BURLINGTON, Vt. – On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Burlington leaders and a panel of representatives from other cities gathered virtually for a discussion about reparations for the institution of slavery.
Last August, Burlington became the fourth city in the U.S. to create a task force to study reparations. Monday’s discussion was about ways to legislate reparations and move the concept forward, as well as a broader discussion about how the echoes of slavery still permeate the everyday lives of millions of Black Americans.
Dr. Wanda Heading Grant, Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at the University of Vermont, agreed to facilitate the discussion because she’s dedicated her life and career to empowering and uplifting marginalized communities.
“How do the haves join with the have-nots to create a legacy with new sets of values?” Dr. Heading Grant asked. “Values that don’t produce the ignorance, hatred, hostility and violence that we saw on January 6?”
That was the day hundreds of rioters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to overturn President Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election.
The question of how to address that hostility, repair decades of inequality and create a new set of values is one that’s actively being studied by Burlington’s Reparations Task Force.
The group is headed by Tyeastia Green, Burlington’s first Director of Racial Equality, Inclusion and Belonging.
“What I plan to do with the Reparations Task Force is make sure we stay centered on the descendants of enslaved people,” Green said. “Black people who are descended from enslaved people are always left behind. If you look at the housing crisis, the Fair Housing Act, Affirmative Action, all of those things have left Black people behind.”
Several panelists at Monday’s discussion represented other cities at various stages of reparation talks.
Shawndell Burney-Speaks works in the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations in Providence, Rhode Island where an ambassador group has been meeting to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities.
“There were a lot of people getting sick because they could not social distance,” Burney-Speaks said. “We have done a lot of work in regards to reconciliation and truth-telling.”
Bishop Jeffery A. Williams, Pastor of King’s Cathedral in Providence, is also involved with the ambassador group. It has quickly evolved from a discussion on pandemic inequality to broader topics like reparations.
“The problems are so profound, the impact is literally in our water system,” Williams said. “We must go there and be able to tell that story, and from that, build the case of reparations. It’s messy work, but our leadership is willing to get in there and let it be messy.”
Other speakers at Monday’s panel discussion included Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, UVM Professor of Economics Stephanie Seguino, and former Asheville, North Carolina Councilor Keith Young.
Burlington’s Reparations Task Force will eventually develop reparation proposals for African Americans living in Burlington to account for decades of economic, political, educational and social discrimination.
The full city council resolution detailing the task force’s scope and the reason for its creation can be read here.
Discussions will go far beyond the question of how much money should be dedicated toward reparations. The task force will be taking on a comprehensive research project that will document how slavery and discrimination has adversely impacted the Black community.
“These are a lot of tasks, it’s not something for the light of heart,” Tyeastia Green said at the group’s first meeting. “It’s definitely something that academic professionals would have to undertake.”
Other task force members include Pablo Bose (Professor of Geography, University of Vermont), Hal Colston (State Representative, Director of Partnership for Change), Christine Hughes (New Seasons Vermont and Racial Justice Alliance), and Rebecca Zietlow (Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo College of Law).
The task force is continuing to gather information, with plans to eventually report back to the Burlington City Council with recommendations. Before its first meeting on November 12, Mayor Miro Weinberger called it a monumental step for the City of Burlington.
“I am proud that Burlington is the first City in the country to examine and account for the role it has played in the foundational injustice of chattel slavery and the responsibility of repairing its harm,” Weinberger said. “A shameful chapter of the long, terrible history of slavery and its aftermath is that for over 30 years, congress has refused to even study the possibility of reparations, despite annual resolutions calling for that examination.”
A reparations bill was proposed back in 2019 at the State level, but progress stalled and there hasn’t been any action on it since February of that year.