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Grassroots Groups Are Doing Small-Scale Reparations in Absence of Federal Action

One reparations group in Portland, Oregon, is working to redistribute wealth and enable Black residents to own homes.

A Black Lives Matter protest gathers in downtown on April 16, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.

For 27-year-old Tanya Roberts, owning a home was not something she ever thought was in the picture for her. Roberts’s parents were divorced, and she moved to a new rental apartment with her mom every year from kindergarten through 9th grade, never staying in one place long enough to unpack all her boxes. “I still have that internalized trauma of ‘OK, but I’m gonna leave soon so why bother unpacking?’” she told Truthout. For Roberts and her partner, who comes from similar circumstances, home ownership was not just a way to build wealth, but also to feel a kind of stability that they never had but deeply wanted.

As descendants of enslaved people in the American South, Roberts’s family never had the opportunity to amass the kind of wealth that white people have hoarded over generations. Her family was unable to contribute to the down payment for a home, and living in Portland, Oregon, that was not a small amount to pay. Roberts decided to research grants or funding options that exist for people of color or queer people, when she came across the PDX Housing Solidarity Project. She asked to be identified by a pseudonym in this article as she is still in the process of buying a home, to protect her from retaliation from underwriters who may not approve her mortgage if they find out this information.

The Project works to redistribute housing-related wealth and privilege, with the aim of changing how racial disparities play out in homeownership. Roberts was intrigued by the Project and reached out, but she was also cautious and uncertain if this was for real. “To put it bluntly, it’s hard to trust white people who say that they can help you,” she said. “I wanted to be optimistic, but at the same time, I was feeling like, ‘Am I being naive? Am I being taken advantage of?’”

But Roberts has developed more trust through her work with the PDX Housing Solidarity team. They have a goal of raising $35-40,000 for a down payment, and within the last couple of months, they have already raised almost $15,000. The money has been raised via the PDX Housing Solidarity Project’s listserv, which has many people on it who are committed to the work of redistributing wealth and building an equitable Portland.

It is estimated that it would take 228 years for Black Americans to reach the level of wealth white people in this country have today, as a result of centuries of government disinvestment in Black communities, racist practices like redlining and predatory lending, and the lack of reparations for slavery. According to the 2016 analysis from the Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies, over the past 30 years the average wealth of white families has grown by 84 percent, three times as fast as the rate for African American families. The PDX Housing Solidarity Project is just a small drop in the ocean with respect to the need for wealth redistribution and reparations for Black people in America, and the project started as a recognition of this need.

Randal Wyatt, the founder of Taking Ownership PDX, an organization that renovates and revives Black-owned homes with the mission of enabling Black homeowners to generate wealth and deter the gentrification process, received an unusual email one day in August 2020. The email was from Annie Moss, a white woman who went on to co-create PDX Housing Solidarity Project with Wyatt, and it said that she wanted to transfer her home to Black ownership. She had found Wyatt through the press regarding his initiative. “I actually ignored her first email. I was like, ‘No way. This is not a real thing,’” Wyatt told Truthout.

The PDX Housing Solidarity Project works to redistribute housing-related wealth and privilege, with the aim of changing how racial disparities play out in homeownership.

When Moss sent Wyatt a second email, he finally decided to look into it. Soon after, they Facetimed to verify the legitimacy of the transaction, and in just four short months, by December 2020, Wyatt was a homeowner. “I bought the home for what was left on the mortgage, gifting me a significant amount of equity as a form of reparation,” he said.

Wyatt and Moss realized this was a unique opportunity to make a difference. They wanted to “create a platform where we can inspire other allies and people who want to redistribute to do similar stuff that she did for me,” Wyatt said. A year later, in late 2021, PDX Housing Solidarity Project was born.

Lily Copenagle, a volunteer who works with the project, says the only requirements to benefit from the project is that one must be Black or Indigenous, and a first-time homeowner. They provide various services for their clients, which go far beyond just fundraising for them.

“If they aren’t already connected with some of the local grant agencies that can help facilitate additional funds, I’ll connect them with those people. If they need to work on their credit score, I’ll connect them with credit counselors. If they just want somebody to be consistent with them through the process, I do that too,” Copenagle said. And once a person reaches the top of the list in order of when they reached out and their preparedness, the fundraising starts. “And we fundraise until we can’t fundraise anymore for them,” she adds.

For some people involved in redistributing their wealth, that looks like giving $50 to every fundraising campaign. For others, it looks like selling their homes below market value, or transferring lower-interest VA loans, or helping with home repairs.

Still, Wyatt said, “my organization, with the work we’re doing, is sort of like a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.” There needs to be a city-level, state-level and federal push for reparations. He is hopeful, though. “The model itself can be extremely impactful if it spreads across the country. And if one thing gains enough traction on a grassroots level, it always has the potential to influence policy change.”

It is estimated that it would take 228 years for Black Americans to reach the level of wealth white people in this country have today.

There have been some pushes at various governmental levels to consider the case for reparations. In May 2023, Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush introduced new legislation calling for $14 trillion in reparations for Black Americans. The next month, the California Reparations Task Force, formed by the legislature with the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, voted to approve a document that recommended cash reparations, tax breaks, help with health care, free tuition, and other programs to help Black Californians, in an effort to undo centuries of unfair treatment and lingering effects of slavery. However, a recent poll of more than 6,000 voters in California found that only 23 percent supported cash reparations, compared to 59 percent who said they opposed them, despite cash reparations being a core part of the recommendations made. Two of the members of the taskforce are also state lawmakers — Sen. Steven Bradford and Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer — and they seek to introduce a bill based on these recommendations early this year.

