This talk was originally presented at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) 2022 National Conference, which took place in Chicago, Illinois, May 16–18, 2022.
Aria Florant: Today, we’re here to talk about reparations. Reparations was in the news this weekend because the gunman in the Buffalo shooting had written, “Here’s your reparations,” on his gun. I’m grateful to be standing here on this stage today for many reasons, but in particular, for the chance to say publicly, as one of the many leaders in the reparations movement, that we will not be threatened. We will not be silenced. And we will not stop until we have built a culture of repair in the US.
Aria Florant: Thank you. So, we’re going to start today actually with a poll of the audience. We talked to a lot of folks about reparations. And we want to get a sense for where you are. We often find that folks are in one of three categories. So, I’m going to share the categories with you. And then, we’ll do a show of hands. The first category is the skeptics. You all have no faith. You all know that racial injustice is a problem, but you just don’t think that reparations is ever going to happen. Second category are the reparations curious. You all just haven’t really thought about it much, and you want to learn more. Maybe it’s possible. And the third is the early adopters. You all think the federal government paying reparations is inevitable and that it’s going to happen within the next 20 to 30 years.
So, let’s do a show of hands. Can the skeptics raise their hand? No skeptics. OK, one skeptic. Thank you. That’s great. Two skeptics. OK, three. All right, the reparations curious? OK, maybe 40 percent or so. Early adopters? All right, this is a beautiful room. Awesome.
My name is Aria Florant. And I am the co-founder and managing director of Liberation Ventures (LV). More importantly, I am the daughter of Greg and Tracy. Greg, a Black, Caribbean man, and Tracy, a white, European women, who raised their kids in the very white state of Colorado. I was a Black girl who filled most of my time with homework and running. And I did not fit in anywhere. My sense of belonging in this world and the lack thereof is the reason I do this work. Studies show that a lack of belonging is linked to depression, to hopelessness, to suicidal thoughts.
I recently heard a podcast by Brené Brown who said that the lack of a sense of belonging is like death by 1,000 cuts. For me, the cuts came from all sides. In third grade, I shrunk when my white classmate made fun of my full lips. In high school, I lost my words when my boyfriend at the time said that I wasn’t really Black, like it was a good thing. And as a college student, I felt silenced when a Black student with darker skin than me implied that because I have light skin and curly hair, that I do not actually know the pain of being Black. So, in my teens, I struggled to connect to my Blackness. In my 20s, I downplayed the whiteness in me. And by the time I got to my 30s, I hit the bottom when I laid in bed one night overcome with tears, feeling like because my whole self could not belong anywhere, that I was worthless. I am here to create belonging for myself and for others because this is not just my story. This is the story of so many people and, ultimately, this is the story of America, of a nation trying to become whole. We cannot become whole by shutting off sides of ourselves, no matter how shameful they may feel.
Reparations is the path to real belonging for Black people in America. We must face the atrocities of our past and let them shine a light on the path toward repair. At LV, we are building a culture of repair. Our mission is to fuel the Black-led movement for racial repair in the US. And that means building public will for a comprehensive federal reparations program. We are a field builder, building through four levers—funding, technical assistance, connective tissue building, and narrative change. And in our first year, we deployed $1 million to 14 amazing movement organizations. One of which is here, Robin Rue Simmons, who hopefully you heard yesterday, who runs First Repair; Nicole Carty, an organizer who comes out of Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, who’s building a mass movement for truth, reconciliation, and reparations; and Erika Alexander, who runs Color Farm Media, who made a documentary about Robin that just got accepted into Tribeca Film Festival.
Right. And we are just getting started.
In this field building role, we talk to a lot of people who are new to this topic. And so today, I’m going to talk about the three most common questions that we get from the reparations-curious and the three most common that we get from the skeptics. And then, I’ll pass the [mic] to Trevor who will talk about how the early adopters can get involved. This is the perfect room for that. But hopefully, all of you all who weren’t already early adopters will be by the time I’m done.
So, for the reparations-curious: they often ask, “First, what are reparations? Second, what does the movement for reparations look like? And third, why is reparations the right goal? Can’t we do this another way?”
So, there’s many perspectives about what are reparations. And the thing is that reparations need to be tailored to the harm that they are meant to remedy. Evanston’s program, for example—$25,000 to individuals who were harmed by the city’s housing policy from 1919 to 1969. And Robin will tell you that, that is just the beginning. The UN basic principles are also a very widely accepted frame. And we build on those principles to develop a framework for repair that’s not just about policy change but also culture change. We believe that [the project of] reparations needs to shock the system, needs to disrupt white supremacist narratives, close the racial wealth gap, and build a culture of repair. And we believe that to do that, you need four components—reckoning, acknowledgment, accountability, and redress. We arrived here after a review of research across disciplines. And this is distinct for three reasons. One is it’s a continual cycle, reflecting the ongoing nature of culture change. Two is it can be applied from the micro to the macro and across sectors, so not just the public sector. And third, it acknowledges the importance of roles and relationships. Because while Black people must be at the center, we believe that all people need healing from white supremacy and that we are actually the contractors of each other’s repair. So ultimately, reparations will benefit everyone.
