Conference kicks off new Black Reparations Project

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The Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy, in conjunction with Northeastern Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) and UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, held its first Black Reparations Conference online on February 23-24. Speakers included California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber and California Reparations Task Force Chair Kamilah Moore as part of a robust agenda that brought together municipal leaders and community organizers to discuss the various issues of what can often be a charged topic—but also gave credence to self-care and joy. 

The impetus behind the conference, whose theme was “Learning, Challenges, and Strategies in Reparations Work,” was the newly formed Black Reparations Project (BRP) at Mills, which grew out of a course first taught during the 2020 summer session. The class, titled The Case for Reparations: Responding to Racism in the United States, hit the schedule at a fraught moment for race relations in the United States: “We had already planned to teach the class and then, as it happened, it became all the more timely,” said former Mills professor (and current UC Berkeley faculty member) Erika Weissinger. 

“It went so well that we turned it into a full semester class, and then we thought that we could hold a conference and do even more,” added Associate Adjunct Professor of Public Policy Ashley Adams, who is one of four BRP co-chairs with Weissinger; Professor of Practice Darcelle Lahr, MA ’17, EDD ’18; and Lokey Director of Graduate Programs and Alum Engagement Ife Tayo Walker. “The ideas just started flowing, so we brought together the community of people we were already working with to improve the lives of Black people.” 

The concept of reparations to the descendants of American chattel slavery and its aftermath is not a new one, but it has received more attention in recent months and years, especially since those Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. One point of debate is what reparations could look like—for example, the City of San Francisco is considering giving funds directly to those affected by the legacy of slavery, while other proposals have included housing assistance and scholarship funds. The BRP aims to encourage the conversation and the many directions it could go. 

“There are a lot of different opinions and beliefs about how reparation should be approached, and we want to explore all of the different ways that folks are thinking about this,” Lahr said. “There really is no one single answer.” 

In that way, the BRP chairs want to grow beyond this first (and anticipated-to-be annual) conference to become a repository and a starting point for institutions, particularly in the Bay Area. Among other colleges and universities, Northeastern is doing the work through CRRJ on the East Coast, and UCLA is concentrating on Southern California. “One of the things we’re seeing is every time a municipality decides it’s interested in pursuing reparations, there’s quite a bit of reinventing the wheel and engaging in fact-finding missions,” Weissinger said. “We’re eager to provide the technical expertise and help these different groups connect with each other, but also learn from what the others have already found.” 

“The conference is an initial coming together of voices, and then we want our project to continue and deepen the conversation. We can offer a central place where minds and hearts can come together,” Lahr added. Putting the conference together was a start to that strategy; the BRP held listening sessions in the fall to craft the event and solicited feedback from professionals already deeply immersed in the topic. 

The number of schools doing this work also paves the way for collaborations. Adams reported that the BRP is working with two Black Reparation Fellows as part of their capstone projects at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School, and she also credited CRRJ head and Northeastern Professor Margaret Burnham for Burnham’s immediate support. 

The BRP invites anyone interested in keeping up with the initiative’s work to fill out the form at Lahr, as an alum, is already working with members of the Alumnae of Color Committee of the AAMC. “There is enormous intergenerational harm and pain that folks are suffering across the board. We want to make sure that’s upfront and centered, and to bring to light many of the reasons why this conversation needs to be had,” she said. 

“We all know there were hundreds of years spent creating the systems that we have in place now, and it will take more than just one class, more than one conference, to create the world we want to see,” Weissinger added.