Earlier this year, a grassroots group began taking steps to study the feasibility of a local reparations program in Oak Park — a process the group launched after they couldn’t persuade the previous village board to act on reparations proposals they presented last year.

Now, with a new village board and village president in place, the idea of local reparations in Oak Park is gaining momentum. At a village board meeting on July 11, nationally respected reparations advocate Robin Rue Simmons presented to the board, which has directed village staff to further explore the feasibility of a local reparations program. Last month, the village board adopted exploring reparations as one of its goals.

Simmons, a former Evanston alderwoman, led that city toward the 2019 passage of the first municipal-funded reparations program in U.S. history. Rue Simmons is currently the executive director of FirstRepair, a nonprofit she founded to inform local reparations efforts.

“The conditions in Black America and in our cities are not only because of the Transatlantic slave trade, but also because of anti-Black practices that have been enforced by our municipalities and states and county governments,” Rue Simmons told board members.

The village board didn’t take any formal action Monday, but the village’s legal department laid out the legal framework that such programs need to meet.

All reparations programs must, according to Village Attorney Paul Stephanides, pass the test of strict scrutiny, the highest standard of review used by courts to evaluate constitutionality of governmental discrimination. To do so, the program must target specific past discrimination by the governmental entity, and evidence must be provided of past intentional discrimination.

In identifying instances of discrimination in Oak Park, Trustee Ravi Parakkat pushed for independent verification by multiple parties to ensure the veracity of the claims.

“That has to be really, really clear so that the village can verify and withstand any kind of legal challenge,” he said.

Evanston was able to meet the standards of strict scrutiny with the first initiative in its reparations plan, known as the Local Restorative Housing Program. Historic legislation in Evanston contributed to lasting racial zoning, including the 1919 ordinance that zoned as commercial use every block outside of the city’s west side, where Black residents lived. This resulted in the demolition of dozens of homes occupied by Black families, Rue Simmons explained.

A city council subcommittee conducted a feasibility study to evaluate potential ways to provide monetary reparations to Black residents and their direct descendants who have suffered from such discriminatory housing policies that were in effect between 1919 and 1969.

Through the Local Restorative Housing Program, Evanston seeks to make reparations to its Black residents by providing housing grants for property costs or home repairs. In January, the city chose 16 recipients to receive the first round of individual $25,000 grants. Evanston is funding the program using revenue from the city’s 3% Retailers’ Occupation Tax on recreational adult cannabis sales.

“We are working on additional revenue streams as we speak,” Rue Simmons said.

While groundbreaking, Evanston’s initiative has been criticized for being a housing program dressed up as a reparations program. The initiative does not allow reparations recipients the ability to choose how to spend that money. Those critics include Oak Park Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla.

“I’m pretty critical of Evanston’s restorative housing reparations program,” she said. “Reparations to me, and as it’s been defined by sociologists and legal scholars, is really cash in hand for people.”

In developing Oak Park’s future program, Walker-Peddakotla recommended that staff not stick to the narrow scope of housing but to think of broader possibilities, and to do so from the perspective of Oak Park.

“It may not look like what reparations for Evanston looks like,” she said.

Rue Simmons acknowledged that reparations could and should be looked at from multiple angles specific to the community before writing any legislation, which must be informed by Black residents and developed in consultation with the village’s legal department.

The July 11 board meeting comes in the wake of work done by Walk the Walk, a local grassroots group that presented a reparations proposal similar to Evanston’s to the previous village board, then led by Mayor Anan Anu-Taleb, in February 2021.

After failing to garner sufficient traction at the board level, Walk the Walk began working on its own to explore the feasibility of reparations in Oak Park. The organization launched a nine-member Oak Park Reparations Task Force, which partnered with Dominican University in River Forest to create a community survey designed to gauge what Black Oak Park residents think about reparations. Residents can access the survey at https://bit.ly/3cacTX5.

Christian Harris, who leads the task force, said the survey results will be included in a report on local reparations that the group will present to the village board once it’s completed. On July 11, board members expressed support for the village collaborating with the Task Force.

Reached on the morning of July 12, Harris said that he has been in contact with members of the village board, including President Vicki Scaman, Stephanides and Oak Park Village Manager Kevin Jackson. He said the task force last spoke with village officials “a few weeks ago,” but were not informed that Rue Simmons would be presenting at the July 11 meeting. 

 “In every community there is going to be disagreement, but somewhere in there, you have to get to consensus and begin the work because there is no shortage to serve and empower the Black community,” Rue Simmons said. “Starting somewhere is important.”

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