Comprehensive repair includes a portfolio of initiatives and policies that—across all four of these domains—institutions across sectors can implement. And lastly, the reason why we set this as a framework instead of as a prescription is that we have a lot of learning to do as a movement about what is most effective. And that’s where all of us come in.
So, second, what does the movement look like? There is a thriving ecosystem of organizations. We break down the orgs on the ground in these five ways—knowledge building, institutional reckoning, grassroots power building, reckoning and education, and organizing in non-Black communities. But we also acknowledge the field is growing and we need many, many more different players to step in. Then the third, can we do this another way? We need to address the root causes of our issues. And I love this study. This is a study done by McKinsey and Company last year where they looked at the drivers of the disparity in annual wealth flow between white and Black families. So, what’s driving the difference there? They found that 60 percent of the driver is intergenerational wealth transfer. This is the evidence that says we cannot just financially include our way to closing the racial wealth gap. And the transfer of intergenerational wealth goes all the way back to slavery. And so that is where we have to start.
OK, moving on to the skeptics. This is what you all tell me. First, “We won’t be able to determine the right recipients.” Second, that “Slavery was too long ago.” And the third, “We’ll never build enough public support.”
So first, on the recipients—the reality is this is actually exactly what the federal government is set up to do. So, this is an incomplete list of the types of people who receive compensation from or through the government for harms that they have suffered. And there’s a paper coming out from Harvard Kennedy School in June that details this. So, I would even amend the title of this talk from being reparations are coming to being reparations are already here, just not for Black people. Feasibility is often the go-to tactic for skeptics who want to derail the conversation. And I think that’s because they know that in a debate about the moral legitimacy of our work, they can never win. The reality is, we do this all the time.
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Second thing that we hear is that “Slavery was too long ago.” The last known enslaved person who came on the last known ship died in 1937. Her name was Redoshi. My grandmother was born in 1922, which means that my grandmother could have had a conversation with a formerly enslaved person when she was 15 years old. In addition-—and I know I don’t have to tell this room this—the legacy of slavery currently causes harm every minute of every day.
And finally, “We’ll never get enough public support.” This is my favorite one because I love a challenge. Unfortunately, history books don’t do a good job of describing how much work it takes to change culture. They tend to focus on individual people or moments and erase the groundwork that it took to get to those moments. And any student of history knows that culture change requires—it is not the work of any one actor—but it requires the sustained, coordinated, and strategic action of many. That is what is required of us. Reparations may feel impossible now, but 20 years ago, so did a Black president, so did legalizing marijuana, and so did marriage equality. In fact, there is more public support for reparations now than there was for marriage equality when that effort started.
When I need a boost of motivation, I often think about the early days of the suffrage movement, when white men had the right to vote. And they were trying to think, is it Black men or is it women? It sounded so radical that all people could have the right to vote. And it reminds me that what we think of as radical needs to change. And that is not going to happen on its own. We have to make the change. So now, I’ll pass the mic the Trevor who’s going to share his story and talk about one way that you can get involved.
Trevor Smith: Thanks, Aria. Can you all hear me all right? Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you. I also want to acknowledge the 10 lives that were stolen—not lost, stolen—from us a few days ago in Buffalo. The average age of those that were murdered was 62 years old. They were parents, grandparents, religious leaders. Some of them had lived through Jim Crow. And they had all survived COVID-19 up until that point, up until an 18-year-old man chose to drive 200 miles to gun down people that he didn’t know, strangers, because of the color of their skin. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this, obviously, over the past few days. And I think it’s a little bit deeper than just about the color of their skin, the color of my skin, the color of Aria’s skin. It’s about the stories that we tell about Blackness.
A lot of journalists have been calling the 180-page document that this young man left behind a manifesto. But I refuse to use that word. I refuse to give it that power. And I urge you all to do the same. He was 18 years old. He hasn’t lived two decades on this Earth. He doesn’t have enough experience to write a manifesto, OK? He copied-and-pasted, literally copy and pasted, from the document that the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand wrote. And I read all 180 pages of this document. And I hate to break it to this room, but the stories that these two white supremacists tell themselves are only a slightly more extreme version of the stories that we tell about Blackness every day.
My name is Trevor Smith. I’m the director of Narrative Change at Liberation Ventures, which means that I drink, eat, sleep in stories. So, I often start my morning with some coffee, some news articles. And I ask myself two questions: “What are the stories that we currently tell about Blackness? And what are the news stories that we need to tell about Blackness?”
And although the daily news doesn’t write about this on a daily basis, I know that most stories, the average stories about Blackness, are ones rooted in love, resilience, and laughter, excellence, stories of mutual aid, stories that celebrate our culture, stories that remind us that Black boys are joyful and that Black girls are magical. But I also know, and I’m sure as you all also know, and as the mass lynching in Buffalo should remind us, a lot of stories about Black people, about Black history in the United States, are tragic. They’re rooted in hate and blood. Stories like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose names were on the lips of every American, seemingly, just two years ago. And while their names may not be in the headlines and protesters may not be in the streets as much as they were two years ago, their stories and the countless stories of others are on my mind every day. And my own story is on my mind every day. And I was thinking, as I was writing this talk, that if things went a little bit differently, I may not be here talking to you all today.
