This past June, the city of Saint Paul‘s Reparations Committee concluded a yearlong phase with a proposal to create the Saint Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission (CRC), a permanent city government body. The proposed CRC would be made of people appointed by the Mayor of Saint Paul, housed within a city government department, and would “recommend actions to … boost economic mobility and opportunity” for the city’s Black descendants of chattel slavery. Key historic events cited in the call for reparations include enslavement of Black Americans at Fort Snelling and the destruction of the historically Black Rondo neighborhood.
Let’s restate that.
A chosen group of people spent a year creating a plan to choose another group of people. The future group, tasked with finding ways to heal nearly two centuries’ worth of racist destruction of local Black people, is imagined with the power to simply recommend action. A public hearing on the CRC proposal is set for December 21 and city council votes to approve or deny the proposal in the first week of January 2023.
“Recommendation” is the biggest dream Saint Paul’s Reparations Committee seems allowed to have for the CRC. The dream is a mouthful, but what it’s allowed to do might not be as robust.
The city of Saint Paul gets some credit: only 11 American cities have publicly committed to providing their Black residents some form of repayment for chattel slavery and only six have begun some type of process. And as convoluted as a series of committees sounds, the group chosen to begin Saint Paul’s reparations effort is a sensible one on paper. From a 21-year-old R&B singer to a 60-plus-year-old electrician, the Reparations Committee is full of locally-invested members who represent Black Saint Paul residents well across age, gender, profession, and socioeconomic status. The conveners (committee leaders) are reputable local leaders who approach racial justice from adjacent angles.
Hard limitations on Saint Paul’s reparations effort will not come from the committee of citizens chosen to lead the way. As of now, a lack of resources and the city government itself are the likeliest threats to grind the local reparations movement into a tame, overpromising equity project.
The Reparations Committee submitted a draft ordinance and a 31-page report to city council’s organizational committee about how to structure the CRC. In a public virtual information session last month at the East Side Freedom Library (ESFL), convener Trahern Crews explained a city council vote to approve the CRC will be the last step in making it a permanent part of Saint Paul’s city government.
In their report, the Committee suggested the CRC should be housed in the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) department. In the same information session, Crews confirmed the goal was to have the CRC hosted by HREEO.
There are reasons for skepticism of HREEO’s ability to aid this mission.
Five different directors and interim directors have led the HREEO in the last four years. Kristien Butler, the current director as of December 2021, was the interim director beginning in April 2021. He’s made it a bit longer than his recent predecessors, but HREEO has yet to demonstrate recent trustworthiness on the level required to handle citywide Black reparations.
To be selected as protectors and advocates of a pioneering movement such as Black reparations is a big deal. The story behind Saint Paul’s likeliest group to play that role includes perpetual understaffing, a revolving door of leadership, regular employee complaints, and a number of strange, unexplained failures. Among them are sudden departures of promising, qualified candidates for director and deputy director positions (i.e. Amondo Dickerson, Jeffry Martin, and Lao Yang).
(Frederick Melo of the Pioneer Press more thoroughly explored HREEO’s dysfunction last year: here is the article.)
The lack of transparency within HREEO extends outward. There is no page on the city’s website you can visit to find names and faces of current HREEO leadership.
A focused search of either press releases or LinkedIn profiles is required to know who Director Butler and Deputy Directors Andrea Ledger and Beth Pitzel Commers are. You can, however, find Gessner Rivas’ name on the city site. He’s the guy who heads the HREEO Commission — the group of civilians tasked with keeping the department in check.
Rivas — not quite an HREEO insider — is the only HREEO employee with a name and phone number listed for contact on the city website. The function of the HREEO Commission is great in theory, but will one person interfacing between the public and the HREEO about their decisions on Black reparations be enough?
Perhaps transparency isn’t that important to a team who, among other things, is tasked with protecting renters’ rights (i.e. half of the city). But if it’s the place being considered as the home for the city’s Black reparations mission, Black citizens should have greater access to the people supposedly working for them.
In the previously mentioned September info session at ESFL, convener Trahern Crews — co-founder of BLM MN and chair of the state’s Green Party — detailed the different angles local reparations were being approached from. He highlighted work with his grassroots steering committee as well as his work with the city on the Reparations Committee. Among the highlights were survey results of 300+ Twin Cities residents offering their opinions on the validity of Black reparations and the forms it could take locally.
Another highlight of the information session was clarity on the imagined role of the CRC. Among the details, according to Crews, include reporting on departmental and citywide efforts intersecting or directly related to the CRC’s work.
Attendees at the Freedom Library event were enthusiastic, but couldn’t make up for less than 10 people being present throughout the hour-long session, most of whom were not Black. Naturally, questions were asked about how the city’s planning process was being made accessible to the very group of people they are trying to make whole. Crews pointed out the grassroots nature of the ESFL session and that listening sessions in conjunction with the city of Saint Paul averaged roughly 300 attendees.
In a city with nearly 50,000 Black residents — including a sizable minority who aren’t descendants of chattel slavery — awareness of this work and opportunities to contribute to it must grow to ensure crucial questions about local reparations are answered by those meant to receive them. As of now, the reparations survey remains open for Twin Cities residents to both weigh in on the possible form(s) of reparations as well as sign up for email updates.
A handful of similar attempts at reparations across the country resemble Saint Paul’s in several ways: cities, not states or the federal government, are being made responsible for reparations; city governments are providing few public updates; and instead of broadcasting and reaching out to their citizens, city governments are placing the onus on grassroots organizers to inform and involve locals in the reparations process.
The local activists, educators, and residents on the Reparations Committee appear committed to creating lasting solutions. What about the people they’ve been selected by? City officials will ultimately make or break this current form of the Black reparations vision. Frequent updates on their thoughts, feelings, and community engagement efforts are necessary in order to avoid surprise or confusion when city council finally votes on the CRC’s creation and role within Saint Paul’s government.
Since Minneapolis political chatter is largely stuck on public safety debates, Saint Paul appears to be on its own here. Everything the city does regarding reparations over the next year is precedent-setting. How far will Saint Paul go and how involved will its Black residents be in a process meant to bring them justice?