Overlapping Roles Unite Institutions on Exploring Reparations
On September 21, 2022, the Boston Foundation hosted the third in our series of conversations on the topic of reparations. Our earlier discussions focused on the history and positioning of the concept of reparations and engaged panelists from other cities in sharing reparations efforts and plans from around the country. This time, the conversation turned to how institutions can approach reparations within their sectors, with a focus on higher education, health care and philanthropy.
As moderator, King Boston Executive Director Imari Paris Jeffries prefaced his questions by saying, “Our goal is to build collective understanding of the term reparations. We have first to acknowledge harm so we can move forward to fight structural racism and start repair.” He asked, what are the roles different kinds of institutions can play in this work?
Speaking on behalf of higher education, Cynthia Neal Spence, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Justice Fellows Program at Spelman College, was clear: Institutions of higher education serve as sites for spreading understanding of and exploring actions around reparations. “We are grooming the next generation of leaders,” she said, listing several ways that is happening:
- We must educate, to make sure students and faculty are well informed.
- We must partner with other truth, reconciliation and reparations centers—in higher ed and beyond.
- We must offer a way to establish community views of how reparations would look locally.
From the health care perspective, Michael Curry, President and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, also stressed the importance of education, or perhaps of re-learning what we thought we knew. He quoted Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895), the first African American woman to earn a U.S. medical degree: “They seem to forget there’s a cause for every ailment, and it may be within their power to remove it.” Crumpler was talking about the medical community’s treatment of the formerly enslaved, Curry explained, but the statement applies just as well to health and social ailments today.
“In the healthcare community, we are looking at the ‘taint of race’ in our system. What does it mean that you couldn’t go to a hospital until the 1960s due to segregation? What does it mean to be uninsured? That by the time you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s stage IV and not I. We are starting to provide context and understanding about how we got where we are; why we are dealing with disproportionate disease, morbidity and mortality.” Similar historical dynamics lurk behind incarceration rates, relationships with police, being unbanked and lacking wealth. “It is truth catching up to history,” as Curry put it. “Once we get the awakening [to these dynamics], we can talk about the policy. Black Americans deserve to be repositioned, not only to compensate for slavery but for the failed promises since.”