In 2012, I was a freshman. And I know I’m aging myself a little bit. I was a freshman at college at St. John’s University in Queens. And if anyone has been to Queens, then you know the streets are a little bit different than Manhattan streets. They’re wider. Queens is more hilly. And I was an avid skateboarder. And I would skateboard around the borough. So, one day, I’m skateboarding on the sidewalk because it’s safer to skateboard on the sidewalk than the streets in Queens. And I go into the deli. And just a couple of seconds after I walk into the deli, a couple of NYPD officers follow me in. And they say that they have to stop and frisk me because I broke the law. So, there I am in the bodega. They’re patting me down. They’re patting me down. And they try to go into my pockets. And I step back and I say, “Hey, it’s called Stop and Frisk, not Stop and Go into My Pockets. I know my rights.” They step back, they look at me. They look at the ID that I handed them. And they ask me, “What are you, a law student?” That encounter could have gone a number of different ways. Maybe if I pulled away a little bit quicker or if I was the same height as Trayvon Martin, or the same weight as Michael Brown, maybe my story would have ended up a little bit differently. What were the stories that the cops told themselves that day for them to follow me into the bodega? Stories of the Black brute, the Black thug? What were the stories they were telling themselves when they asked me if I was a law student? Stories of the uneducated Black man? How could I possibly challenge their authority? He must not be an average Black person. He must be a law student.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories, about narratives. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the preservation of our racial hierarchy depends on anti-Black stories and anti-Black narratives. In 2012, the year that I was stopped, the NYPD recorded over 500,000 stops. 90 percent of those stops were [of] people who were found to be innocent. And 55 percent of those stops were [of] Black people, mostly Black men, Black boys that looked like me, according to the ACLU of New York. And funnily enough, six years later, I would end up working at the ACLU of New York as a media strategist. And it was there that I really understood the importance of uprooting anti-Black narratives. The most important campaign that I worked on at the ACLU was our campaign to end cash bail. I was working in a beautiful coalition of organizations. We held rallies, briefings, memos. We wrote op-eds. I must have pitched 1,000 reporters over a year. And we won. We ended cash bail for the majority of crimes in New York. But just two months later, because of conservative news outlets like the New York Post, who would run with headlines like these, who would run with stories that uplifted anti-Black tropes, stories of the Black superpredator—we’re going back to the ’90s “revolving door of crime”—in just two months, they created enough pressure for the legislature to roll back the reform that we had fought for, for a year.
It showcased to me the importance of narrative change. Our campaign was amazing. We did great things. We won. We ended cash bail. But because we didn’t change the narratives around Blackness, in just two months, all that work was lost.
So, our friends at Race Forward say that narrative change is as important as policy change. And I’d like to riff on that for just a second. I would say that long-term successful policy change relies on narrative change. And narrative change is a long-term process. And it’s an expensive process.
Who in here would like to live in a racially just world? I think that was about 100 percent. So, my homework for you is to go back to your families, to your coworkers, to your friends, and ask yourself, ask them—what are the stories that we need to tell to get to a racially just world? We at Liberation Ventures, as Aria mentioned earlier, believe that story starts with truth, and it starts with repair.
And if we start with the truth, then we must start with the fact that this country was built on stolen land. And it became an economic powerhouse because of stolen African labor. And I know that you early adopters get that, but we need to change the narrative. We need to change the narrative. And we need to tell stories that are rooted in truth, reconciliation, and repair. And we need to build narrative power. We define narrative power as the ability to tell stories that shift culture and, ultimately, cultural mindsets. We cannot build this power without deep, long-term investments, minimum 10-year investments. There should not be any such thing as a one-year narrative change grant. You cannot change a narrative in one year. Between 1940 and 2005, $250 billion was spent on tobacco marketing by the tobacco industry. In response, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poured $700 million over 10 years into their anti-tobacco culture change effort.
If $250 billion was spent on tobacco marketing, how much do you think was spent over the past 400 years to market white supremacy, to market anti-Blackness? I’m no mathematician, but it doesn’t start with a B, it starts with a T. And if Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poured $700 million into their anti-tobacco campaign effort, how much do you think we need? It doesn’t start with a B, it starts with a T.
To truly engage in racial justice work—everyone raised their hand—to live in this racially diverse world that we all want to live in means we have to build power around narratives of truth, reconciliation, repair, and healing. Otherwise, we’ll go back and forth, back and forth. We’ll win and we’ll lose, like I did when we ended cash bail. And as the families in Buffalo will tell you, we literally do not have the time to wait any longer.
So, this is an invitation to join us in changing the narrative—not just about reparations but about this country, about the United States. And I want to just leave you with a quote. It’s from Octavia Butler. She said, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” We need you to join us and everyone who you’re connected with in helping us bring forth a new sun. Thank you.