Compensating Detroiters for past harms is a top priority of City Council President Mary Sheffield.
City Council will host the first of many anticipated community meetings to understand what residents want from a reparations taskforce, and whom they want to be a member of it. The first virtual meeting will begin Thursday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. The council president said community input is not only valued, it’s necessary if the taskforce is to be successful.
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Community feedback from next Thursday’s conversation will be used to help the council determine how to select and seat new members of the taskforce.
Sheffield introduced the idea of a reparations taskforce to council on Juneteenth of last year. The District 5 council representative said she was approached by community activists to bring the discussion to the local government body. Since then, six new members have joined the City Council. In that time, other council members have also proposed recommendations that would undo or make right municipal policies that have historically hindered Black Detroiters’ financial and economic well-being.
BridgeDetroit will keep track of the reparations taskforce in a series called “What is owed Black Detroit.” Following one-on-one conversations with members of the group that pitched the reparations taskforce, BridgeDetroit interviewed Sheffield to learn how local elected officials are involved in the conversation.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BridgeDetroit: President Sheffield, you introduced the reparations taskforce to City Council last summer. Why was this something you wanted to be associated with, and why do you think it matters to Detroiters?
Sheffield: There is a national movement going around regarding reparations. With Detroit being one of the Blackest cities in the country, I think it’s important that we are a part of the conversation. There’ve been a lot of Detroiters — community activists, residents, organizers, that uplifted this conversation. Some people reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, would you entertain having discussions with the council about creating a taskforce about this?’ I thought it was an important issue that we should address.
BridgeDetroit: The documents you’ve provided to council the last few months highlight reparations work in other cities like Asheville, North Carolina; Evanston, Illinois; several cities in California; and St. Paul, Minnesota. These examples will be used as a jumping-off point for Detroit’s discussions, but are there any parts of those plans that you would like to see in Detroit? Anything that you think is doable within the next 18 months?
Sheffield: We want to use the other cities as examples and models, understanding that Detroit — of course — is different and unique. We wanted that because what we’re going to do is show the public what other cities have done. Here’s the number of people who have served on their taskforce or their commissions. Here’s the criteria or eligibility to serve and allow the residents the opportunity to pick and choose what they think is important.
One of the things that we thought was important when we started these conversations was we didn’t want a top down approach. We want this to be driven by those who have been impacted. The community (should) set the tone for how this (is) formed. I don’t want to say a particular city (created the) model because (the examples are) being used for informational purposes, not decision-making.
BridgeDetroit: Could the taskforce have been created without voter input? Why did Council decide that Detroiters should determine whether the taskforce was created?
Sheffield: City Council can create a taskforce, but if it’s not something that Detroiters want to address, then why take up the issue? We had 80 percent of (Detroit voters) support this. To make sure that this was a priority for Detroiters, that was an important priority for us as a small working group. Because, quite frankly, you do have a lot of opinions on reparations. Some people agree. Some people don’t on what (reparations) means. We wanted the opportunity to use this as data to support the effort, because it’s going to be an all hands-on-deck approach.
BridgeDetroit: City Council has been busy lately with mostly new and ambitious members. How do you think other proposals, like guaranteed income and the wealth generation taskforce will affect this group’s work?
Sheffield: I think they work hand-in-hand. The work that I’m doing right now on overassessments, I think that overlaps, too.
To me, there’s no conflict, it furthers the conversation. There’s so many different issues that have impacted the Black community. I think there’s room for all of these conversations. Also, with the conversations that are happening on the state and federal level — having a taskforce in place is essential to making sure that we benefit from anything that happens. If there’s additional funding … we want Detroit at the forefront of those conversations.
BridgeDetroit: Does the taskforce have power? Or is the group only making recommendations to the City Council? Are there guaranteed funds to support the recommendations they may make?
Sheffield: They don’t have guaranteed funds unless we allocate funds to a particular ordinance or initiative. But we’ve seen, in other cities, that taskforces have fund-raised to support various (initiatives). So that’s why you may want to have someone who has a background in fund-raising or corporate experience — have a good makeup of people who can actually get things done.
They could say there are six or seven ways we believe that Council could address this issue. Council can then collectively dedicate funding.
BridgeDetroit: What do you think is the temperature between Council, the people and other partners in Detroit regarding reparations?
Sheffield: When we submitted the resolution before Council, the Mayor’s Office did reach out and say that they will support whatever taskforce is formed. I think it should be noted that this is a City Council taskforce, but we do welcome the support from the administration. I think the temperature is that people are hoping to at least start these conversations and see where it goes. Reparations is a big issue to tackle because there’s so many different opinions, and then we have to figure out how it is funded — how do you determine who was impacted? Will philanthropy support? I just think it is going to be crucial in elevating (Detroit) in this conversation nationally.
BridgeDetroit: Trust will be an important part of this, building ongoing trust between government and people. How are you and your fellow councilmembers building and maintaining trust as you go into these conversations?
Sheffield: Everything we’ve done has been driven by community. I requested this report, which is public, asking for models of infrastructure for the reparations taskforce. This is not me selecting a structure or model, it’s driven by an open discussion. The community event is being held to ask how do you want the taskforce to look? Do you want 15 members, and who should be on it? Should they be Black people? Should they be Detroiters? How do you define a Detroiter? Should we have a historian or a lawyer?
These are decisions that I don’t want to make as an elected official; I want it to be driven by the community. You can’t say the Council picked their people to be on this taskforce or that it was not inclusive of our voices. The idea is to have this community conversation and use that to form the taskforce. So it’s important that the trust is there and that the community feels empowered and a part of the process.