The concept of repaying African-Americans for generations of slavery began even before the end of the Civil War.
The argument is that generations of enslavement and unpaid labor created an irreparable wealth gap. But how to erase that legacy of unfairness is an open question.
The talk back then was of providing everyone 40 acres and a mule to start a new life. A century and a half later, civil rights activists are still searching for a way to make reparations real.
In Portland, Cameron Whitten leads the local racial social justice nonprofit Brown Hope. Earlier this year, he drew national attention for the organization’s unique approach to redistributing wealth to people of color: the Reparations Power Hour.
The event takes place every month or so with the goal of helping people of color in not-so diverse Portland gather, organize and feel part of a larger community.
“This event is for y’all to claim the space and claim the money and claim the agency,” Whitten told the crowd at the August gathering.
“Because I see this as a space for healing and as a space for us to build connections and build a platform for the future.”
The event is paid for by white donors and each attendee gets $10 just for showing up and being a person of color.
Hence, the reparation.
“I’m about shifting civic capital,” Whitten said. “And so what I said was, ‘White folks, we’re already putting in our effort. Where’s your effort? Will you donate to make sure that this can happen monthly? We put up a donation page, and we said, ‘Hey, we’re giving $10 to every black, brown, indigenous person who shows up because they’re putting work in, and they are building that community that you say you so desperately want in Portland.”
POC are showing up for the event, and white folks are showing up financially.
One of those power hour attendees is Letty Martinez, a farmer and herbalist.
“There are a lot of people of color who are doing work to take care of ourselves and to really create space for ourselves to do that healing that we need to do,” Martinez said. “So it’s really exciting to just see so many people.”
Whitten said it takes more than $1,000 each month. That figure only includes the food, sometimes drinks and the $10 reparation. With 30 to 50 people showing up for each event, they hand out more than $300 in cash a month.
The formal organizing portion of the event happens during the 10-minute “stir fry.” It’s a 10-minute period for announcements for organizations, individuals and events.
At the August power hour, the stir-fry leaned political — it included a declaration of support for the Portland Clean Energy Fund ballot measure and promotion for a support group for families who have lost loved ones to police shootings.
Organizers say they call this a “power hour” — rather than a “happy hour” — because of the information that is shared and the community they’re trying to build and empower.
Angenette Brown has tried to come to every meeting. She said it’s important for people of color to get together and discuss racial traumas that occur just by walking down the street — especially in the Pacific Northwest.
She participated in the stir fry in August and talked about living wage jobs available to the community through organizations like Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.
“I just want people to be able to connect, and I try to let people know about the events that are going on among our people. And make sure that we keep coming together so that I know that we were OK because I saw your face,” Brown said, laughing.
Jamie Damon, a public policy mediator, is one of the financial supporters of the power hour. She said Brown Hope aligns with her values.
“Particularly in Portland, where folks fall all over themselves demonstrating how woke they are, it’s good to show up,” she said. “But you can show up in a lot of different ways. And I think being able to support in a small financial way is a way to show up without taking up space.”
Damon does not attend the events because she can’t. She’s white and the power hour is a space exclusively for people of color.
“I feel like people of all different kinds of marginalized groups need places to be just with other people like them in the safety. And then solidarity,” said Dr. Angela Carter, a naturopathic primary care physician.
Carter said that being a care provider and white carries a lot of privilege: “I have this imbalance of privilege, and I feel like I need to give to the people who don’t have that to help them achieve what they want in life. And I feel like that for everybody.”
Ten dollars, a free meal and a chance to be in a room full of people of color isn’t the answer to all of Portland’s issues with racism. But supporters say it is something to raise a glass to.
Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration
Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” coverage here.