A 72-year-old woman is currently on a hunger strike in order to raise awareness and support for H.R. 40, a federal bill that if passed into law would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for Blacks.

Rachelle Zola said as a white woman, she did not have much awareness of the country’s long racial history, adding that she grew up in Long Island, New York and lived in Colorado, Virginia and Arizona, before moving to Chicago in 2019.

“I didn’t have a clue as to the depth of the harm done not only to the African American community but also to our nation by 245 years of systemic racist policies and actions,” she said.

Zola said that she is pursuing the hunger strike in solidarity with the “countless people who have worked tirelessly for decades and who continue to do so today to pass H.R. 40.”

Zola started her strike on Sunday. On May 16, Dominican University, 7900 Division St. in River Forest, organized an event on its outdoor quad commemorating the launch of Zola’s hunger strike. The event featured speakers, poets, artists and musicians.

Cosmopolitan United Church, 1112 N. 9th Ave. in Melrose Park, is hosting Zola during the day for the duration of her hunger strike. The church’s pastor, Juan Pablo Herrera, has invited community members to visit with Zola every day and to pray for her during the hunger strike.

“She’s committed to the hunger strike for as long as her body can sustain it,” said Amy Omi, the university minister for Liturgy and the Arts at Dominican, during an interview last week.

During an interview in February, Sheila Radford-Hill, Dominican’s recently retired chief diversity officer, said the River Forest university is one of about three dozen campuses across the country that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) have designated Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Centers (TRHT).

Omi, Dominican’s TRHT coordinator, said that supporting Zola’s hunger strike fits squarely within the university’s mission.

“I was immediately struck and I thought, ‘This is something that Dominican University should get behind and sponsor,’” Omi said, referencing Zola’s efforts to raise awareness about the Congressional reparations bill.

“There’s this language around narrative change, which is related to reparations work and the narrative change piece is being able to center voices that have traditionally been erased and marginalized within the mission or heritage story of a college or university or, frankly, the church.”

Colette Davion, an adjunct instructor at Dominican, said that Zola “wants to be in solidarity with everyone, she doesn’t want this to be about her. One of the concerns she had is that people will say, ‘What’s in it for this white woman.’ Her end goal is basically to get this bill passed and to use her white voice and her white body to raise awareness.”

According to a New York Times report, the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 17 along partisan lines last month to advance the legislation establishing the commission, but the bill still faces steep odds.

“With opposition from some Democrats and unified Republicans, who argue that Black Americans do not need a government handout for long-ago crimes, neither chamber of Congress has committed to a floor vote,” the Times explained.

The vote by the House Judiciary Committee was a major milestone for proponents of reparations, who have labored for decades to build mainstream support for redressing the lingering effects of slavery. Democrats on the panel advanced the legislation establishing the commission.

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