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.

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