Implementing Reparations in Asheville, North Carolina

Guest blog written by Bethany Dill, Isabel Mejia Fontanot, Kent Shi, Kerianne DiBattista

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

MLD103, otherwise known as “PDIA in Action”, is a one-of-a-kind experience at HKS. On day one, we were randomly assigned teammates we would spend the next 7 weeks working with and given a problem to focus on. Quickly, we needed to get to know one another, build trust, and become experts in racial justice and how city governments operate.

Tasked with exploring viable funding mechanisms to enable the Asheville reparations process to progress, our team waded into a conceptualization of “the problem” that, we soon realized, was just a tributary flowing into a larger set of circumstances and hurdles. This early lesson served as a road sign reminding us to be ready to rethink at any time, framing our discoveries about policy and problem-solving along the way.

The Power of Iteration in Coping with Uncertainty

Approaching a task like implementing reparations for four centuries of harm inflicted on the Black community in the United States can be daunting to say the least. It’s instinctual to want to take it slow, refining all of the details of a comprehensive plan before it goes into action in order to ensure that it is done well and done correctly. At the same time, justice delayed is often justice denied. Advocates are justifiably trying to capitalize on the momentum of the moment given the unprecedented support for reparations. But there’s a reason reparations have never been implemented at such a scale before: we don’t know how. Never before has a society tried to repair numerous years and countless incidents of harm, but many of the disparities facing the Black community are centuries in the making, not the result of one isolated event.

Iteration gives us a way to cope with this very uncertainty. Accepting that we do not know the right answer can liberate us from the burden of needing to be right. We know that we’re not going to get it right immediately because the problem isn’t that simple. Rather, we have decomposed the problem and formulated small, incremental steps that we think could make a difference. If we’re wrong, that’s okay. We haven’t sunk years of time and energy into any one idea. After a week or two, we can stop, reflect, and refocus. As we try new things, we’ll learn more and more about what a solution could look like. Eventually, the uncertainty will disappear and a solution will be within our reach.

Momentum is not Linear

We found that stepping back before continuing forward helped us to spend time and energy wisely. Devoting time to reflection allowed for clarity in finding direction, enhanced efficiency, and closer alignment with the pulse of the problem. Strategy proved more valuable than pure speed. We have learned that it is necessary to step aside to recognize what is already being done to solve the problem and consider the constraints relevant actors are experiencing. What appears to be a lack of movement may not be opposition, but the result of complex limitations and unanswered questions.

Learning to discern which obstacles are part of the landscape and which might give way to change space is also critical. Stepping around a barrier, even temporarily, may be better than spending all energy and resources attempting to move what will not budge. This may look like stepping out of our own way to approach people and problems with humility, fostering flexibility and allowing room for overlooked paths and possibilities to emerge.

Work Inside-Out, Not Outside-In

Sometimes the desire for instantaneous, sweeping change and broader reach can lead us to overlook the importance of the work that first needs to be done internally to develop sustainable policy. Building capacity before scaling innovation is a key step, paving the way for lasting change. Coalitions that ensure sustainability of new policy may benefit from starting small, slowing down, and iterating to reach a comprehensive understanding of the real problem. Before turning attention to policy expansion, establishing a firm foundation comes first. Like the old saying, slow and steady wins the race, especially in complex processes. Policy development is a marathon, not a sprint, and is built through consistent focus and effort.

Next Steps

At PDIA’s core is problem deconstruction, serving as both an exercise and a philosophy. Taking the problem apart allows teams to identify all stakeholders and the relationships among them. In our case, the deconstruction process took us a step beyond, with historical community relationships integral to reparations plans. PDIA fostered a depth and richness of analysis that helps us to imagine steps toward justice that are long overdue. We have been humbled to work with and learn from those who are courageously calling for change. Their choice to address hundreds of years of injustice is available to all of us–and reparations are in reach.

Watch the video and view the slides of the PDIA in Action event held in April 2021.


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