A number of cities have also started taking steps toward reparations. Detroit’s city council created a Reparations Task Force to develop recommendations for housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit, ​​after a majority of city voters supported a ballot initiative supporting its establishment in 2021. However, most recently, two members of the taskforce including the co-chair announced their departures from the task force citing a combination of feeling discouraged about asking the City Council for support and feeling the task force “lacked a broad and strategic vision.”

In Massachusetts, the Amherst Town Council approved the creation of a fund to allocate a total of $2 million in reparations over the course of about a decade, inspired by nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Reparations advocates in Amherst are now pushing for the timeline to be shortened to four years, instead of ten. Evanston, Illinois is another example of reparations in action, with the city giving out grants of up to $25,000 to qualifying Black residents to build home equity.

​​While the conversation around reparations has gained traction in the last few years, a majority of Americans are still opposed to it. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, around three-quarters of Black adults (77 percent) say the descendants of people enslaved in the U.S. should be repaid in some way, but only 18 percent of white Americans say the same. According to Pew’s 2021 survey, three quarters of the 30 percent of Americans who favored reparations say the federal government has all or most of the responsibility to repay descendants of enslaved people. The federal government, however, has yet to take concrete action.

Redistributing wealth looks like giving $50 to every fundraising campaign [or] selling homes below market value, or transferring lower-interest VA loans, or helping with home repairs.

Briayna Cuffie, who is an integral part of Reparations 4 Slavery, an organization that “helps white families walking the path of racial healing through engaging in direct repair,” says that everyone has a part to play in repair work. “For me, reparations need to happen at the individual level, institutional level, obviously at the governmental level and every level of government at that. Not just federal, all layers of government were complicit, individuals were complicit, religious institutions were complicit, and a lot of them still are,” she said. “So everybody can cough something up as far as I’m concerned.”

Cuffie thinks that education is the way to make the case for reparations and wealth redistribution. As part of the work of Reparations 4 Slavery, they conduct educational sessions on the lasting effects of slavery, and often find that sharing personal stories of how slavery and racism still affects individuals helps create buy-in. “I feel like education is honestly the way we get through to people. I think people are so used to and always anticipate that [saying] ‘white people need to cut a check’ [is] like the only way to communicate the importance of reparations,” she said. “We just take the personal route. And so, because we do education in that way, the case for reparations makes it for itself.”

Grassroots efforts across the country are working to actively engage in wealth redistribution and reparations at the individual level, in the absence of governmental efforts for repair. A Philadelphia-based organization, Wealth Redistribution Group (WRG) is doing its part in this, too.

Zee Lane, the founder of WRG, said that it all started in the midst of the protests after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. They were actively organizing in the protests and experienced many instances of harm that they had no reprieve from. “I was seeing white people who were also organizing but because [they were] indirectly impacted by these issues, they could step back, go home, rest,” they said. “A really big part of that was that there was no equity.”

Lane made a demand of the people who loved them, who were white. They said to them, “You have to engage in repair, you’re benefiting from the harm that I’m experiencing every day and the suffering. We have to do something about this.” And while they lost a lot of connections because of this demand, their financial needs also started to be met, and they were no longer suffering as much on a daily basis. Seeing the success of this effort, they started WRG as a way to help others like them who needed financial support. WRG started in 2021, and since then they have fully met the needs of at least five individuals through fundraising via their networks of white people who want to engage in wealth redistribution, and their goal is to bring three to five new people into the program each year.

While federal level repair is important, Lane thinks that individual efforts for repair have a unique space. “You can’t dismantle the master’s House with the master’s tools,” they told Truthout. “I find it really meaningful for folks to engage with repair outside of the government, because we’re trying to dismantle these systems.”

“Not just federal, all layers of government were complicit, individuals were complicit, religious institutions were complicit, and a lot of them still are. So everybody can cough something up as far as I’m concerned.”

For activists engaging in wealth redistribution and reparations work, education is an integral component. Both in educating white people on the importance of reparations, and how to engage in it, as well as building financial literacy and wealth management skills for Black people.

Lotte Lieb Dula, who is the founder of Reparations 4 Slavery, says that her mission with the program is to educate white people on the history which is actively being erased. “I lived in a 100 percent white bubble until I was 57. No friends who are not white, no other world existed. And I didn’t realize that,” she said. “I built the website because I needed to educate myself and I thought if I needed education, there are going to be lots of people like me who do.”

Dula herself has engaged in wealth redistribution with Cuffie, helping her pay down her student loans and acquire a home. She says that through the program, which mainly consists of teaching history and making a case for wealth redistribution and how to actively engage in it, she wants to ensure that a Black person’s net worth will be the same as a white person of the same educational background by the time they turn 40.

“It’s also about transferring information. How do you manage wealth? How do you continue to build it? How do you build wealth and support your community at the same time?” she said.

Roberts says that as someone who doesn’t come from money, it is hard to understand how to manage money, to know what the steps are to buying a house, who to talk to, and more. She says that even beyond just fundraising, PDX Housing Solidarity project has been “instrumental in getting us the education we need and feeling like we’ll actually be able to buy a house.”

Roberts is hopeful, she said. She never expected that people would want to engage in reparations in this way, “it felt like a wake-up call, a moment of clarity,” she said. “I found myself looking up houses and trying to see what kind of style I liked and all the things that I couldn’t picture in my head before, of what I could afford, suddenly became possible.”

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