man on a video call
Gregory Hicks appears virtually for a Jan. 18, 2023, interview to serve on Detroit’s reparations task force. (Screenshot | City of Detroit)

Systemic barriers that keep Black residents from enjoying economic and social progress were top of mind for the first two Detroiters interviewed for the city’s new Reparations Task Force.

Gregory Hicks, a sociologist and ex-secretary of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, and Jeffrey Robinson, a Detroit Public Schools Community District principal, kicked off the interviews during a Wednesday City Council committee meeting, discussing their qualifications and approach to developing recommendations for programs that address historic discrimination against Black residents. 

Related:

City Council Member Latisha Johnson said the goal is to complete interviews for nominees to the 13-member task force by the end of February. 

“There’s a demand from residents, and also a desire from council members, to see actionable items that can be put in place,” Johnson said in an interview. 

Council President Mary Sheffield is responsible for selecting four people to lead the task force. The other nine members will be appointed by the council. Each council member can nominate two candidates. Interviews are being conducted by the Internal Operations Committee before the full council weighs in.

Sheffield on Tuesday urged colleagues to submit their nominations for the task force as soon as possible. Council agendas show Sheffield nominated Hicks as an at-large candidate and that she made her selections for a four-member executive committee: Detroit Planning Commission Chair Lauren Hood, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair Keith Williams, MDP Deputy Voter Protection Director Dorian Tyus and JoAnn Watson, a senior pastor for West Side Unity Church and a former Detroit council member. 

Council President Pro Tem James Tate nominated Allen Venable, an attorney and president of the Wolverine Bar Association, and Lisa Thomas, an engineer and fellow with the Govern for America program.

Johnson told BridgeDetroit that she has nominated Bernard Parker, a nonprofit consultant and former Wayne County commissioner, and Toinu Reeves, an economics doctoral student at the 

University of Michigan who ran for a Michigan Senate seat in 2022. 

“I was trying to make sure we had a balance of individuals so they have robust conversations,” Johnson said. “I want to see us implement the ideas they are able to come up with. Of course, this I-375 project is one that is top of mind for a lot of people. I would love to see something done there that is giving support and understanding of what transpired with people that were displaced and making sure we give back.”

BridgeDetroit last month obtained the list of 75 applicants under a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents show interest in the task force from Detroiters with an impressive array of skills and expertise. 

The Internal Operations Standing Committee conducted virtual interviews Wednesday with Hicks and Robinson.

Robinson’s video backdrop was a historic image depicting Martin Luther King Jr. leading a group in prayer after protesters were arrested during a march for voting rights outside an Alabama courthouse in 1965. Robinson is a principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, an assistant professor of teacher education at Wayne State University and an executive committee member of the NAACP Detroit Branch. 

Robinson said Wednesday that Detroit is a dominant force in the development of the country’s middle class and cultural identity but Black residents have not been able to take advantage of economic, social and political gains. 

headshot
Jeffrey Robinson is a Detroit Public Schools Community District principal and was among the first Detroiters interviewed for a seat on the city’s reparations task force. (Facebook photo)

“The only way that we will be able to forge out a solution would be to pay particular attention to the lived experiences of Black people in the city of Detroit,” Robinson said. “Making plans for them is not the best way forward. We ought to make plans with them and have their input and feeling of community in all that is done, especially within city government.”

Robinson has a doctorate degree in African American and African Studies from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in educational leadership from University of Detroit Mercy and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from MSU. 

Hicks’ professional life has focused on public policy solutions to reduce social and economic inequalities. Hicks has a doctorate degree in philosophy, a master's degree in sociology, a master’s degree in urban planning and a bachelor's degree in public affairs, all from Wayne State University. 

Despite his academic background, Hicks said he wants to avoid creating a “scholarly report” that doesn’t lead to any real action. Hicks said African Americans have been “systemically placed” in situations where they’re unable to progress in the same way other groups have. 

“My focus in all of those endeavors was to harmonize what works in the public arena,” Hicks said of his research work. “I was very concerned about how government intersects with people, how social movements tend to shape the activity of government and what ultimately our resources that citizens can bring in order to create a better future for the political basin.” 

Hicks was executive director for the 2012 Detroit charter revision commission and secretary of Detroit’s BOPC before he was removed after an investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General found Hicks abused his authority by improperly hiring “key staff members.” In response to the allegations, Hicks, at the time, defended his hiring practices. The OIG investigation and the circumstances of his departure from the police board position were not raised during Wednesday’s interview. 

An application period for the task force opened this summer, with a deadline of Oct. 10. Council members had planned to review applications and pick nominees by the end of 2022. However, the council did not formally discuss nominees before breaking for a holiday recess in late November. 

The city’s application form for the task force did not ask about an applicant's race or ethnicity and candidates do not have to be Black to serve. But to be eligible, applicants must have lived in Detroit for at least six years. 

The City Council has expressed a preference for task force members with certain expertise, like historians, community organizers, housing or economic researchers, urban planners, youth representatives, restorative justice advocates and others. 

Once seated, the task force will be responsible for drafting recommendations for social initiatives in eight categories within 18 months of its first meeting. Focus areas include a right to live free of discrimination, water and sanitation, environmental health, safety, recreation, access and mobility, housing and the fulfillment of basic needs. The task force meetings will be open to the public. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *