a member of AHRA; Jennifer Moyston, assistant director of DEI; and Irv Rhodes, a member of AHRA. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

AMHERST — Key recommendations included in the final report for a local reparative justice plan to address harms caused by racism to people of African descent, including creating a permanent standing committee and providing at least $100,000 annually to a reparations fund, will be analyzed by Town Council subcommittees.

In receiving the 37-page final report, appendices and an oral presentation from the African Heritage Reparation Assembly on Monday, the Town Council voted to have both its Finance Committee and the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee review recommendations by Nov. 20.

The report calls on the elected and appointed officials to speed up the timeline to get a reparations account fully funded at $2 million within four years, and ensure a commitment of at least $100,000 a year to its recommendations. It also urges the council to draft the charge for a successor committee that could be called the Amherst Black Reparations Committee.

“We really do feel like in order to keep the momentum and to keep this report from sitting on a shelf, we need to begin pursuing these initiatives before 10 years,” said District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who has chaired the assembly.

Miller said the assembly felt that the $100,000 a year would allow meaningful things to happen in the community, though no direct payments, which would depend on special state legislation, are being considered. Instead, more imminent would be the programmatic benefits, including creating a Black, Indigenous and people of color-led youth center with programming that addresses the needs of young people of African descent, providing more affordable housing and homeownership opportunities, and establishing a municipal program to teach entrepreneurship skills.

Assembly member Amilcar Shabazz said councilors and the community should understand that the impact from embarking on the reparative justice plan may not be immediate, but will be generational, as people are continuing to suffer.

“We are trying to address and repair a damage against a specific group of people that continues to affect their lives, the descendants of those people, right now, 2023,” Shabazz said.

At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said she appreciates the report, noting it has the potential to support generations of Amherst residents. “I’m really thankful and excited for this opportunity,” Walker said.

District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis thanked the assembly for its research and those in the community who participated in surveys and shared their experiences.

“I want the council to make a commitment to really implementing a reparations fund,” De Angelis said. ” I think the commitment is there, but I think we honestly have to not put it on a shelf.”

While councilors applauded the final report, its recommendations also come with concern.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said there will always be other pressures for use of town money. “I think we should put this into action, knowing that it will hurt to do so,” Pam said. “It has to hurt — if it doesn’t hurt, then we’re not doing it.”

“I don’t like what happens after many things get referred to the Finance Committee,” Pam said. “They get cut down, reduced, and sometimes they die.”

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said the Finance Committee doesn’t make decisions, only recommendations, and will provide information on the consequences of spending. “At no time is a decision made by the Finance Committee to do anything,” Steinberg said.

With respect to affordable housing and homeownership opportunities, this could be done in partnership with the town’s Community Preservation Act committee and Community Development Block Grant Committee, Miller said.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said the housing and entrepreneurship aspects can be accomplished. “I think you’ve given us a report that we can move forward with really quickly,” Taub said.

But District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes said, with respect to housing practices, that Amherst has to make sure it is not continuing discrimination and disgrace, such as deed restrictions that kept Black families out of neighborhoods, in the future.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said she was worried about eligibility criteria, noting that in Evanston, Illinois, where one of the first reparations programs was launched, its beneficiaries were restricted to Evanston Black persons who lived in the city from 1919 to 1969, or a descendant, who must have been discriminated against or been the victim of policies or practices in that city. “In reading your report, I see no restrictions on any eligibility,” Hanneke said.

Shabazz said the assembly wrestled with criteria.

“We opted for a more inclusive model, rather than a more restrictive guidance,” Shabazz said. He added that having people prove an ancestor was enslaved is more relevant to a discussion of direct payouts that might happen at the federal level, rather than what can be done at the town level, noting that being too restrictive wouldn’t touch on the question of structural racism in Amherst, and how it is addressed.

Pam said she appreciates that the criteria for eligibility doesn’t depend on records. “People of trauma often do not have pedigree charts carefully preserved,” Pam said.

Shabazz said Amherst benefited from the institution of slavery, and harms continued even after slavery had long ended in Massachusetts, pointing to an Amherst College trustee who had people enslaved in the South, and directly benefited financially from that.

“The impact is beyond just whether you trace ancestors here in Amherst who were enslaved, it’s that you trace ancestors who were enslaved. Period,” Shabazz said.

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