A Black man with locs dancing in the middle of an urban street, pointing at the camera and wearing a yellow sweatshirt.
Image credit: Blake Cheek on Unsplash

This is the second article in NPQ’s series, The Vision for Black Lives: An Economic Justice Agenda. Co-produced with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), this series will examine the many ways that M4BL and its allies are seeking to address the economic policy challenges that lie at the intersection of the struggle for racial and economic justice.

The reparations landscape in the United States—and around the world—is evolving rapidly. Organizers across the country have started to frame reparations as an economic justice issue.

Take the Decolonizing Wealth Project (DWP), for example. This organization dedicated to creating racial equity through what they call “radical and reparative giving” committed in June 2023 to giving $20 million over five years to boost campaigns for reparations across the United States. They are also partnering with Boston University to map reparations projects.

Elsewhere, large philanthropic organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation have provided unrestricted grants to organizations doing reparations work. In 2021, MacArthur’s Equitable Recovery Program granted $80 million; most of the organizations receiving funding are led by Black people, Indigenous people, or other people of color.

The Bush Foundation, based in Minneapolis, also committed $100 million in 2021 to atone for its ties to slavery and land theft. The $100 million will seed two community trust funds that will address wealth disparities caused by historic racial injustice—the foundation specifies that the funds will be invested directly into Black and Native American communities with the goal of building stability and generational wealth.

Initiatives such as these have emerged largely in recent years and beg the questions: What is the role of philanthropy in the reparations space? What role do philanthropic organizations play in setting economic justice priorities that include reparations?

These are just a few of the driving principles behind the organization if, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, a health conversion foundation (formed in the 1990s out of the assets of a nonprofit health insurer sold to a for-profit firm) that aims in its grantmaking to center “the leadership and expertise of Black people and people of the global majority in the Washington, DC region.”

In this interview, Temi Bennett, codirector of the foundation, shares how they are framing reparative philanthropy, how it shapes their work in reparations, and the biggest challenges and opportunities at this moment.

We believe reparations are due because the United States has benefitted from uncompensated Black genius and labor since its founding.

Amara Enyia: Your work in the space of reparative philanthropy is groundbreaking. Can you share more about what “reparative philanthropy” is and why radical imagination is crucial to the reparations movement?

Temi Bennett: “Reparative philanthropy” is one of the many terms bandied about since the so-called “racial reckoning” in this country. I’ve heard it being used interchangeably for different things, but mainly in reference to grantmaking to BIPOC-led organizations.

At if, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, reparative philanthropy means reparations to Black people. In partnership with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), our foundation reparations project studies our endowment and the endowments of seven other funders in the DC region to illuminate the ways in which Black people have been exploited to build philanthropic wealth. We hope that the participating foundations will engage in redress. Our goal is that this pilot project will be replicated by other foundations. We are attempting to address the “glass house” that the philanthropic sector resides in.

We believe reparations are due because the United States has benefitted from uncompensated Black genius and labor since its founding. While popular narratives suggest that Black people lack wealth because of individual choices, it is the 404 years of collective harm by federal, state, and local governments, private industry, and individuals that has created the wealth gap. Black wealth inequality began with the brutality of enslavement and has continued through Jim Crow—legal segregation, unpaid and underpaid labor, land theft, and ongoing discrimination and stigmatization.

Radical imagination is necessary for any reparations or racial justice work because of structural racism, which is the history and ongoing reality of prejudice and discrimination across all institutions, cultural norms, interpersonal interactions, and dominant narratives that combine to create a system that subjugates and exploits Black people and their communities. Once these structures are in place, no one has to actively think about race, privilege, or discrimination for these systems to disadvantage the collective Black population. Accordingly, we have to actively imagine a world where anti-Blackness does not exist.

AE: At the local level, what are you seeing as the impact of your reparative philanthropic work in Washington, DC? What is your vision for long-term impact? 

TB: In addition to our foundation reparations project with NCRP, we are supporting government reparations at the local level. We are currently funding a coalition of community members, organizers, scholars, and policy experts who are working to advise and advocate [for] the District of Columbia’s reparations policy. And we are funding a reparations study led by Dr. Raymond Winbush, an activist and scholar who will lead a research team to identify the harm done to Black people by both public and private institutions in the District of Columbia.

A key challenge is cognitive dissonance. Many White people have an image of their communities as being open, fair, and welcoming to everyone.

I can’t speak to impact because research is still underway. No reparations policies have passed into law yet. However, the reactions we’ve received thus far run the gambit from excitement and curiosity to concern and anger, with emphasis on concern and anger. This is often the case whenever we are telling truths about anti-Blackness.

At if, our vision is that Black people and people of the global majority live powerfully, abundantly, and beautifully in healthy, self-determined communities free of social, economic, and ideological violence. Only reparations will make amends for historical and current harms and enable true repair. True repair for Black people requires: (1) resources, and by resources, I mean land and money; (2) equitable policies and programs in areas such as wealth-building, education, housing, environment, health, employment, the criminal legal system, and democracy; and (3) an end to anti-Blackness in future governmental policies and practices.

We are committed. We will not give up or shut up. This debt will be paid in our lifetime.

AE: What is one big challenge for reparations work at this moment, and what’s one big opportunity that you can see on the horizon?

TB: A key challenge is cognitive dissonance. Many White people have an image of their communities as being open, fair, and welcoming to everyone. They struggle to name real examples of when they are being privileged by their Whiteness. This could be because they do not have a sufficient understanding of history and proximity to Black people to understand their experience. Consequently, they resist the notion that anti-Blackness exists.

In the face of a contradiction between their perception of the world and evidence to the contrary, the tendency is to deny the evidence. That way, their long-held and cherished images of themselves and their communities can remain intact. In the case of reparations, us naming and quantifying Black harm and the extraction of Black genius and labor for their enrichment is an existential crisis for White people. This is especially true for philanthropy, as the sector views itself as the “consummate do-gooder.” The “good,” however, can never repair the harm that has been done because of its roots and ongoing dependence on racialized capitalism.

Nonetheless, opportunity does exist. Despite federal inaction, local reparations work is taking root all over this country. We are committed. We will not give up or shut up. This debt will be paid in our lifetime.